Declaration of Arbroath
We are delighted to bring you news of a wonderful collaboration between the Red Lichties Stitching Group, artist Andrew Crummy and ourselves to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath on 6th April 2020. There should have been a grand opening weekend celebrating the anniversary in Arbroath Abbey and the town but due to Corona virus we are celebrating virtually instead.
Red Lichties is an affectionate name for people from Arbroath due to a prominent red light in the harbour used by fishermen to guide them home. In 2017 the Red Lichties Stitching Group decided to make an embroidered tapestry to celebrate the Declaration of Arbroath in 2020. It tells the story of the Declaration with an extraordinary level of craft skill, time and dedication. When the stitchers started they did not know where the finished tapestry would be housed but they hoped it might tour, to celebrate Arbroath and bring the story of the Declaration to life.
Most of the group had already worked on a panel for the Great Tapestry of Scotland. This exceptional public art project is comprised of 160 embroidered cloth panels depicting the history of Scotland from pre-historic times to the present day. It was completed in 2013. Andrew Crummy designed the art-work for each panel illustrating the story by author Alexander McCall Smith and historian Alistair Moffat.
The Red Lichties felt that the Declaration of Arbroath, the most important document in Scottish history dated 6th April 1320 had not been properly represented. In 2017 they began work on the new embroidered tapestry, with a deadline of the 700th anniversary of the Declaration. The first step was to commission Andrew Crummy to design a panel. Andrew researched the story, with Linda Walker (Red Lichties Group Co-ordinator) and local historian Norman Atkinson. His black line drawing was then transferred onto a Jacobean linen twill panel in pencil. Samples of stitching materials, colours and techniques began, and Andrew encouraged the stitchers to respond as artists adding details, textures and interpretation. The nine stitchers met every third Tuesday in a local village hall for almost three years taking turns to work on the tapestry at home. Christine Riley, who could no longer sew but had been trained in the London School of Embroidery, came for one early visit, then stayed for the duration sharing her knowledge and encouraging the stitchers to develop their practise. An extremely high level of embroidery has been achieved using silks, crewel wools, gold threads, kid gold and silver, felt and floss.
The Red Lichties Stitching Group are
Ann Marie Bray, Patricia Beaton , Rena Freeburn, Janette Nairn, Christine Riley (tutor), Alice Sim, Jessy Smart, Mary Stephen, Linda Walker (group co-ordinator), Margaret Wynne
and the age range is 76 – 93.
The Tapestry gives us a glimpse into the breadth and details of medieval life in Arbroath with: the Benedictine Abbey of Arbroath with Round O, medicinal plants and Abbot Bernard; fishing and sea-faring, fish-wives and Arbroath Smokies; the leper colony at Hospitalfield; Pope John XXII, King Robert the Bruce; the wax seals of the earls and barons to ‘sign’ the declaration; knights in chain-mail and tradesmen.
Our involvement with the stitchers formally began in March 2018 with a meeting between Linda Walker (the group’s co-ordinator), Andrew Crummy (the designer and an old friend of ours) and ourselves. From that initial meeting we began to think about the tapestry as potentially a triptych to allow it to fold for safe storage and movement. This meant adding two more panels and dramatically increased the amount stitching to be done! The understanding that one of the few certain things about the Declaration of Arbroath is that it left Arbroath on a boat destined for the Pope in France, led to a design based around a medieval sailing boat.
Angus presented his concept model in May 2018 at Arbroath Abbey This was for a free-standing design – human scale with a sweeping arc representing the prow of a boat – supporting the three sails – the tapestry triptych. We also had our first visit to meet the stitchers and see the tapestry in progress. Andrew then had to create two new designs, before the stitchers could get started on the two new panels. By March 2019 – all three designs were under-way. After a total of 2806 voluntary stitching hours the panels were completed in December 2019.
In November 2019 it was decided that the tapestry would have a permanent home in the visitor centre at Arbroath Abbey and be taken into the permanent collection of Historic Environment Scotland (HES). The tapestry was formally handed over to HES at an event in the Scottish Parliament at the end of January 2020. It is an astounding testament to the quality of this tapestry that this contemporary craft object has been taken into the care of the public body caring for and promoting Scotland’s historic environment. The intention now is to preserve the tapestry for the next 700 years. A permanent home in the abbey meant that the tapestry no longer needed to be free standing as it probably will not tour and the place designated for the tapestry meant that the design for the cabinet with a dynamic sweeping prow was no longer appropriate. A re-design with a focus on materials began.
