All last week, working in my garden under clear blue skies, I watched the geese streaming north, high overhead, making for their summer grounds in Greenland. I wondered if they had registered any new strangeness in the place they were leaving behind. I pictured them flexing wings as Cape Wrath slid beneath them and the great emptiness of the North Atlantic yawned ahead, and envied them their certainty, the set of their compasses.
The same sight—those high skeins calling out their freedom—would have greeted the monks at Arbroath Abbey in that early April week seven hundred years ago. In 1320 the greatest pandemic in history was still thirty years in the future, and a different set of uncertainties faced the monks and barons as they placed the precious Declaration in its casket, ready for its long journey to Rome.
After three decades of military and civil strife, this was not the defiant cry of battle-stained warriors on some wind-blown hilltop, as the most frequently-quoted passage might lead one to believe. It was the culminating act in a campaign of diplomacy that would re-establish Scotland’s sovereignty as a nation in the mind of the Pope, and therefore the world.
If my entire education contained a single reference to the Declaration of Arbroath, I’ve forgotten it. It’s a shaming thought given that more than half my schooling, and my university study, were conducted in Scotland. Until relatively recently I had no idea of the real character or purpose of this extraordinary document. Two excellent recent documentaries, a short film presented by Lesley Riddoch, and Billy Kay’s three-part radio series, have helped put me straight.
“We do not fight for honour, riches, or glory, but solely for freedom which no true man gives up but with his life.”
Medieval historians marvel at the sophistication of language, the carefully calibrated messages, and above all the radical assertion at the document’s heart: that the king ruled subject to the approval of his people and could be removed by them should he fail to protect the sovereignty of the nation.
As a relative newcomer to my forebear, Don Roberto, I haven’t yet read everything he wrote—and may very likely never do so, given his voluminous output—so I can’t quote him directly on the Declaration of Arbroath (perhaps a reader can put me straight here?). But unlike me he was a knowledgeable historian. As a bookish small boy he had plundered the libraries of both Finlaystone and Gartmore, the two great houses, one overlooking the Clyde, the other the Lake of Menteith, in which he had grown up. I think it most unlikely that he wouldn’t have been familiar with both the context and detail of the Declaration.
Furthermore, his indirect descent from Robert I, the principle protagonist in events leading up to the Declaration, and his direct descent from the Bruce’s grandson, Robert II, via the Cunningham Earls of Glencairn, gave him a greater claim to the Scottish throne than anyone else alive in his day, it was claimed.
He always relished the irony of this lineage. Ford Madox Ford records how a lady admirer once cornered him and told him: ’Mr Graham, you ought to be the first president of a British Republic.’ ‘I ought, Madam, if I had my rights, to be the king of this country,’ Robert replied. ‘And what a three weeks that would be.’
” … today it it is a prayer that every Scottish man and woman should keep in mind …”
Robert had first hand experience of what happens when powerful men place themselves above the needs and wishes of their countries and countrymen. Arriving in Paraguay as a young man in 1872, he had witnessed the appalling effects of the War of the Triple Alliance, which had ended eighteen months previously.
The Paraguayan dictator, Francisco Solano Lopez, had led his country into a suicidal conflict with all three neighbours, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. It had left nearly half a million dead, causing the almost total destruction of Paraguay’s agricultural economy and the loss of most of its able-bodied men. (An odd consequence of this was that the country young Robert found himself travelling through had become in effect a gynarchy, where gauchos and other travellers joked about preferring to sleep in the woods than risk entering villages populated only by women.) Robert later wrote a biography of Lopez. Portrait of a Dictator was published in 1933, the year Hitler took power as chancellor of Germany.
Whether or not Robert ever referred to the Declaration directly, everything about it would have resonated deeply with him: its eloquence, its moral authority, its essential democratic force. He echoed its sentiments on innumerable occasions. Aged 78, at a gathering of the National Party of Scotland in Stirling in 1930, he began his speech with homage to Wallace and Bruce, then continued ‘We talk about our prayer for a good conceit of ourselves … today it it is a prayer that every Scottish man and woman should keep in mind and should perpetually put up until we have achieved what we have in view, complete autonomy for our native land.’ And a few sentences later, ‘I lay upon you as a sacred duty that you agitate until our old Parliament is restored to us and once again Scotland takes her place as an independent nationality in the family of nations.’
Better than most, he understood something that rings like a bell from the Declaration of Arbroath, and that continues to elude the grasp of Unionists and metropolitan commentators alike: once the thought of freedom has taken root in the heart, it can never, ever be undone.