Declaration – New Discovery

The Declaration of Arbroath

The Declaration of Arbroath is arguably the most important ancient document Scotland owns. English have all but forgotten Magna Carta, few adhere to its principles, bar a few lawyers and academics, but Scots refer to the Declaration often in research, in debate and discussion. Our politicians should talk of it more, remind the colonial powers where power lies in Alba, not with them, with us. Colonised by England’s parliament for too long, we let our guard down and forgot the ‘Rights of Scots’ long enough to let the Declaration rot physically. Kept in a damp basement in Edinburgh Castle unprotected from the elements left it with two large holes in its parchment.

Dr Alan Borthwick has been scrutinising the document. Here he updates the most recent work on the Declaration and demonstrates that, after seven centuries there is still things top discover. Conservation work and research on items in our National Archives can still reveal new surprises. Here for history buffs is what he found.


The only surviving sealed version of the Declaration of Arbroath is the most treasured document held by National Records of Scotland (catalogue reference SP13/7). Growing numbers of academic and popular books and articles have been written specifically about it in the past 75 years, as both the document itself and its text continue to intrigue people across the globe.

It would seem unlikely therefore that new people could be identified as being directly associated with it, but the process of preparing the document for the expected 700th anniversary exhibition in spring 2020, unfortunately cancelled because of the pandemic, has had an unexpected result.

The Declaration is a letter from the barons and the community of the realm of Scotland to Pope John XXII. It is a carefully crafted appeal designed to persuade the Pope to reconsider his approach to the long-running Anglo-Scottish conflict. It was sent in the names of eight earls and 31 barons of Scotland.

Documents at this time were not signed.  To authenticate documents, wax seals were attached. There are nineteen seals currently attached to the Declaration, on seal tags at the foot of the letter. Perhaps as many as 50 seals might once have been attached, but seals are easily lost or damaged.

Seals hidden under seals

Location, location, location

There are four locations on the letter for the names of the barons and earls associated with the Declaration. First are the opening sentences, naming the 39 earls and barons. Second is the fold at the bottom of the letter through which the seal tags were threaded.

The clerk writing the letter added names there so that each seal would be appended at the right place. Third are the tags themselves, on some of which names are written, almost all not actually being those named in the body of the text. The seals of these barons must have come to hand late in the drafting process. Finally, there are the seals themselves, as a few are those of people neither named in the text nor on the document fold nor on the tags.

None of the names written on the document fold or on the tags are signatures of the barons. They are written in a uniform hand, and must therefore be of the clerk who wrote the document.

The seal of John Gifford

How could new names go unnoticed?

The answer is that they were hidden in the tangle of the seal tags at the foot of the letter. During conservation work undertaken in advance of the cancelled 2020 exhibition, it was decided that as much as possible of the seal tags should be untangled from each other. This work does not seem to have been undertaken previously.

We have four reference points illustrating the state of the letter since the early 19th century. The first is an engraving which was included in volume 1 of The Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland (published in 1844, but the engraving prepared about 30 years earlier).

The second is a “zincograph” – an early type of photograph – included in Facsimiles of the national manuscripts of Scotland, part 2 (published in 1870).

The third is the earliest known modern photograph, included as a special facsimile in Sir James Fergusson’s The Declaration of Arbroath (published in 1970).

The fourth is the set of photographs taken in late 2019 as part of the preparation for the 700th anniversary exhibition. The first three all show the seal tags as being partly straight and partly tangled.

The recent straightening of the tags has made it easier to see the names written there and there are nine tags now visible with names written on them.

Naming names

Two tags have names written on them which are new to us – they are of barons not named in the text nor whose seals are known to be appended. The first is John Gifford, and the second could be John “Macgerezylis”. The second one is difficult to read, as the clerk omitted some letters in the way in which he wrote it, a common practice. Quite possibly the clerk didn’t understand the name that he was to write, which wouldn’t have helped! 

Professor Dauvit Broun, Glasgow University, with the help of a colleague, has very kindly suggested to me a possible interpretation of this name: John MacFhearghail, or in Gaelic Eoin MacFhearghail. It’s the likeliest solution to the puzzle.

John “Macgerezylis” or MacFhearghail

John Gifford

Of these two new names, John Gifford is someone whom it is easy to identify. In 1322, he was granted by King Robert I a right to lands in the barony of Dunipace and elsewhere. The second man, John “Macgerezylis” or MacFhearghail, is entirely unknown.

The discovery of new names associated with the Declaration is a real surprise. Professor Archie Duncan published a careful description of it (in his 1971 article, ‘The making of the Declaration of Arbroath’), which included a list of all the barons named in it, whether in the main text or on the seal tags and seals. It seemed at that time fair to assume that Professor Duncan’s account was as much as could ever be said on that score. 

Perhaps there never can be the last word!

NOTE: Published with thanks to the National Records of Scotland


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3 Responses to Declaration – New Discovery

  1. marconatrix says:

    The ‘z’ in the MacFhearghail name is actually a _yogh_ or ‘gh’ I believe.

  2. katielass04 says:

    That’s amazing! 700 years later we’re still learning about this so important document. How fascinating!

    Thank you for sharing this, GB. I follow lots of historical accounts but hadn’t seen this. 🙂

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