Hiding Under a Myth: Independence and the Declaration of Arbroath

But then on Monday I was ambushed (sorry for being so abrupt).  It’s hard to explain how it happened.  The Referendum campaign is driving me nuts, forcing me to adopt a life-style which minimises the risk of bumping into it.  It’s turned me into a fugitive, compelled to walk in the shadows and send out advance-parties to make sure it’s not there.  These are days when a man’s got to watch what he sees and hears.

And if there’s one place where you’re bound to meet Referendum it’s Reporting Scotland; and on Monday night my guard slipped or, more precisely, I got the timing wrong.  I usually manage to switch on just in time for the weather-forecast (it’s important to know whether there’s going to be sunshine and showers in my study tomorrow), but this time, to my horror, Remote put on Referendum; and, paralytic with shock, I froze, unable to switch off.

In a flash, Referendum was under my skin.  I had planned a brilliant investigative piece on the scandal now engulfing NHS Western Isles, after the shocking disclosure (to quote one headline) that ‘Hospital beds are overcrowded’.  No details have been forthcoming, leaving the public in the dark as to whether patients are having to sleep two-in-a-bed or five-in-a-bed.

But that piece will have to wait till I get last night’s Reporting Scotland out of my system.  It showed Mr. Salmond basking in the glory of the Declaration of Arbroath (1320) as if it were the Manifesto of the Scottish National Party, written by himself and setting forth in one iconic document all the aspirations of the Scottish people.

Let’s take a deep breath, as you’re told to do when you have a panic-attack.  There’s one thing clear about the Declaration of Arbroath: whatever it was, it was not a declaration of the Scottish people.  It was a declaration of the nobility, signed by 18 earls and 31 barons; and the voice we hear is not the voice of the people, but the voice of the land, speaking in defence of property.  The people knew little about it.  It was, after all, written in Latin.

And it would be a serious mistake to call these barons ‘Scots’.  Many, like Robert the Bruce himself, were Normans; others, as Tom Johnston loved to point out in his splendid  account of  ‘Our Noble Families’, were Flemish pirates; yet others were closely connected to the noble families of England; and the rest were rapacious rascals.  Together, they bitterly resented the claim of the English Crown to feudal superiority over their precious lands, but the rights and liberties of the Scottish people were the least of their concerns.  The freedom they pledged to defend was only their own freedom to extort toil, rent and military service from their serfs and vassals.  It was not ‘a noble thing’.  Mr. Salmond should stick to kissing babies and distance himself from robber barons.  After all, people might draw the wrong conclusion.

In any case, it was a strange kind of freedom these barons were prepared to lay down their lives for.  They certainly wanted an end to the devastating raids constantly launched against the robber barons of Scotland by the robber barons of England.  But what really irked them in 1320 was that the Pope sided with the English.  This is why the Declaration is not a declaration at all, but a letter to His Holiness, at that time an earthly (and foreign) potentate with huge military and diplomatic muscle.  The barons were indeed keen to be rid of Edward II, but they were perfectly happy to be subservient to John XXII, promising ‘all filial reverence, with devout kisses of his blessed feet.’

We’re pretty sure Mr. Salmond wouldn’t want to kiss anyone’s feet, and surer still he wouldn’t want to re-open those debates on the papacy which eventually lead to real freedom for Scotland.  But then, he shouldn’t provoke us.

Maybe, just to get the balance right, Mr. Salmond should arrange another photo-shoot, this time beside the statue of John Knox; and there he might quote to camera the reply of the said John to Queen Mary’s contemptuous question, ‘And what are you within this Commonwealth?’  ‘A subject born within the same,’ he replied, ‘and albeit I neither be Earl, Lord, nor Baron within it, yet has God made me (how abject that ever I be in your eyes), a profitable member within the same.’  There is the real germ of Scottish democracy.

But perhaps the oddest thing about the Declaration of Arbroath is its totally mythological account of Scottish history: a ‘laughable fiction’, as John Prebble called it.  Apparently we came from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules.  Heroes, we were, of classical antiquity.  Then, by a marvellous transformation, we became the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea; as an encore we became the first nation to embrace Christianity; and to crown it all we were confirmed in that faith by ‘the most gentle Saint Andrew, the Beloved Peter’s brother’ (which must have been very difficult to arrange, considering that in the days of Saint Andrew the Scots were still in Ireland, in the loins of their ancestors).

If Mr Salmond wishes to attach his chariot to such a garbled idea of Scottish identity, so be it.  What is not a myth, and what is not remotely funny, is that by the time of the Declaration of Arbroath the Scots had been driven north to the Highlands, re-christened ‘Gaels’, officially categorised as  ‘wild’ and declared sub-human.

Why has this ‘debate’ become so maddening that a man wants to slink into a close every time he sees it coming?  Because, it’s never been about ideas, let alone an Idea.  I don’t mean that you can never get an answer.  Ask any Nationalist why he wants independence and he’ll answer in a flash, ‘Because it will give us control of our own affairs.’  How much further forward is that?  ‘Control of our own affairs’ simply says in four words what ‘independence’ says in one.  And as we go round the circle once again no one can flesh out what they mean by the one or the other.  Even less can they tell us what they would do with it if they got it.

Apart, of course, from having your photo taken sitting on the Stone of Destiny holding the Declaration of Arbroath.

This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press22 August, 2014.