A letter from Arbroath to the pope, dated on April 6, 1320, originated , not in a crowded parliament or convention, but rather in the comparative obscurity of the royal chancery located somewhere in the abbey. Written in the high-flown style which papal correspondence demanded, the Declaration of Arbroath, as it is known, has, over a period of almost 700 years, acquired a near-mythic status as it has come to be regarded as inextricably linked to Scottish identity and nationalism. The letter is real enough. It survives and can be read and has now been translated several times from its original Latin into English, and into metrical Gaelic and Scots; it belongs to the world as well as Arbroath.
But there was no gathering at Arbroath in 1320, no great ceremony at which the glitterati of Scotland stepped forward with trembling hands to sign a document which they somehow were aware would be known in future years as a type of early Scottish constitution, and as the supreme articulation of Scottish identity and the immortal values for which all Scots were allegedly willing to lay down their lives. The National Trust for Scotland, self-appointed keeper of the nationís soul, in depicting the Scottish nobility armed to the teeth and attacking the document with a quill pen, in its Bannockburn exhibit, is guilty of historical amnesia, bogus distortion and heritage creationism. The author argues that Scotland was on the cutting edge of political thinking; that this was one of the most remarkable documents to be produced in medieval Europe.
Author: Edward J Cowan is Professor of Scottish History at the University of Glasgow