It happened today - April 6, 2016
Its language is impressive, especially the much-quoted passage from Sir James Fergusson’s translation (from Latin, not Scots or Gaelic) that “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.”
Now such sentiments are all fine and good. And very probably found in all kinds of places variously phrased, with different enemies than the English depending on geography and history. Or not found; the Declaration itself was one of three letters sent to Pope John XXII in the aftermath of Bannockburn, the other two from Robert the Bruce and four Scottish bishops are lost. As is the original of the Declaration itself, but a copy survives. So who knows what else has vanished from history?
The thing is, the Declaration defines freedom in a very typical and yet very odd sense: Freedom from foreign rule. It has nothing to say about freedom from unjust rule imposed domestically. It rattles on about the Scots having shoved out various interlopers, and being particular favourites of Christ. But there’s nothing here about taxation without consent, property or any of that stuff.
Indeed, the Declaration is a rather narrow document. Its main purpose seems to have been cementing the position of Robert the Bruce as King Robert I, because the Pope had earlier recognized Edward I of England as overlord of Scotland in 1305 and had excommunicated “the Bruce” for such trivial things as hacking down his rival John Comyn at the altar of Greyfriars Church in 1306. (Incidentally if you’re wondering what a “Bruce” is, or why if he was Robert he was “the Bruce” and whether someone called Bruce could also be “the Robert”, it turns out it’s just a family name.) In this sense it was about making government mightier not limiting it.
Now of course if you want to govern yourselves the first thing you need to do is not be ruled by someone else outside your borders. But there’s a lot more to it than that. And if you contrast the Declaration of Arbroath, or any number of other such declarations, with the iconic Magna Carta, you see what’s missing. Magna Carta isn’t about how the English insist on being misgoverned by their own tyrant. It’s about how they won’t be misgoverned at all.
I happen to believe the Scots’ victory at Bannockburn on St. Jean Baptiste Day 1314 was good for English liberty. A union with Scotland then might well have required, and excused, methods of rule north of the border entirely at odds with the spirit and letter of Magna Carta. But when James VI of Scotland managed the trick of acquiring both crowns in 1603, over a century before the formal union including that of the Parliaments, he was stunned to find that England had an independent Parliament.
How he overlooked this is a puzzle; James was an odd mix of wisdom and folly. But certainly nothing in his experience of the Scottish Parliament prepared him for a realm in which citizens had rights against their governors. In that sense, the Declaration of Arbroath is very incomplete.
It sure sounds good, though.