Today is the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, in which a delegation of Scottish nobles asked Pope John XXII to recognize their nation’s independence from England and lift the excommunication of their king, Robert the Bruce (1274-1329). The Bruce had defeated the English at Bannockburn six years earlier and continued to successfully resist their efforts to subjugate his country. Despite a long history of invasion, the noblemen asserted, “our nation of Scots . . . could be conquered by no one anywhere,” and has maintained itself “free from all slavery,” ruled by a succession of 113 Scottish kings “without interruption by foreigners.”
The letter, written in Latin, urged Rome to persuade England’s King Edward II to abandon the brutal war against Scotland begun by his father, Edward I or “Longshanks,” more than 20 years earlier. This First War of Scottish Independence produced the brilliant leader Sir William Wallace (c. 1270-1305), immortalized in the 1995 Oscar-winning film Braveheart. After Edward II’s death in 1327, the Pope finally relented and convinced the new King Edward III to sign the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328, renouncing all claims to Scotland. The excommunication of King Robert I was lifted eight months later.
Scotland had plans to commemorate this auspicious historical event with speeches, parades, and a large march from Arbroath Abbey where the document was signed to Arbroath Harbour where it boarded a ship to the continent. But all of this has been postponed until next year (now called Arbroath 2020 + 1) because of the COVID-19 pandemic now sweeping across the world. The occasion is not forgotten, however, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) and other leaders are calling national attention to the radio programs and numerous educational activities accessible online.
The irony of celebrating Scotland’s 1320 Declaration of Independence this year is that Scotland has not been an independent country for more than three hundred years. That freedom was forfeited in the highly unpopular Union with England Act of 1707. Like their ancestors who swore allegiance to Edward I four centuries earlier, the forty aristocrats who signed their names to that document chose to give away their nation’s political sovereignty in exchange for economic aid and military protection. In 1791, the poet Robert Burns wrote scornfully, “We’re bought and sold for English gold – such a parcel of rogues in a nation!”
Why would an American care about this story? In my case, it is more than a lifelong interest in history. The Irish ancestors on my father’s side and the Scottish ones on my mother’s both saw England as the enemy. The Scots-Irish Deanes and Laugherys fought the redcoats in the Revolution and the Feeneys and Lynches were driven out of Mother Erin by British landlords who let them starve during the Great Hunger. This dim view of Anglo-Celtic relations has been long reinforced in literature and film, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Kidnapped to movies like Braveheart, Rob Roy, Michael Collins, The Devil’s Own, Outlaw King, and the recent popular television series Outlander.
When I took the time to do research, however, I discovered that my family history is more complicated. I was surprised to learn that I am as English as I am Irish or Scottish. My maternal grandfather was born in London to a mother from Sussex. When I visited London in December of 2003 I felt as great a connection to the place as I had in Ireland three years earlier. The Feeneys changed their surname to the Anglicized “Finney” in America, and the original Laugherys (Lochries) were invited to leave Lanarkshire to settle confiscated Catholic lands in Ulster because they were English-speaking Protestants loyal to the British king.
These complexities are also reflected in the history of Scotland. Ancient Pictish tribes managed to resist Roman invasion but were later overwhelmed by Vikings from Scandinavia, Normans and Anglo-Saxons from England, and Gaels from Ulster. There are historic Scottish families from all these bloodlines and more. Scottish unity was always difficult to achieve. Like the Native American tribes, the clans were vulnerable to a strategy of divide and conquer. There were as many Scots in the government army at Culloden in 1746, for example, as there were in the Jacobite forces of “Bonnie Prince Charlie.”
The same holds true today. In September of 2014, the SNP’s historic independence referendum was defeated by a margin of 5%. I stayed up all night watching the BBC election returns, hoping for a triumph of the “Yes” vote, and was crestfallen to hear the final result. My sentiments were shared by millions of others in the “Scottish diaspora” around the world. The damning lyrics of “dear auld Rabbie” returned with a vengeance. Were those 5% the new “parcel of rogues?” The Queen and Parliament had both given their assent to the legality of the election. Why would the Scots choose to throw away the opportunity to regain their freedom?
I realize the big picture is hard to grasp for an outsider. I can see some parallels between Scotland and California, where I have lived for four decades. Scottish oil, agriculture, manufacturing, and research provide a significant portion of the United Kingdom’s annual Gross Domestic Product, much as California does for the United States. Both places have multicultural societies and a large military presence. Since devolution in 1998, the Scottish Parliament has managed most of its own domestic affairs, as the government in Sacramento oversees the fifth largest economy on earth. There are inextricable familial and business ties across the border in both places. To many, complete separation is inconceivable.
Or is it? The SNP spent many years building the case for independence before placing it on the ballot, and Westminster did not give its approval lightly. Support for a second referendum has grown in the last six years, particularly in the wake of “Brexit,” which was opposed in 2016 by two-thirds of Scottish voters. Sturgeon and others have pointed to the issue of membership in the European Union as a key reason why many voted in 2014 to remain in the UK. The passionate speeches given in London by Scottish MPs in the past several years have reminded me of those given by our Founding Fathers in the Continental Congress.
Just before contracting the coronavirus himself a couple weeks ago, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson officially rejected Scotland’s request for another independence vote, citing the SNP’s promise that the first would be a “once in a generation” effort. Yet Scotland’s desire to chart its own course has not waned. EU leaders have refused to get involved in what they call “an inner British process,” but there are many across Europe who have expressed support for the idea of Scottish independence. The current pandemic has tabled much of the official discussions in Edinburgh in the interest of public health. But the issue will not go away.
Much of the “No” vote in 2014 came from an older electorate with long political and economic ties to the rest of the UK. Issues of taxation, investment, and retirement pensions were on the minds of many. Younger voters (the minimum age for the franchise in Scotland is 16) overwhelmingly supported independence and continue to join the SNP in large numbers. The past six years have seen proposals about Scotland’s ability to sustain its own economy without the umbrella of the government and banks in London become more viable. Millions of Scottish descendants around the world still look forward to the establishment of a free ancestral homeland.
Despite political disagreements and complex economic considerations, the right to self-determination remains. The people of Scotland will decide their own destiny, and their cousins across the globe will support them. Perhaps the 700th anniversary in 2028 of the treaty signed by Edward III will prove a more timely moment. In the end, the stirring words of the Arbroath signatories will not be silenced. These are emblazoned on the monument near the historic abbey: “We do not fight for honour, riches, or glory, but solely for freedom which no true man gives up but with his life.”
Copyright (c) 2020 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.
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