Paul Reid: The Declaration of Arbroath – 6 April 2020

6 April 2020 marks the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath (often referred to as the Declaration of Independence).  That ascription normally goes hand in hand with mention of its most famous passage (“not for glory, nor riches, nor honours…”).  Truth is, as a constitutional instrument, it has little direct contemporary relevance (the idea of a particularly Scottish medieval constitution has been described, perhaps harshly, as a myth: C. Kidd, Sovereignty and the Scottish constitution before 1707, [2004] JR 225).  That is reflected in the relatively low-key celebrations (as compared to the Magna Carta celebrations a few years) that had been planned.  But it is an anniversary that nevertheless ought to be marked.  Whilst as a contemporary constitutional instrument it is of little relevance, it remains significant as an early expression of a constitutional ideal. 

The Declaration was in fact a letter from the Barons of Scotland to Pope John XXII and was part of an ongoing dialogue between Robert the Bruce and the Holy See.  In 1317, Bruce had received a Papal Bull threatening not only his own excommunication but that of the whole of Scotland if hostilities with England did not cease.  But such a cessation was, for Bruce, conditional upon his recognition as King of Scotland (in the Papal Bull, he was addressed only as “Robert Bruce, governing in Scotland”).  In 1319, following the recapture of Berwick by Bruce, the Pope summoned him and four Scottish bishops to attend the Papal court.  They refused and their excommunication followed.  It was as part of that ongoing dialogue that the Estates of Scotland gathered in Arbroath in April 1320 and sealed the Declaration of Arbroath.  For its time, its clarity of thought, logical structure and the subtlety with which some of its sharper points are made make it a remarkable document.  Its most famous passage comes immediately after Bruce’s claim to be recognised as King has been set out but is an assertion of their right to drive him from the throne should Bruce seek to make Scotland subject to rule by the English crown.  So, the Declaration is not only a plea for recognition of Scotland’s territorial sovereignty, it is also a statement of its peoples’ (or, at least, its nobles’) sovereignty as to who their King should be.

The Declaration did not directly lead to peace but following the deposition of Edward II in 1327, an opportunity for peace arose.  In 1329, a Papal Bull was issued permitting the anointing and crowning of the King of Scotland by the bishop of St Andrews.  But the Declaration was an important step along the way.

Whilst it may have little contemporary significance, it is still worth recognising.  Tierney (Constitutional Law and National Pluralism, OUP, Oxford, 2004, p.22) notes:

The origins of nationalism, the most enduring political movement of the modern era, are often traced to the revolutionary upheavals of the 18th century, particularly in France.  Although expressions of nationalism may have appeared sporadically in medieval Europe, there is general agreement that its star rose ‘bright and clear in the late eighteenth-century France and America.

Arbroath’s most famous letter can fairly be recognised as a medieval expression of such nationalism.  Some have suggested (MacDonald-Lewis, L. (2009), The Warriors and the Wordsmiths of Freedom: The Birth and Growth of Democracy. Croydon: Luath Press) that the Declaration provided at least some inspiration for Jefferson and others as they founded the United States.  Whether that is true or not will never now be known for sure.  But it would be nice to think that efforts of those gathered in a small Angus fishing town all those centuries ago had some influence.  And that alone, suggests it is an anniversary worth acknowledging.

Inevitably, almost all of the events marking the anniversary have been curtailed to some extent.  Details of events being hosted by the National Museum of Scotland are available here and the Declaration is due to be going on public display in the National Library for the first time in 15 years (details here).  A collection of essays discussing the various participants in, and signatories of, the Declaration is also being published (details here).

Paul Reid is Advocate and part-time tutor of Public Law
at the University of Edinburgh (and proud son of Arbroath)

(Suggested citation: P. Reid, ‘The Declaration of Arbroath: 6 April 2020’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (6th April 2020) (available at