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Declaration of Arbroath to go on display for first time in 18 years

The Declaration of Arbroath, one of Scotland’s most important historical documents, will be on public display for the first time in 18 years at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The display will run from June 3 to July 2 and admission is free.

The Declaration of Arbroath is a letter dated April 6, 1320, written by the barons of Scotland on behalf of the Kingdom of Scotland to Pope John XXII. The letter asks the Pope to recognise Scotland’s independence and acknowledge Robert the Bruce as the country’s lawful king. The letter also asks the Pope to persuade King Edward II of England to end hostilities against the Scots, so that their energy may be better used to secure the frontiers of Christendom.

The Declaration was probably drafted at a meeting of the King and his council at Newbattle, then written up in the scriptorium of Arbroath Abbey. Written in Latin, it was sealed by eight earls and about forty barons. It was authenticated by seals, as documents at that time were not signed. Only 19 seals now remain.

The Declaration was unsuccessful in its plea, as the Pope’s reply urged reconciliation with the English. However, it is viewed by some as one of the most famous documents in Scottish history for its eloquent expression of national identity and sovereignty. The most famous passage reads:

“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.”

The Declaration is a fragile 700-year-old document that needs careful conservation and preservation for future generations. It can only be displayed occasionally and under controlled conditions to prevent damage from light exposure and humidity. The document is cared for and preserved by National Records of Scotland (NRS), who are custodians of it.

The last time it was on public display was in 2004 at the Scottish Parliament. Before that, it was shown at Edinburgh Castle in 1998. The original plan was to display it again in April 2020 to coincide with its 700th anniversary but this had to be postponed due to Covid-19 pandemic restrictions.

Visitors who come to see the Declaration will have a rare opportunity to admire this iconic document close up. They will also learn more about its historical context and significance through an accompanying exhibition curated by National Museums Scotland (NMS) and NRS. The exhibition will feature other objects related to Scottish history such as medieval coins, seals and manuscripts.

Alice Blackwell, Senior Curator of Medieval Archaeology and History at NMS said: “We are delighted to have the opportunity to display the Declaration of Arbroath here at the National Museum of Scotland. It is a hugely significant document and a vital piece of Scotland’s history.”

Culture Secretary Angus Robertson said: “The Declaration of Arbroath is of great historic and cultural interest to Scots and people around the world of Scottish descent. The display of this iconic document will give people from across Scotland and further afield a wonderful opportunity to visit the museum and see this important piece of history for themselves.”

Laura Mitchell, Deputy Keeper, NRS, said: “The Declaration of Arbroath is a key treasure in our extensive collections and we are proud of the role we play in conserving this significant historical artefact for future generations.”

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