Ross Irving from Historic Environment Scotland brought the tapestry to the workshop (the week before we closed for quarantine) for the final fitting of the case. The tapestry has now gone into storage with HES and the frame will stay with us until they can be re-united at Arbroath Abbey.
Local historian Norman Atkinson told us about a very old tree, associated with Robert the Bruce, that might be a source of timber. This was the Bruce Oak or Strathleven House Oak photographed and written about by Archie Miles in The British Oak, published by Constable, 2013 and on the cover of Heritage Trees of Scotland by Rodger, Stokes and Ogilvie published by The Tree Council in 2003. When Archie Miles photographed the tree in 2003 it had a girth of 29 feet, was estimated it to be at least 600 – 800 years old and was considered to be the oldest oak tree in Scotland. It was growing near Strathleven House, north west of Glasgow. This estate had previously been the site of a manor house built by Robert the Bruce for his son David (who became King David II). As Robert the Bruce was known for tree planting it is conceivable that he knew this tree. Local children playing inside the huge hollow tree in 2004, accidentally set it on fire leading to its collapse. The wood was salvaged by a local group called the Strathleven Artizans and we were delighted when they gifted us a burr from the magnificent tree to incorporate into the Triptych Frame.
This ancient burr oak is a beautiful rich highly figured dark wood and has been carved into a boat like shape for the base of the triptych. It also forms the finials and lock spacers.
The cabinet door knobs are turned apple wood to remember the Oslin apple – an ancient variety still associated with Arbroath, and introduced into the abbey gardens by French monks.
The interior of the cabinet and tapestry triptych is Scottish oak which compliments the tapestry but the exterior of the cabinet (and reverse of the side panels) is made in Scottish sycamore. This modest, plain, pale wood is suggestive of sailcloth and provides a total contrast to the jewel like interior.
The Declaration of Arbroath was written at an important and turbulent time for Scotland. It was after a succession crisis and during the Wars of Independence (between Scotland and England). John Balliol had been crowned King but was defeated by the English and expected to pay homage to King Edward I of England. Robert the Bruce then seized the throne (in 1306 after murdering another rival in a church) but was excommunicated by the pope and not recognised by King Edward I and many in Scotland. After years of guerrilla warfare and political campaigning Robert the Bruce had outstanding success at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314) when he defeated a huge English army. (This event is still celebrated today in the unofficial Scottish national anthem – Flower of Scotland.)
The declaration is a letter dated 6th April 1320 which was sent by the people of Scotland to the Pope asking him to recognise two important things: that Robert the Bruce be recognised as the chosen and legitimate King, and that Scotland be recognised as an independent nation from England.
It is the most famous document in Scottish History, important in the development of a Scottish national identity, and seen by some as the origin of democracy as it was signed by nobles representing the people of Scotland and they were choosing a king based on valour rather than birthright.
The most famous extract from the Declaration is ….
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.’
Even now many people in Scotland can feel some connection to one of the nobles, or clan chiefs, through place and family. One of the nobles who signed the declaration was William, the Earl of Ross. There has recently been an attempt by genealogical researchers to trace male heirs of the nobles who signed the declaration. We cannot be certain (as there is a missing birth certificate around 1765) but “it is very likely that Angus Ross is a direct male line descendant of William, Earl of Ross, via the Rosses of Pitcalnie, but further research would be required to confirm a connection.” Graham Holton, Genealogical Studies Postgraduate Programme, University of Strathclyde.
Researching the Earl of Ross we found that initially he paid homage to King Edward I (along with all the earls), then he supported John Balliol as King, he betrayed Bruce’s wife and sister who ended up in the Tower of London and his land was ransacked by Robert the Bruce soon after Bruce became king. However by 1320, he supported King Robert I (the Bruce) and the truce was cemented through marriage when his son married Robert’s sister.
In 1328 a treaty recognises Scotlands independence and Robert the Bruce as king. In 1329 King Robert dies and his son is too young to rule. This is followed by the Second Wars of Independence until 1357 when Scotland becomes independent and remains so until The Treaty of the Union in 1707.
To see a film by independent TV director-broadcaster Charlie Stuart featuring Lesley Riddoch, Brian Cox, the Red Lichties and our workshop, explaining the wider significance of the declaration please visit