Tartan Day : Modern Observances of Scottish Heritage

By Connery, William S. | The World and I, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Tartan Day : Modern Observances of Scottish Heritage


Connery, William S., The World and I


President Woodrow Wilson once said of the Scots, "Every line of strength in American history is a line colored with Scottish blood." The contribution immigrant Scots have made in North America is massive, and their descendants have remained proud of their traditions. Now Scots Americans are promoting April 6 as Tartan Day, an occasion to celebrate the great Scottish heritage in the United States and Canada and to applaud the revival of Scotland in recent times.

Despite the impressive history of Scots immigrants to the United States, the celebration of Tartan Day is a recent phenomenon. Its growing popularity owes much to the practice of giving an award honoring lifetime accomplishment to a significant person of Scots descent. The award is named for one of the most colorful patriots in Scottish history, Sir William Wallace.

Portrayed by Mel Gibson in the 1995 film Braveheart, the historic Wallace defeated an English army at the battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 but was captured, tried, and executed by the English in 1305. Partly as a result of Wallace's campaigns, Robert the Bruce would ascend to Scotland's kingship in 1306. But England's King Edward II claimed sovereignty over Scotland. Even though the English army was again defeated (at Bannockburn in 1314), Scotland was unable to achieve any level of independence. To settle the matter, the Scots appealed to the pope, who at that time was in exile in Avignon. They sent him the Declaration of Arbroath, which was prepared as a formal Scottish Declaration of Independence on April 6, 1320.

The declaration was composed by the abbot of Arbroath, Bernard de Linton, who was also chancellor of Scotland. Two excerpts are included here:

"Yet if our King 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."

"May it please [the pope] to admonish and exhort the King of the English, who ought to be satisfied with what belongs to him since England used once to be enough for seven kings or more, to leave us Scots in peace, who live in this poor little Scotland, beyond which there is no dwelling-place at all, and covet nothing but our own. We are sincerely willing to do anything for him, having regard to our own condition, that we can, to win peace for ourselves."

The declaration urged the pope to deny the English claim on Scotland. Though this original document is now lost, the pope acknowledged it on August 28, 1320, by writing to Edward II urging him to make peace. Four years later, the pope addressed Robert the Bruce as king of Scotland. In 1328, Edward III finally recognized Scotland's independence.

According to Scottish historian John Prebble, "Two things make the Declaration of Arbroath the most important document in Scottish history. Firstly it set the will and wishes of the people above the King. Though they were bound to him 'both by law and by his merits,' it was so that their freedom might be maintained. If he betrayed them he would be removed and replaced. ... Secondly, the manifesto affirmed the nation's independence in a way no battle could, and justified it with a truth that is beyond nation and race. Man has a right to freedom and a duty to defend it with his life."

The Senate declares Tartan Day

Numerous groups and societies throughout Canada and America have recently begun celebrating their Scottish roots on the anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath. …

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