On April 6th, 1320, a group of Scottish noblemen put their names to a letter to Pope John XXII. It was a request to the Holy Father to intervene in the struggle between England and Scotland. A copy of the letter survives and is kept in the National Archives in Edinburgh. But it was written a long time ago. It could have been forgotten. It wasn’t. We’re still talking about it. We still care about it. We’re still influenced by it.

The question for this article, the second in our series on the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, is: why? Why does the document still matter, and what can it contribute to modern Scottish life, if anything? We’re still embroiled in a debate about what Scotland’s democracy should be. Can we solve that debate by looking at what our democracy was, and where it began? Can 1320 tell us where we are now in 2020, and where we should go?

The historian Professor Ted Cowan believes the answer is yes, the declaration can tell us where we are, but for the professor the results aren’t necessarily pretty. I tell him it’s been hard to get a consensus about the declaration: some people think it’s the most important declaration in the history of Scotland; others that it’s irrelevant; the interpretations change, the interpretations are different – and I ask him why that is.

“I’ve been thinking about this one for over 20 years, maybe 30 years,” he says, “and I think frankly some people simply do not believe that Scotland or the Scots were capable of producing a document of this sophistication in 1320.

“The second thing is there is no parallel in England and there has always been a notion that, somehow, English medieval history is the yardstick by which we measure this subject. If it’s not in England, then it cannae be very significant. There’s a bit of a Scottish cringe.

“The third thing is it’s seen as a bit of a nationalist document which it isn’t – a document about freedom is a different thing to a document about nationalism.”

Professor Cowan does believe, though, that nationalism and the fact we are talking seriously about the possibility of independence has helped make the declaration more significant and important in recent years. In fact, he thinks the declaration is finally getting the recognition that it should have had a long time ago.

“I was very puzzled when I was a boy,” he says, “about this remarkable document that I’d never heard about in history classes, and I never heard about when I got to university either until I picked up Scottish history. I thought: surely it’s worthy of some kind of investigation?”

That was in the 1960s and Cowan believes it wasn’t really until the 650th anniversary in 1970 that the declaration began to be accepted and celebrated as an important document and an early articulation of democratic ideas. “It took a hell of a time,” he says.

He recognises that there is still resistance to the declaration’s importance even now, but insists that it can be a document of shared ideas and that there’s something in it for Nationalists and non-Nationalists alike. “Almost anybody could subscribe to the declaration,” he says. “It’s harmless in that sense.” He believes it’s about a contract between the people and the king, or the government, and he says the principles of a contract, or agreement, as the basis for democracy still apply today. “If we ever get independence,” he says, “there will still be a contract between England and Scotland.”

There are others, however, who struggle to see the modern relevance of the declaration and worry a little about its influence. The businessman and commentator Kevin Hague is chairman of These Islands, the organisation that seeks to encourage positive debate about the benefits of the Union, and he says that, although history exerts a powerful influence on us, referring back to it in a debate about Scotland’s future can be unhelpful.

“I do think there’s an irony in the fact that those arguing for separation roll their eyes when mention is made of world wars where we stood together, but yet five minutes later will hark back to some 14th century grievance,” he says.

“Of course you have to recognise that history shapes us and there are emotional bonds but you can’t have it both ways. I don’t feel a connection to the declaration – I can imagine the equivalent Brexiteer statement of British identity: ‘we are oppressed by the Europeans’. It reads very Brexity. It’s about regal rights to succession and religion which mean a lot less than it did.”

Hague does, however, recognise the emotional power of the declaration for many Scots, particularly its assertion of freedom from English oppression, and says it’s empirically harder to make the same kind of emotional appeal work with Unionism. “The emotional appeal of nationalism is easier because it’s an appeal for change, and difference,” he says. “I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically more appealing about the argument for independence. There’s something intrinsically more appealing about the argument for change.”

Hague also believes there are lessons in this for Unionism. “There’s a need for a more emotional argument,” he says, “Although I will always argue the emotional and the economic arguments are inextricably linked. Wherever you are, and however economically productive your region is, you should be entitled to a level of education and welfare, and that’s an emotional argument. The sharing of resources only works because we emotionally buy into the idea.”

It is partly this ideal, and Hague’s personal history, that defines his views on Scotland’s history, including the declaration, and its future. Hague was born in England and moved to Scotland when he was nine years old and says it’s hardly surprising that he feels both Scottish and British; and it’s this plural identity, he adds, that’s one of the greatest strengths of the UK.

