It is hardly surprising that a leading Scottish nationalist such as Alex Salmond invokes the Declaration of Arbroath on April 6, 2021, 701 years to the day since it was signed by the leaders of Scotland.

Not only is this an important anniversary but it comes a matter of weeks before the country goes to the polls in a Holyrood election likely to be dominated by the issue of independence for Scotland. For those supporting the nationalist cause it would have just been too good a political opportunity to miss by failing to make some reference to the Declaration.

It is after all truly remarkable text. In 2016 the Declaration was placed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World register so significant is its sonorous prose invocation of human freedom: ’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 his life.’

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Signed by members of the Scottish aristocracy and higher clergy, it nevertheless has had profound appeal to all through the ages whatever their rank in society. Medieval historians both at home and abroad consider the Declaration ‘the most celebrated document in Scottish history’, as one said, and, for another, ‘the most eloquent statement of the case for national independence to be produced anywhere in Europe.’

The past, of course, has been used before to bolster the case for Scottish independence, most notably in the 1990s with the story on film of William Wallace and the resulting craze of Braveheartism, though the saga of Wallace as told by Hollywood was replete with myth and error. The Declaration, on the other hand, is the real thing, an epic of unvarnished, resonant and wonderful prose, the credibility and authenticity of which cannot be doubted.

In fact, the case of Salmond’s use of history to support a national cause has had even longer antecedents and many more variants than the Braveheart movie. In a famous and seminal lecture delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1882, the historian, Ernest Renan, asked the question:’Qu’est-ce due one nation’, 'What is a nation?’. He went to argue strongly against the conventional wisdom of his day which assumed that a nation was founded on ethnicity and language.


Instead, he advanced the case that the identity of a nation depended ultimately on collective sentiment, which itself was grounded on remembrance by the nation of times past, imagined, mythical or real. In Renan’s perspective a nation’s sense of itself derived from its history and the collective awareness which came from that. Therefore, if the people of a nation in their mind and emotions ceased to feel like a nation, it would no longer be one.

Renan’s thinking helps to explain why the great nationalist revolutions of the nineteenth century, which created a number of new nation states out of the embers of disintegrating multinational empires, where shot through with historical remembrance and reference and even had historians among the leadership of their movements for national determination.

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During the Victorian era in Scotland, no such revolution took place. The country was entirely comfortable with its position within the British Union and the unprecedented benefits reaped through unprecedented economic transformation and the returns which flowed from a global Empire in which the country was an enthusiastic partner with England. Scotland’s historians of that time therefore tended to write in uncritical support and admiration of the Union.

Even as late as the 1960s the historiography of modern Scotland (as distinct from the excellent work on the independent nation before 1707) was immature and underdeveloped, frankly a Cinderella subject. When the newly elected Burnett-Fletcher Professor of History at Aberdeen University delivered his inaugural lecture in 1964 he offered a devastating critique when he asserted that the national history of Scotland since 1707 was less studied than the history of Yorkshire.

Since then, there has been an enormous transformation in modern Scottish historical studies, judged by the range, quality and quantity of publication, number of scholars in the field and the constant flow of able research students. As the 70Ist anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath is celebrated, Scotland can be confident it now has a professional-based modern historiography to equal any country in the world which can serve as the essential context for current debates on the future of the nation.

Sir Tom Devine is the Sir William Fraser Professor Emeritus of Scottish History and Palaeography at the University of Edinburgh.