Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Declaration of Arbroath & The American Declaration of Independence

Several people have pointed out the parallels between the Declaration of Arbroath (1320) and the American Declaration of Independence (1776). Similarities are perhaps not surprising since of the governors from the thirteen signatory states, nine including Thomas Jefferson, were of Scots descent. The documents are from very different times, written in very different ways, but both enhance the power and rights of the people. Arbroath, written at the abbey of the same name (below), airs for the first time the radical idea that a king is only king for as long as he protects the freedoms of his people.

Fans of the Diana Gabaldon novels will remember that in Chapter 112 of 'A Breath of Snow and Ashes', her hero Jamie finds that he is spurred on to join the revolutionaries by his own stirring rendering of the well known lines from Arbroath, '... for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule.'

Aye, and there's a good few that still get carried away with their anti-English rhetoric! Just the other day our First Minister, Alex Salmond, was telling his Scottish National Party conference that, 'we can make Westminster (UK Parliament) dance to a Scottish jig'. But the English are not particularly good dancers, let alone to Scottish music. Soon, I believe, it may be the English people who will be drawing up a Declaration of Independence. And this would be just as biased in favour of the larger nation as was the 1707 Act of Union!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall

Vikings don't enjoy a great reputation as Christians or as builders. However in the 12th century, the Norse Earl Rognvald of Orkney brought master masons up from Durham to build a cathedral in honour of St Magnus, his uncle.

Magnus gives his name to Kirkwall's impressive cathedral and his spirit presumably inhabits the building; as does, at least in part, his body since during some renovation work in 1919, his skull, famously cleft by an axe for reasons too long to recount here, was found and still lies in a pillar of the building.

I was there on Friday and once again marvelled at this Romanesque masterpiece, where local red sandstone often alternates impressively with yellow stone from the isle of Eday. But my eye was taken by something else (well, it was pointed out by our excellent guide, Steve Nottage): a 'Mort Bord', in memory of a Robert Nicolsone.

I wonder if Robert was a rather 21st century person who thought gravestones to be grotesque, and preferred the idea of a wooden memorial which would return to dust in due course of time. If so it would be a shock that his 'bord' is still hanging there 400 years later. Mind you, it also seems a bit hard on St Magnus to have his skull still stuck in a pillar 800 years on. I'm sure he deserves better.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Declaration of Arbroath and the Butler of Scotland

The letter sent by 38 Scots Lords to the Pope in 1320, contains a certain amount of whimsical stuff about the Pillars of Hercules and the Tyrrhenian Sea, but its ringing declaration of nationhood bears repeating:

"Yet if he (King Robert, 'The Bruce') 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. 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."

Amongst the names on the document we find 'Walter, Steward of Scotland; William Soules, Butler of Scotland; Gilbert Hay, Constable of Scotland; Robert Keith, Marischal of Scotland.
The hereditary titles of Steward, Constable and Marischal to the crown continued in use until the 18th century. But the title Butler of Scotland quickly fell out of use.

I became interested in the de Soulis family when I was doing a little research on Hermitage Castle. Whilst there are plenty Stewarts, Hays and Keiths living in Scotland today, I can discover no record of anyone called Soules or de Soulis - at least not one with a telephone. Kilmarnock boasts a Soulis Street and a Soulis Cross (left) but no living Soulises! If anyone out there can tell me more about this family who were once so prominent in the Scottish court, whose ancestor was one of 38 Scots Lords who signed the famous Declaration of Arbroath, I'd be delighted to hear more!