Calendar An icon of a desk calendar. Cancel An icon of a circle with a diagonal line across. Caret An icon of a block arrow pointing to the right. Email An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of the Facebook "f" mark. Google An icon of the Google "G" mark. Linked In An icon of the Linked In "in" mark. Logout An icon representing logout. Profile An icon that resembles human head and shoulders. Telephone An icon of a traditional telephone receiver. Tick An icon of a tick mark. Is Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes. Is Not Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes with a diagonal line through it. Pause Icon A two-lined pause icon for stopping interactions. Quote Mark A opening quote mark. Quote Mark A closing quote mark. Arrow An icon of an arrow. Folder An icon of a paper folder. Breaking An icon of an exclamation mark on a circular background. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Caret An icon of a caret arrow. Clock An icon of a clock face. Close An icon of the an X shape. Close Icon An icon used to represent where to interact to collapse or dismiss a component Comment An icon of a speech bubble. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Ellipsis An icon of 3 horizontal dots. Envelope An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Home An icon of a house. Instagram An icon of the Instagram logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. Magnifying Glass An icon of a magnifying glass. Search Icon A magnifying glass icon that is used to represent the function of searching. Menu An icon of 3 horizontal lines. Hamburger Menu Icon An icon used to represent a collapsed menu. Next An icon of an arrow pointing to the right. Notice An explanation mark centred inside a circle. Previous An icon of an arrow pointing to the left. Rating An icon of a star. Tag An icon of a tag. Twitter An icon of the Twitter logo. Video Camera An icon of a video camera shape. Speech Bubble Icon A icon displaying a speech bubble WhatsApp An icon of the WhatsApp logo. Information An icon of an information logo. Plus A mathematical 'plus' symbol. Duration An icon indicating Time. Success Tick An icon of a green tick. Success Tick Timeout An icon of a greyed out success tick. Loading Spinner An icon of a loading spinner. Facebook Messenger An icon of the facebook messenger app logo. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Facebook Messenger An icon of the Twitter app logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. WhatsApp Messenger An icon of the Whatsapp messenger app logo. Email An icon of an mail envelope. Copy link A decentered black square over a white square.

‘For freedom’: Broadcaster Billy Kay presents radio series to mark 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath

Billy Kay
Billy Kay

Scots expert and broadcaster Billy Kay previews his forthcoming BBC Radio documentary series about the Declaration of Arbroath.

For the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, Newport-based broadcaster Billy Kay presents a major series on one of the most iconic moments in Scottish and world history, when the nobles, barons, freeholders and the community of the realm of Scotland felt compelled to create the document in 1320.

Composed originally in elegant Latin prose it is addressed to Pope John XXII in Avignon who is asked by the Scots to support the cause of their nation’s independence in the face of an overweening, bullying English neighbour.

In doing this, it pulls at the heart-strings of patriots around the world.

“For, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. 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 life itself.”

Billy explains how even more revolutionary is the Deposition Clause where they state that sovereignty lies with the Scottish people, and they can depose any King who refuses to defend their status as an independent nation.

At a time when most believed in the concept of the Divine Right of Kings, this precociously democratic sounding rhetoric is quite remarkable:

“Yet if he should give up what he has begun, seeking to make us or our kingdom subject to the king of England or the English, we would strive at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own right and ours, and we would make some other man who was able to defend us our king.”

Declaration of Arbroath

In the series these famous passages are read by none other than Dundee-born actor Brian Cox, recent winner of the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Television Series.

The Declaration of Arbroath was one of the first statements in history defining national sovereignty and it has had a profound influence at home and abroad ever since.

In his book ‘For Freedom Alone’, Edward J. Cowan describes it as: “The first national or governmental expression in all of Europe, of the principle of the contractual theory of monarchy which lies at the root of modern constitutionalism”.

The Declaration’s international dimension is celebrated throughout the series. For example, Ian Forrester, the UK’s last judge in the General Court of the EU, talks about it in relation to Scotland’s place in European history.

Arbroath Abbey, where the Declaration of Arbroath was written in 1320.

Historian Rebecca Wills tells a remarkable story about hiking with her family in the Caucasus Mountains and her astonishment on hearing the Declaration declaimed in Russian by a Georgian border guard.

The possible influence of the Scottish Declaration on the American Declaration of  Independence will also be explored with Billy recording the feelings of Scottish Americans on the subject in New York on Tartan Day.

U.S. Senate Resolution 155, of March 20, 1998 states: “April 6 has a special significance for all Americans, and especially those Americans of Scottish descent, because the Declaration of Arbroath, the Scottish Declaration of  Independence, was signed on April 6, 1320 and the American Declaration of Independence was modeled on that inspirational document.”

While there is no direct evidence this is in fact the case, Billy outlines substantial circumstantial evidence which suggests that the two documents were connected through the influence there of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Declaration of Arbroath statue.

Billy says: “James Boswell quoted from it in his writing about the Corsican freedom fighter, Pasquale Paoli – a book which enjoyed great acclaim in the colonies before the American War of Independence.

“Boswell was fascinated by the Declaration. In the university library in Leipzig during the Grand Tour, he comes across a copy of the Declaration and regales astonished scholars: ‘They were struck with the noble sentiments, at the liberty of the old Scots and they expressed their regret at the shameful Union. I felt too, patriot sorrow – o infamous rascals who sold the honour of your country to a nation against which our ancestors supported themselves with so much glory! But I say no more but only, alas, poor Scotland!’”

Billy says this is surprising as Boswell is often regarded as an arch Unionist and Anglophile in 18th century Scotland.

But there will be other surprises in the series!

Tartan Day in New York

What is the tie, for example, that links Hugh MacDiarmid, the Declaration of Arbroath and the African American leader Malcolm X? “Tune in to programme three, The Abbey of Arbroath, to find out!” says Billy.

“There we will also meet the bairns of Hayshead Primary School in Arbroath who are asked to create their own version of the Declaration by none other than King Robert the Bruce himself.”

Interviewing major historians and cultural commentators, Billy examines the role of  the Declaration in the creation of a modern Scottish identity, which today is often polarised into Nationalist and Unionist camps.

Billy Kay and his wife in the USA

“The hope is that as far as the Declaration is concerned, the admiration and love for it can extend to every Scot,” he says.

“In the words of the writer, Alexander McCall Smith: ‘I don’t think recognising the Declaration of Arbroath for what it is, as this great heart felt plea, doesn’t necessarily mean that one goes down any particular political road – obviously it is a very, very powerful Declaration in that sense, but it’s a declaration for all people.”

  • Three-part series The Declaration by Billy Kay is broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland at 1.32 pm on April 6, 7 and 8. It will then be available on BBC iPlayer.
  • For more on the history of the Declaration of Arbroath, see The Courier’s Weekend magazine of Saturday April 4.