Come in close and take a look. If you can read Latin, you’ll know that the first words are “To the most Holy Father and Lord in Christ”. You’ll also notice the two holes, and the water damage and the frayed edges. Note also the seals along the bottom, ancient dabs of wax attached to fragile tendrils of paper. It’s all a bit tatty and damaged and small. But, then, history doesn’t always look impressive close up.

So why don’t we take a step back and try to see this ancient, fragile piece of paper in its proper perspective? It is 700 years since the document known as the Declaration of Arbroath was written, the seals were attached, and it was sent to Pope John XXII in the name of 39 Scottish nobles, but what’s really interesting is how it’s been perceived across the centuries. The way people see it, think about it, describe it – all of it has been subject to change, and still is. It’s also attracted controversy and misunderstanding, and still does. Maybe the 700th birthday will be a chance to put some of that right.

To try to understand the declaration a bit better, and its meaning, as well as the contribution it makes to Scotland’s present and future, I’ve been speaking to historians, writers and commentators with an interest in politics, history and the Scottish constitution and in this article we’ll look at how the letter came about as well as hopefully clear up some myths about it. Then, in a second article, starting on page 12 we’ll look at how people see the declaration now – unionist and nationalist, No and Yes – and ask: what, if anything, can the Declaration of Arbroath contribute to modern Scotland?

So we should start 700 years ago on April 6, 1320. Helping me to tell the story is a historian who knows the period well: Dr Alice Blackwell of the National Museum in Edinburgh, which will be putting its copy of the declaration on display when it reopens after the coronavirus crisis. Until a few weeks ago, Dr Blackwell had never seen the declaration other than in pictures and it was an exciting moment for her to see the actual document and get up close to it. Her first reaction? It’s a lot smaller than it looks in the pictures. As for its historical significance? Massive.

The first point Dr Blackwell wants to make is that the Declaration of Arbroath isn’t really a declaration at all, or any kind of statement, it’s a letter, sent in the name of the earls and barons of Scotland. However, it was really a government initiative, a product of the government of Robert the Bruce, who was under immense pressure at home and abroad.

Internationally, the king was in trouble with the pope who, a couple of years before the declaration, had urged a truce between Scotland and England, which Bruce broke when he retook Berwick in 1318. As a result the pope excommunicated him and summoned him to appear before the papal court. Instead, Bruce wrote the letter now known as the declaration, partly because he was worried that the pope might be siding with England.

Bruce was also in trouble at home. His dynasty was fragile, his grandson and heir was only four years old, and there was a pretender to the throne on the prowl, Edward Balliol, who was supported by the English. Bruce was also worried about conspiracies against him – indeed, a couple of months after the letter was sent, a conspiracy was revealed that involved some of the men that signed the letter. Bruce is paranoid and he’s right to be because there are people out to get him.

Dr Blackwell says this is the context in which the declaration has to be seen: the letter to the pope is an attempt by the king to bolster his personal position. But the question is: to what extent is it something bigger? And, to answer the question, there’s one part of the document we should home in on.

It begins with what would appear to be an assertion by the nobles of a limit on the power of Bruce. “If he should give up what he has begun,” it says, “seeking to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy.”

It then goes on to say: “As long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

This is probably the part of the declaration you’ll have heard quoted more than any other, but Dr Blackwell says it needs to be approached with caution. “The interpretation of this document has changed over the 700 years,” she says, “What we think now is different to what we thought in some cases even 15 or 20 years ago and one of the things that’s in flux is the interpretation of the phrase about driving Bruce out if he subjects the Scots to the rule of the English.

“My personal take on it follows from recent work from other Scottish historians which is that any medieval person reading this letter would not have thought for a minute that Bruce would ever submit to the English so it’s really a veiled threat to those who are seeking to support the very English-leaning Edward Balliol and saying, ‘Look if you take Bruce off the throne, the alternative is someone who’s effectively backed by England.” What it definitely isn’t, she says, is an assertion of the power of the people over the king.

“Some people have seen it as a sign of a very precocious Scottish popular democracy,” says Dr Blackwell, “I think I heard Joanna Cherry talking in those terms recently, but that’s not how I would read it. There is certainly not a popular democracy thing. The letter is written in the name of the power elite of Scotland so it comes from them. It’s implying that they would replace the king. We can’t read it at face value that they would really replace Bruce – it’s a clever veiled threat against somebody else.”

