Understanding the Declaration of Arbroath

When I was in Edinburgh recently I went to the Museum of Scotland to see the Declaration of Arbroath on display in a special exhibition which was only running for one month. The document is now over 700 years old, being written and sealed, as they didn’t put their signatures on letters etc at that time, in 1320.

The declaration is fragile, as can be demonstrated by the fact that there are sections which have been eroded. This happened in the 19th Century when the Declaration of Arbroath and other significant Scottish documents were moved from Edinburgh Castle for storage elsewhere and consequently they were damaged by the damp. Fortunately, prior to this happening an engravng of the document was made in around 1815, so we can see what is in the sections now lost in the engraving.

The significance of this document is that its a declaration by the Earls and barons of Scotland supporting the claim of their king, Robert I (Robert the Bruce) as the legitimate ruler of Scotland and that Scotland should be recognised as a legitimate sovereign country. The Declaration, basically a letter, was written and sent to the Pope imploring him to recognise the claim for Scotland as an independent state. The Declaration was “signed” by the earls and barons, attaching their seals in wax. Only 19 seals remain on the letter however in 1320 it would have had the seals of 8 Earls (the red seals) and 40 barons (green seals). The size of the seals varies depending on the titles, power and wealth of the individual baron. The Declaration of Arbroath was created on 6th April, 1320.

The King was not involved in this declaration. It is believed he sent a separate message to the Pope, although this never survived.  Parchments such as the Declaration of Arbroath are so fragile that its amazing that it has survived. 

The barons got their request to recognise Scotland granted in 1328, although the various Wars of Independence between Scotland and England ran right through until the Jacobite Rebellion (Bonnie Prince Charlie) and the Battle of Culloden in 1745. Although the First War of Independence started in 1296 and Scotland, led by the future King Robert the Bruce, established independence by defeating the English under Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

One of the most famous parts from the declaration is:

“As long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself”.

The original declaration was written in Latin and the translation above is by the National Records of Scotland. You can also find a copy of the translation of the full declaration on the National Records of Scotland/The National Museum of Scotland websites.

Regrettably, by the time of writing, the Exhibition displaying the Declaration of Arbroath has closed and because the parchment is so fragile, we were not allowed to take any photographs during the exhibition. You can see images of it if you look at the National Records of Scotland link, or watch the Youtube video which is a BBC news report talking about the exhibition. Both links are provided at the end of this post.

Important Dates

1296 – 1328 First Scottish War of Independence

1314 Battle of Bannockburn

1320 Declaration of Arbroath

1328 Scotland’s Independence recognised

1603 Union of the Crowns

1707 Union of the Parliaments

Union of the Crowns (1603)

After the death of Elizabeth I of England, James VI of Scotland acceded to the English Crown, becoming James I of England and VI of Scotland. Since then, all monarchs can choose to have a different title as monarch of Scotland, should they so wish. Our late Queen, for example, could have chosen to be known as Elizabeth I in Scotland. That said, she decided to be Elizabeth II in both England and Scotland. Interestingly, King Charles III is the same in Scotland and England as Charles I was the son of James I & VI.

While the Crowns of Scotland and England were both held by the one person, the countries were still independent of each other, each having their own parliamentary systems.

Union of the Parliaments (1707)

For a couple of decades prior to the Parliaments of Scotland and England (and Ireland) coming together, talks had been taking place moving towards a union. There were a few reasons for both Scotland and England to unite their parliaments – a fear of revolution and conflicting claims to the crown by the separate nations as Queen Anne had no children in line of succession, so securing a single parliament would ensure the crowns would remain with one successor. For Scotland, there were also economic reasons – many of the barons of Scotland had invested their money badly in a project in Central America (Darien) and the offer of uniting the parliaments would also contribute to their financial rescue.

It is argued that the reason Scotland retains her own religion, education and legal systems is because of the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Arbroath, that we consent to the union rather than through force. In 1707 the Scottish Parliament was adjourned and dissolved, meaning it was, in theory, easy to re-establish a Scottish Parliament,  simply needing to be reconvened. 

That said, later there is some evidence of resentment and feelings that the barons agreeing to the Union in 1707 betrayed the Scots and, in the words of Robert Burns (1759-1796), committed treason. This can be seen through his words where he talks about the Scots being bought and sold for English gold, and stabbing William Wallace and Robert the Bruce in the back. (Such a parcel of rogues in a nation, 1791) While his song was popular at the time, perhaps because he was working for the government, Burns never acknowledged publicly that this was his work. I’m providing a link at the end so you can see the words for the full song in Old (Lowland) Scots and in English.

Even today, the words of the independence statement in the Declaration of Arbroath are a driver for many fired by claims of Scottish independence, clinging to the idea of 100 free Scots being alive to fight for independence.


https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/Declaration – National Records of Scotland’s website link about the Declaration of Arbroath, also including images of the Declaration itself

https://youtube.com/watch?v=4eEs_vRUbyI&feature=share9 BBC news report about the exhibition

http://robertburnsfederation.com/poems/translations/a_parcel_of_rogues_in_a_nation.htm – for the words of Such a parcel of rogues in a nation, Robert Burns, 1791

https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-scotland-independence-history-idUKBREA131C120140204 – source for my timeline

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  1. Very interesting and informative post. I have read a bit of fictionalized account of history of Britain and Scotland in books by Heyer. She wrote about many British monarchs and wars between them. So your post has rekindled my interest again

      • Not bad. We have a day of thunder storms forecast … right through til midnight. So had to cancel plans … the air pressure is hurting my head … but the chance to relax and watch the tennis

      • some rest before your next adventure. 😁
        sunny today but we also have some freezing weather coming in from this evening.
        enjoying your typing, I presume 😁

      • Not at the moment. I’m on my phone right now.
        I’ve got my hospital appointment through – for Wednesday so hoping to get the all clear/confirmation that my wrist is healing well

      • Hopefully all goes well there and then you are good… to explore and write. still a few weeks left for your holiday?

      • so lucky 😋
        just over a week left.. back on the 18 July.
        enjoying the rest…disliking the cold😁

  2. True confession Brenda- I am in the middle of watching season 7 or 8 of Outlander. Are you familiar with that series at all? It started and continues as a fictionalized historical book series by author Diana Gabaldon, but each book has morphed into a seasonal series. Most of my knowledge of Scotland has come from the hopefully truish parts of this book series and reading your post seems to hint that what I’m learning is based in fact so this was fun to read this morning. Thanks!

    • Glad you found the post reassuring. I must admit I couldn’t get into Outlander, so I’ve not seen much of it

      • I got bored with the books about half way through the series, which is just too long and too much book to read each time. At least the series moves along and is over each season. I think I can say I feel committed to seeing it through to the end but I won’t be sad when it’s completely over 😉

      • You’ll be able to move onto something new
        I bought a couple of books on Scottish folk stories/fairytales etc so I’m looking forward to reading them

  3. Love all of this…those Scottish roots in my family are singing and dancing…happy that I’m learning about history long forgotten. I should pop back into the ancestry stuff some time to let you know how far back the tree goes…into the 1500’s for sure.
    And I love the quote you snipped in:
    “As long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself”. Truth, not glory, not riches but freedom alone. Aaah. xo to you, Brenda, for sharing. 🥰

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it Vicki. I was thinking about you when I was pulling everything together.
      You must let me know where in Scotland your ancesters come from

      • I will do that! I can get so lost and absorbed by the details that I need to pull back and get a bigger picture/overview of our Scottish ancestry. I’ll let you know — but in the meantime, you’re enriching my family knowledge! Thanks, B! 🥰

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