Arbroath Abbey - one of Scotland's most significant historical attractions
With so many tourists drawn to Scotland because of its fascinating history, it amazes me that I hardly come across any that include Arbroath Abbey in their travel plans. This has to be one of the most interesting and significant buildings to feature in the story of Scotland.
From its connection to the famous Declaration of Arbroath, said to be an influence for the American Declaration of Independence, to the mysterious appearance of the Stone of Destiny, the abbey is often viewed as the home of Scottish nationalism.
I've explored countless ruins all over Scotland and only a few have left a lasting impression on me. Arbroath Abbey is one of them which probably explains why I keep returning. I can't quite explain it but the surviving stones seem to have soaked up some serious history which now seeps from the walls. You can really feel it, or at least I can. And don't even me started on the goosebumps I get when I reach the replica of the Declaration of Independence, displayed in the setting where it was said to be written and accompanied by the haunting voices of those who signed it.
I know all this might sound a little over-romanticised and I don't usually get so affectionate over the remains of an old building. However, it does feel extraordinarily special, maybe its in my imagination or maybe it really is in the walls but visiting for yourself is the only way to fully understand what I'm talking about.
Arbroath Abbey Facts
Arbroath Abbey has a long and interesting history with too much for me to cover in a blog post. However, here are a few quick facts as an introduction to its background -
The Declaration of Arbroath & its connection to the American Declaration of Independence
'...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 man gives up but with life itself...'
Probably the most famous text from the most famous document in Scottish history. It is fair to say that the Declaration of Arbroath has stirred up a some nationalist passion over the years. With the current debates over Scottish Independence, the words are as relevant now as they ever were.
In simple terms, the Declaration is a letter written on the 6th April 1320, asking the pope to recognise Scotland's independence and acknowledge Robert the Bruce as the country's lawful king. It was written in Latin and most likely drafted by Abbot Bernard of Arbroath who was the Chancellor of Scotland.
The document was sent from Arbroath Abbey to Avingnon after being authenticated by the seals of 8 earls and about 40 Scottish barons. It was written during the long Wars of Independence with England and the original Declaration of Arbroath has been awarded Unesco "Memory of the World" status.
The pope wrote to King Edward II urging him to make peace with Scotland, but it was not until 1328 that Scotland's independence was acknowledged. Of course that didn't last for long and the rest is history...
This is a very simplified and edited version of a very significant period in Scottish history which featured legendary figures like William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. I suggest doing your own research to fully appreciate the politics of the time. It might also give you an understanding as to why Scottish Independence remains a divisive topic in the United Kingdom today.
Two important principles were outlined in the Declaration. Firstly, that the will and the wishes of the people were above the King, and secondly, that man has a right to freedom and a duty to defend it with his life
These principles of democracy and liberty are said by some to have been the inspiration for the American Declaration of Independence. I'm no expert and I guess we will never have it confirmed for sure. However, half of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were of Scottish ancestry. Many of them spoke of their admiration of the ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment, so it is not a huge leap to think that they may have taken inspiration from the historic Scottish document.
In 1998, the US Senate passed a Resolution declaring April 6th to be Tartan Day in honour of the indelible contribution that Scotland and Scots made to the establishment and development of the USA. Senate Resolution 155 states that April 6 has a special significance for all Americans, and especially those Americans of Scottish descent, because the Declaration of Arbroath, the Scottish Declaration of Independence, was signed on April 6, 1320 and the American Declaration of Independence was modelled on that inspirational document.
Which brings me back to my original puzzlement about why more Americans haven't been inspired to visit Arbroath Abbey...
The Stone of Destiny
The strong association with Scottish nationalism is one of the reasons that the abbey was chosen as a symbolic location to place the Stone of Destiny after it was stolen, or some would say reclaimed, from Westminster Abbey in 1950.
The Stone of Destiny was used for the inauguration of Scottish kings for centuries before being seized from Scone Abbey by King Edward I of England in 1296. He arranged for it to be placed in part of a wooden throne in Westminster Abbey and since then it has been used in the coronation of the monarchs of England and subsequently Great Britain.
On Christmas Day 1950, the Stone was famously stolen from Westminster Abbey by four students. It eventually turned up at the high altar of Arbroath Abbey in April 1951.
Although it was then returned to Westminster Abbey, in 1996 it was officially returned to Scotland. You can now view it at Edinburgh Castle and a replica at Scone Palace.
Although Arbroath Abbey had no original connection to the Stone of Destiny, it played a legendary part in its story. The abbey has an exhibit with more information about the event.
A guide to visiting Arbroath Abbey
Arbroath Abbey sits in the centre of the town of Arbroath which is situated on the east coast of Scotland, about a 30 minute drive north of Dundee or a train journey of just over 90 minutes from Edinburgh. When I say 'sits in the centre' I do mean it, as today it is closely surrounded by houses.
The abbey visitor centre has a great audio visual experience which takes you through the history. From there you can explore what remains of the building in your own time. Viewing platforms give you a real sense of how huge the complex once was.
There is still plenty to see, including original stonework and one of the most complete abbot’s residences in Britain. As you wander around outside, look out for the grave of King William the Lion and of course don't miss the exhibition with a replica of the Declaration of Abroath.
Arbroath Abbey is cared for by Historic Scotland and there is an admission fee to enter although admission is free for Historic Scotland members and pass holders.
The abbey is opened all year apart from Christmas and New Year holidays.
Other things to do in Arbroath
It is worth setting aside some time to explore a bit more of Arbroath. Here are a few of my favourite things to do in the town -
If you have more time to spend on the east coast then I recommend a 20 minute drive north to the town of Montrose. From there it is a short drive to the start of the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail which makes a great 3 -5 day road-trip.
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