Features > Arts

1 April 2020

Jenni Calder has published many books on literature and history, writes fiction and poetry as Jenni Daiches, and is previous president and current board member of Scottish PEN. She is joint editor of Declarations on Freedom for Writers and Readers. Her most recent book is The Burning Glass: The Life of Naomi Mitchison (Sandstone Press). Photo by Rachel Calder.

April 2020 is the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath – watch the fantastic new documentary from Lesley Riddoch and Charlie Stuart featuring Brian Cox with music from academy award nominee Patrick Doyle https://vimeo.com/401599947

Declarations from Scottish PEN

The foundation of the writers’ organisation Scottish PEN almost one hundred years ago, argues Jenni Calder, echoes many of the values contained in the seven-hundred-year-old Declaration of Arbroath

SEVEN hundred years ago, in 1320, the Scottish nobility appealed to the Pope to support Scotland in the nation’s endeavour for “the King of the English” to “leave us in peace”. The appeal was in the form of a letter in Latin, now known as the Declaration of Arbroath. It was a highly resonant moment in Scotland’s past, described by historian Professor Michael Lynch as “the most celebrated document in Scottish history” and by Professor G.W.S. Barrow as “the most eloquent statement of the case for national independence to be produced anywhere in medieval Europe”. Lord Cooper, Lord Justice General and President of the Court of Session, regarded it as “one of the masterpieces of political rhetoric of all time”. In 2016 the Declaration of Arbroath was placed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World register. It has become emblematic of a narrative of centuries of repression of a small nation – “a poor little country” in the Declaration’s words – by a much more powerful neighbour.

The Declaration of Arbroath, 6 April 1320

© Crown copyright. Data supplied by National Records of Scotland

Some six hundred years later, in 1921, an organisation was formed in the aftermath of World War I to campaign for freedom of expression and to promote international understanding and the free exchange of ideas across borders. The name given to it was PEN, standing for Poets, Essayists, Editors and Novelists. In 1927 a Scottish Centre of PEN was set up by Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin and Willa Muir, Robert Cunningham Grahame and others. Since then Scottish PEN, as part of PEN International, has been vigorously contributing to a worldwide effort to protect and support writers and journalists. PEN International now has around 150 centres all over the world.

The signatories to that original Declaration were all powerful men – no women, of course – with varying vested interests in getting the English off their backs. But, tellingly, the writer of the Declaration was aware that the English had their own version of the situation and appealed to the Pope to recognise that there were two sides to the quarrel:

“[I]f your Holiness puts too much faith in the tales the English tell and will not give sincere belief to all this, nor refrain from favouring them to our undoing, then the slaughter of bodies, the perdition of souls, and all the other misfortunes that will follow, inflicted by them on us and by us on them, will, we believe, be surely laid by the Most High to your charge.”

There had already been plenty of slaughter and would be plenty more. The appeal didn’t work – it was another four years before the Pope recognised Robert the Bruce’s title to the throne, which he had held for 14 years when the Declaration was drafted, let alone registering support for Scotland’s cause or caring about shouldering responsibility for more carnage. The dodgy circumstances in which Bruce had claimed the throne had led to his excommunication from the church – but that’s another and longer story.

It’s not known exactly who composed this epistle, but it has become part of the tale the Scottish tell about their past and their identity. Every nation needs to tell its own story, especially if it has existed in the shadow of another. But what does a 700-year-old piece of writing mean today, in Scotland or anywhere else, and what has Scottish PEN to do with it?

At the heart of PEN is the protection of freedom of expression. Scottish PEN saw the 2020 anniversary of the Declaration as an opportunity to explore ideas and issues relating to this and to the concept of “declaration”. An open invitation was issued to contribute to an anthology of poetry and prose addressing the themes. The result is a volume, to be published in April 2020 by Scotland Street Press, with the title Declarations on Freedom for Writers and Readers and a preface by T.M. Devine. It contains over fifty contributions from diverse writers from Scotland and elsewhere, including Karen Campbell, Carl MacDougall, Chitra Ramaswami and James Robertson. There are pieces that respond to particular events in Scottish history and others that draw on experiences in Myanmar and Mexico, southern Africa and Thailand, Ireland and Germany. The pieces are diverse, but they blend and comment on each other so there is a kind of dialogue throughout the collection. Their messages assert, directly and indirectly, the crucial importance of the freedom to speak and to write, to listen and to read, to break silence in the face of injustice. The need to hear and understand each other is no less urgent now than it was when PEN was founded. Open minds are essential to the functioning of democracy. “Literature knows no frontiers” states the PEN International Charter. Words move, in both senses, in ways that, increasingly, people cannot.

For those concerned with the written word – which should, of course, include all of us – a particularly striking feature of the original Declaration is the language itself, rich and compelling. The focus is on “the Scots” rather than Scotland as a territory, with a description of Scottish lineage that goes back into the ancient past. The Scottish nation “journeyed from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules, and dwelt for a long course of time in Spain among the most savage peoples, but nowhere could it be subdued by any people, however barbarous. Thence it came, twelve hundred years after the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea, to its home in the west where it still lives today.” The fact that this suggests a rather splendid hybridity and that the actual signatories were a pretty mixed bunch, descended from Anglians, Normans, Scandinavians and Irish among others, did not stand in the way of this assertion of identity. Supporting this is a portrayal of the Scots as a heroic people who over the centuries have overcome numerous enemies – Picts, Vikings, English – and have earned the right to be left in peace. The fact that these efforts involved bloodshed is not glossed over. Destroying the enemy is part of the argument – a claim of right to be left in peace.

I am not acquainted with the original Latin and cannot assess how much of the fluent reverberation of this document lies in the translation, but the power of the language, seven centuries later, still leaps off the page and still lends itself to reassertion. “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, the most quoted sentence from the Declaration, has been used as a rallying cry for national independence. It has an inspiring resonance, which any politician’s speech writer might envy.

The Declaration purports to speak for “the whole community of the realm of Scotland” and although its signatories were those who held land and power and had no concept of democracy, in a sense it does. To be free of incursions from across the border would benefit the Scottish people, although the likely consequences of one of the Declaration’s arguments were more questionable. Christianity, the Document points out, was under threat from heathen savages. “Christian princes…for false reasons pretend that they cannot go to the help of the Holy Land because of wars they have on hand with their neighbours.” If the Pope would use his influence to bring peace, the “Christian princes” could turn their attention to dealing with a much greater threat – in other words, take part in the Crusades. The consequences for Scotland of playing a major role in the Crusades were not likely to have been positive. As it was, Bruce’s dying wish in 1329 was that Scottish knights should join a crusade, bearing his heart with them. Sir James Douglas and others took on that task. Many were killed in 1330 fighting the Moors in Spain, Sir James among them. Bruce’s heart was returned to Scotland and buried at Melrose Abbey. An inscription reads “A noble hart may have nane ease gif freedom failye.”

Freedom has had a lot of failures. Among the most dangerous aspects of the failure of freedom are the unabated efforts to silence criticism of those with political, religious or social power. The freedom to voice dissent is an essential democratic right. In many parts of the world it does not exist, and in many countries recognised as functioning democracies there are insidious forms of censorship and pressures to self-censor which undermine the scope for criticism and debate. And so back to Scottish PEN and the incessant campaign against the repression of women and men who refuse to be silenced. The anthology Declarations on Freedom for Writers and Readers has looked to the past to produce a message for the present and the future. It’s what history is for.

Declarations on Freedom for Writers and Readers is published by Scotland Street Press, ISBN 978-1-910895-42-9, price £9.99, and is available from 6 April 2020 from the publisher www.scotlandstreetpress.org and bookshops.