Another expert on the declaration, Professor Ted Cowan of Glasgow University and author of The Declaration of Arbroath: For Freedom Alone, takes another approach. For him, the threat to remove Bruce if he ever subjects Scots to the control of the English is the first articulation of what becomes the sovereignty of the Scottish people.

“This is the first time, explicitly, that a king anywhere in Europe actually makes this point about the contractual theory of monarchy,” says Professor Cowan, “and this develops into the constitutionalism that almost everybody believes. I’m not saying the Scots invented this, my point is they articulate it.”

In fact, Professor Cowan goes a bit further and says he believes that the concept of the sovereignty of the people was in the minds of the men who drew up the declaration. “I believe that,” he says, “and it comes from the church because there is a big fuss going on in Europe as a whole about the powers of the papacy – the fact is that a lot of Scots went to France and other countries and they became philosophers and they started to argue about authority, where does that belong. It’s in the air and what the Scots do is they pick out what they want from that.”

However, Professor Cowan also points out that the declaration is merely an early articulation of the ideas around sovereignty and democracy, the first step in a thousand, and that it’s possible to overstate what the document was doing. Even its name, he says, is a reflection of the way in which modern interpretations have been added to an ancient document – it was not until at least the 19th century that it first became known as a declaration rather than a letter.

Both Professor Cowan and Dr Blackwell also dismiss the idea that the Declaration of Arbroath may have been an influence on the Declaration of American Independence in 1776 – in fact, they say the influence is much more likely to have been the other way around and may explain why the Arbroath letter attracted the word “declaration”.

“We think the name The Declaration of Arbroath may have something to do with the US Declaration of Independence,” says Dr Blackwell. “Many people believe there’s a connection between the two documents and that the Declaration of Arbroath somehow inspired the US Declaration of Independence and it’s a really nice idea. But we’ve found very little direct evidence to support it but what we might see is influence going the other way and the US Declaration of Independence influencing the document we now know as the Declaration of Arbroath.”

But whatever we call it – letter or declaration – let’s go back to 1320 for a minute and look at what happened after it was dispatched to Rome. It was actually one of three letters that were sent at the time – there was a letter from Robert the Bruce himself, a letter from the Bishop of St Andrews, and the letter from the earls and barons of Scotland, and to some extent the strategy worked. The pope did consent to the anointing of Bruce as the king of Scotland and there was a truce signed between Scotland and England although it didn’t last. War between the two countries broke out again, then died off, then restarted. The declaration may have been the first of a thousand steps towards democracy, but it failed to end the war.

The actual letter that was sent to the pope is also missing – lost a very long time ago, but a duplicate was made at the time and that’s the document that is kept at the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh. The fact that it was damaged at some point and holes were left in it could have meant some of the text being lost forever but thankfully an engraving was made of it in the 18th century. Without that, portions would be missing that describe the two protagonists, Robert I of Scotland and Edward II of England.

As for the interpretation of what the document actually means, it’s important to realise that its status as a Scottish icon is very modern indeed. Dr Blackwell says the last big anniversary, the 650th in 1970, was particularly influential in establishing the document as significant both among historians and the wider public. “To many people if they know the declaration at all,” she says, “they’ll know it as iconic but actually its iconic status is quite recent.”

Most historians also see the declaration as part of a continuum rather than a single extraordinary event. It is part of a series of documents that run from 1301 to 1320 that begin to discuss Scotland’s sovereign independence, and here we are 700 years later and the discussion is still unresolved. Dr Blackwell thinks this is a critical point: how we talk about history, she says, says as much about ourselves as it does about the past.

“The declaration itself is a really big clue to that,” she says. “In one of the early passages, there’s a medieval retelling of our ancient history, it’s a mythical history. They are recasting what they understand to be their ancient history to support their case. That doesn’t tell us anything about ancient history, but it does tell us a lot about 1320. And in the same way, the 700th anniversary will tell us a lot about 2020 as well as telling us something about 1320.”

What it tells us is the subject of the next article. See page 12

The Declaration of Arbroath will go on display at the National Museum in Edinburgh when it reopens. The Declaration of Arbroath: For Freedom Alone by Edward J Cowan is published by Birlinn.