On the seventh hundred anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath much is being made of how it has influenced the development of human rights. Scholars from many parts of the globe consider it of fundamental importance in the growth of democracy. While much of this is probably correct there are other aspects to this famous document that to date have not been investigated. One of these is the statement that
They 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 tribes, but nowhere could they be subdued by any race, however barbarous.
Now this statement chimes with material from even earlier which claims the Scots had initially come from Egypt led by Scota, a daughter of the Pharoah around the time of Moses. This suggests that there was an origin myth amongst the Scots that effectively has them coming to the islands off the north-west of Europe from Africa via Spain. This is remarkable in two respects. Firstly modern scientific opinion is in total agreement that the human species arose in Africa then spread out through the Middle East to populate the rest of the planet. Also we now know that during the last Ice Age in northern Iberia there was what is known as a refugium from where humans spread north as the ice retreated. Secondly research over the past few decades has shown that oral transmission can carry actual data over tens of millennia. The best example of this is the Dreamtime stories from Australia that talk of giant marsupials. the scientific term is Diprotodon, which have been extinct for over thirty thousand years. It is perfectly feasible that stories of an origin in far off Africa had arrived with the first settlers from the Iberian refugium after the Ice Age, and had continued to be told. The inclusion of Scota as a daughter of the Pharoah fits with the general Western tradition of suggesting legitimacy by referring to material that was extant in the Christian Bible, but it the story suggests that our distant ancestors left Africa via the Middle East and spent some time in Iberia, which is exactly what the science suggests happened. 13th century suggestions that Scota came to Scotland rather than Ireland were reinforced at the dawn of this century by Euan Campbell’s exposure of the apparent inaccuracy of the story of the Scots coming to Scotland from Ireland. Literacy came with the Christian religion and though it came to dominate many aspects of life it did not completely eradicate the indigenous culture that had arisen over millennia.
There is another aspect to the 1320 declaration that I suggest has not been fully appreciated. It is stated
Yet if he should give up what he has begun, and agree to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule.
Now most Scottish commentators on this have emphasised the bit about resisting English rule, but what comes before it tells us something quite remarkable. Though the idea that new king will be created if the current one fails in his duty to the community of the realm has been interpreted as a very modern idea, it is nothing of the sort. It is in fact a fundamental reality of tribal society that the person at the top is responsible to the tribe as a whole. This is clear from a range of different episodes amongst Scotland’s clans, when the chief for one reason or another was deemed unfit, or unsuitable to reign. The best example is probably the story of Ranald Gallda, the Hen Chief of the MacDonalds, whose rejection by his kin led to the Famous Battle of the Shirts in 1544. As late as the 1720s Edmund Burt wrote of a chief being embarrassed in front of a group of English visitors to whom he had boasted of his control over his clansmen, peat-stained and clad only in a scrap of tartan when one them stepped out of a crude dwelling and shook him by the hand and wished him good day. He may have been ready to follow him into battle and give up his life for the clan, but he knew his chief was still his cousin.
The signatories of the 1320 Declaration needed to comply with the international and courtly protocols of the contemporary world to preserve their freedom but as the document shows, their capacity to function together was rooted in their own indigenous culture. Take a look at their names, apart from less than a handful, they are Scottish place or family, that is kin-group, names. They kennt wha they were.