Parliament Week Curator's Choice: Dr Alan Borthwick chooses the 691-year-old Declaration of Arbroath

Dr Alan Borthwick interviewed by Jenni Davidson | 02 November 2011
A photograph of a medieval manuscript with some wax seals on it.
The Declaration of Arbroath (1320)© National Records of Scotland
Parliament Week 2011: In his own Words: Dr Alan Borthwick, head of medieval records at the National Records of Scotland, talks about the Declaration of Arbroath's historical significance and why its message about freedom is still important today...

On what the Declaration of Arbroath is
"One of the great treasures of the National Records of Scotland (NRS) (formerly called the National Archives of Scotland), the Declaration of Arbroath was written to the pope in 1320, on behalf of the barons and community of the realm of Scotland.

This eloquent letter, written in support of King Robert Bruce (Robert I) and an independent Scotland, is still regarded as a spirited statement of a nation's claim to freedom. The original letter, delivered to the pope in Avignon, is alas lost. The version held by NRS is effectively a file copy, but, of course, it is unique. 

Even this Scottish version was authenticated by seals. Only 19 seals now remain of what might have been 50 originally. Documents bearing multiple seals are more likely than others to suffer damage over the course of time, and while this is unfortunately true of the Declaration of Arbroath, its iconic significance is undiminished."

On what was it was for
"The Declaration was written during the long War of Independence with England which started with Edward I's conquest of Scotland in 1296. 

In 1306 Robert the Bruce seized the Scottish throne but struggled to secure his position against internal and external threat. His defeat of Edward II at Bannockburn in 1314 was a major achievemen, but the English still did not recognise Scotland's independence or Bruce's position as king.

On the European front, by 1320 Scottish relations with the papacy were in crisis after they defied papal efforts to establish a truce with England. When the Pope excommunicated the King and three of his bishops, the Scots sent the Declaration of Arbroath to the pope as part of a diplomatic counter-offensive.

He wrote to Edward II later in 1320 urging him to make peace, but it was not until 1328 that Scotland's independence was acknowledged."

A photograph of a man's face.
Dr Alan Borthwick© National Records of Scotland
On its historical significance
"There is a sense in which its importance has increased the further in time since it was written. As far as we know, the Declaration was not copied or referred to in any other document until the mid-15th century, and it was not printed until 1680. 

Accordingly, some later historians have seen the Declaration as a rhetorical flourish, an important document in the Wars of Independence, during which both Scots and English sought to bolster their claims by resort to historical research, but not having a long-term significance.

Others have suggested that its famous deposition clause (in which the writer states that if King Robert made the Scots subject to English rule he would be driven out and another would replace him as king) was a real statement of a contractual theory of government: a failing King can be deposed by his subjects.

In very recent times, some have tried to show that the sentiments in the Declaration of Arbroath can be related to the American Declaration of Independence. This has led to the creation of Tartan Day in the USA, on Apri 6l (the date of the Declaration of Arbroath), to mark Scottish links with the USA.  There is still debate about all of these points."

On why it is meaningful to him
"In 2008 we were asked if we would lend the document to a remarkable British Library exhibition called Taking Liberties. It was a display of documents associated with the story of the 900-year struggle for rights and freedoms in Britain, which perhaps many take for granted: free speech, a free press, the rule of law, or the right to vote.

We could not agree to the loan because of its fragile state. A photograph was displayed instead. Even as a copy, the Declaration undoubtedly had a rightful place in this exhibition: it directly concerns the history of Medieval Scotland and England, but can also be linked to Medieval Wales and Ireland's past as well.

I feel a direct link to my predecessors' work in my office through our continuing curation of the document. We know that they were enthused by possessing it, and exploring ways of making images of it widely available, just as we are today.

Great care and extensive research have been and will always be dedicated by NRS staff to ensuring the long-term preservation of this irreplaceable manuscript. The aim is to preserve the manuscript for future generations by slowing down the effects which can cause organic material like parchment and wax to deteriorate."

On its relationship to democracy today
"For many people in recent times, its importance lies in one of its often-quoted sections: '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 second sentence can stand on its own as a rousing battle cry with which anyone fighting against oppression can sympathise."

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