I put a little thought experiment to him: if we were writing a declaration now, a modern reboot of Arbroath, a statement in 2020 rather than 1320 about Scottish identity and democracy, what would be in it?

“The question of course is the extent to which you define that around Scotland or Britain,” he says. “You could make a statement about Scottishness that Unionists and separatists might still be able to buy into because, even though we think differently about the UK, we can probably share something about what it means to be Scottish, but that’s an advert for why the UK works – 300 years and there is still such a strong Scottish identity.

"Scots haven’t been oppressed and subjugated to England; it’s a Union which allowed the separate national identities not just to be maintained but to flourish. Who thinks the Scots aren’t Scottish as a result of 300 years of Union?”

Hague’s conclusion from all of this is that Scotland’s part in the United Kingdom works not because of a 700-year-old declaration but precisely because of the lack of a declaration that attempts to tie the British constitution down.

“I would suggest the Declaration of Arbroath dates very badly in terms of liberal values,” he says, “and I have the same intuitive response about a new version of what it means to be Scottish. I find myself asking: why? It feels to me like an exercise in defining difference and that’s emotionally the wrong way round. We don’t seek to draw lines around differences and it feels very parochial to say: can we agree about what makes us different to them? It’s not the Scottish people as we think of them today.”

The writer Allan Bissett takes a very different view, which isn’t surprising – he was one of the leading voices in the Yes movement in 2014. For him, the declaration still has power and relevance.

“The first thing I think when I think about the declaration,” he says, “is there would really be no concept of Scotland as we know it before that document. And whatever your position – Nationalist, Unionist, socialist, or whatever – it’s the sort of thing that should be uncontentious. Even Scots who want to remain in the Union still want Scotland to exist and still think of themselves as Scots. That would not be the case had that declaration not been made 700 years ago.

“Also, it’s not just about Scotland,” he adds. “With that document, you start to see the beginning of democracy, the idea that a king can be recalled by the people – obviously, we have to be careful what we mean by ‘people’ because commoners weren’t allowed a voice in those days – we really mean the nobility, the Scottish ruling class.

“But even so, that idea of partial democracy, that a king was subject to the people rather than the other way round, is revolutionary. That speaks beyond a simple declaration of Scotland’s independence, it’s about what we mean by who is sovereign: is it the people or the king? That’s what makes it such an interesting text. What you could say is it’s the opposite of what you might call blood and soil nationalism.”

Like Professor Cowan, Alan Bissett also feels a personal connection to the declaration and says it has helped shape his views on the Scottish constitution, along with more modern cultural influences such as literature, film and music.

“The thing is you can’t really understand the present without some kind of reference to the past,” he says. “But you can’t get too hung up on it either. As important as the Declaration of Arbroath was, it was 700 years ago. Even if you want Scotland to be independent, we’re not occupied militarily by the English, no one is being murdered, it’s not the same situation. But there’s a certain historical resonance because the declaration was part of a diplomatic move in order to restore Scotland’s independence which is what the Yes movement is still engaged in.”

The declaration is not just for the Yes movement though, says Bissett. “I would never try to make the claim that the Declaration of Arbroath is only for Nationalists to take pride in,” he says. “I would argue every Scot and everyone who recognises themselves as a Scot and feels some sort of connection to that label, the declaration is for them as well because Scotland as a modern entity would not exist without it. Anybody who can make this statement ‘I am a Scot’ is in some way beholden to that historical document.”

Bissett says the values inherent in the declaration can also shape the values of a modern democracy. “The difficulty comes,” he says, “when there are so many competing identities in contemporary Scotland, not everybody’s assertion of rights is unthreatening towards somebody else’s assertion of rights. You would find it very, very difficult to draft a modern day Declaration of Arbroath that would please everybody.”

There is hope in the 700th anniversary though. The interpretations of the document may vary; some may see it as a powerful call to arms; others may see it as an ancient document about nobles and kings that has little relevance to modern Scotland. But Alan Bissett thinks the document can defy its different interpretations and act as a unifying force.

“Nationalists and Unionists still share something in common, which is Scotland,” he says. “There is a Scotland that does unify us because we all live here, we all identity as Scots, so we all have some kind of emotional attachment to that idea. What we’re differing on is what we want Scotland’s political future to be, but we can get behind something like a unifying idea of Scotland that we can all understand and recognise – we can all feel something for Scotland. And that Scotland would not exist without the Declaration of Arbroath”.

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