The document that we now call the Declaration of Arbroath is what makes this ruined abbey on Scotland’s east coast one of the most famous heritage sites in Britain. It was issued from here in 1320 and it was actually a letter written by a group of Scottish nobles to the Pope in Rome. It was produced in the light of the struggle by the Scots to retain their independence in the face of an assault by England.
Even though Robert the Bruce had defeated the English army of Edward II at Bannockburn in 1314, the English ruler had refused to accept that Robert the Bruce was a legitimate king. So the Scots were making the case for their right to be free. The language they used was powerful, direct and has been a source of inspiration for generations since. The Declaration was a success as it brought about a truce in the first place, and then a treaty with England in 1328, which recognised the right of Scotland to be free and ruled by its own lawful king
Arbroath Abbey was an important place in the early 14th century. Founded in 1178, it was home to the Monymusk Reliquary, a casket that contained the relics of St Columba. That casket was carried into battle at Bannockburn to offer saintly support to the Scots. After the events of 1320, the abbey has come to achieve even greater significance as the Declaration has taken on international significance as an early expression of freedom. This despite the fact that the abbey was heavily knocked about after the Scottish Reformation, and many of its stones taken away and reused for building elsewhere.
When you visit today, you’ll find a tremendous new visitor centre with a first floor viewing gallery from which you can survey the broken walls and pillar bases outside. The exhibition within tells the story behind the ruins, and of the Declaration moment. Then you’re free to wander around the red sandstone remains. It’s a beautiful place, with more than enough upstanding to give you an idea of the lost grandeur of the abbey. The Round O, a window without a tower, looks down over the lawns, graves and walls below.
There is a further small display on the Declaration itself in one of the few abbey buildings still standing, the Guest House. It has an interesting audio commentary that provides the chance for you to listen to the events of 1320 from the viewpoint of the protagonists involved. Dave Musgrove
The historian’s view: Ted Cowan on Arbroath Abbey
“If you’re looking for somewhere iconic and of national importance, then that’s Arbroath. In 1320 the Declaration of Arbroath was issued from here. There’s an extensive display about the Declaration and how it came to be written, as well as the Abbey itself, which is rather a magnificent ruin.”
Ted Cowan is emeritus professor of Scottish history at the University of Glasgow. His books include For Freedom Alone’: The Declaration of Arbroath 1320 (Tuckwell Press, 2003)
Arbroath Abbey, Arbroath, DD11 1EG
1 April – 30 September, Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun, 9.30am – 5.30pm
1 October – 31 March , Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun, 9.30am – 4.30pm