Five things you need to know about Scotland's most iconic document

A new exhibition opens today to commemorate the most iconic document in Scotland’s history and one which played a key role in the country's struggle to remain independent in the 14th century. The exhibition is part of the Declaration of Arbroath 700th anniversary celebrations which were delayed by a year because of the Covid pandemic.

It is being staged at the newly refurbished visitor centre in the grounds of Arbroath Abbey and uses 50 historic artefacts and a mix of technology and traditional crafts to tell the story of the abbey and its key role in Scottish history.

To mark the opening of the exhibition here are five things you need to know about the Declaration of Arbroath.

1: What was it supposed to achieve?

The declaration was sent by Scotland’s barons from Arbroath Abbey to Pope John XXII on April 6, 1320, asking him to recognise Robert the Bruce as the lawful king of Scots. The Scottish victory over the English king Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn in June 1314 had failed to convince Edward to drop the long-standing English claim to overlordship of Scotland. Neither Edward nor the Pope recognised Robert I as king of Scots. In November 1319 the Pope had summoned Robert and four Scottish bishops to attend the papal court after Robert had recaptured the border town of Berwick in 1318.  They were excommunicated when they refused to attend. The declaration was part of their response and asked the Pope to recognise Scotland's independence and Robert as its king.

2: Who wrote it?

The declaration’s content was probably planned at a meeting of the Robert and his council of advisers at Newbattle Abbey, just south of Edinburgh, in March 1320. It was written in Latin on sheepskin and is dated at the monastery of Arbroath in Angus, where the king’s chancery or writing-office was located. It was drawn up by Bernard, Abbot of Arbroath and written by one of the chancery scribes. It is about 1000 words long and includes short quotations from the Bible and from the 1st century BC Roman author and politician Sallust, re-phrased to emphasise the argument.

3: Is the document held by National Records of Scotland the real thing?

That document is actually what is regarded as the Scottish “file copy”, but it was undoubtedly written at the same time as the original letter.

This copy of the declaration was held amongst the Scottish national archives in Edinburgh Castle. It fell into private custody during building work there in the 17th century. In 1829, the declaration was restored to the national archives in the then new H M General Register House, Edinburgh. The first English translation of the declaration appeared in 1689 and it was brought to a wider audience by subsequent publications in either Latin or English.

Many of those who signed the US Declaration of Independence had Scottish ancestry. April 6 has been designated Tartan Day in the USA

The  name “Declaration of Arbroath” is relatively modern, inspired by a perceived connection with the United States Declaration of Independence of 1776. The US Senate passed a resolution in 1998 stating that April 6 “has a special significance for all Americans, and especially those of Scottish descent”. The resolution said the Declaration of Independence had been modelled on the Declaration of Arbroath. Many of those who signed the US declaration had Scottish ancestry. April 6 has been designated Tartan Day in the USA.

4: What does the Declaration of Arbroath say?

The document emphasises Scotland’s long history as an independent Christian kingdom. It contains a brief account of the mythical origins of the Scots, overcoming many difficulties in their journey from Greater Scythia (to the north of the Black Sea) via Spain to Scotland. It explains that they had lived in freedom and peace until King Edward I (father of the then present King Edward II) invaded Scotland.

The declaration asserts that the Scots were saved by their then King, Robert Bruce. It pledges to defend him as king …  unless he seeks to make their kingdom subject to the English king. It offers Scotland’s support for a crusade if the Pope persuades Edward II to leave the Scots in peace but adds that he would be answerable to God should war continue. Key quote: "As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours, that we are fighting, but for freedom - for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself".

The treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in March 1328 was supposed to affect a “final and perpetual peace”. It included the recognition of Robert I as king, and of Scottish independence

5: What happened after the declaration was delivered?

In his reply to the letter, the Pope urged a reconciliation between England and Scotland. Indeed, an opportunity arose to negotiate a settlement after the deposition of Edward II in 1327 and consequent discord in England. The treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in March 1328 was supposed to affect a “final and perpetual peace”. It included the recognition of Robert I as king, and of Scottish independence. In 1329 the Pope issued a bull permitting the anointing and crowning of the king of Scots by the bishop of St Andrews as the Pope’s representative, hailed as a very important concession. Peace did not last and the Second War of Scottish Independence, also known as the Anglo-Scottish War of Succession, began in 1332.

Visits need to be pre-booked on

The festival programme can be found at

By Richard Walker