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Sunday, April 09, 2006

Happy Tartan Day!

In case you missed it, April 6 was Tartan Day in the United States (and a few other countries, as well). You can read all about it on the official Tartan Day web site, at

Tartan Day became officially recognized in America in 1998 with the adoption of Senate Resolution No. 155, proposed by Senator Trent Lott. (You can read it on the above Tartan Day web site).

The date was chosen to mark the anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, signed April 6, 1320. This was the document (composed in Arbroath, Scotland) that was submitted by the assembled Scottish nobility to the Holy Father in Rome, Pope John XXII, asserting Scotland's independance from England in no uncertain terms.

To put the event in some historic context, William Wallace (whom everyone now knows -- though inaccurately -- through the movie Braveheart) was executed in 1305, for using military force to resist the usurpation of the Scottish throne by Edward, King of England.

After Wallace's death, Robert the Bruce was crowned King Robert of Scotland in 1306. The Scots Army, led by King Robert, decisively defeated Edward at Bannockburn in 1314, but Edward continued to claim the Scottish throne as his own.

This story is well known among Scotophiles, but what is perhaps less well known is that Robert the Bruce had been excommunicated by the Pope, and the entire nation of Scotland was under interdiction. An interdiction is like an excommunication, only applied to an entire geographic region, rather than an individual. This effectively denied the sacraments to every citizen of the Scottish kingdom.

Why would the Pope do this? Well, to someone on the outside, it looked as if Edward had a good case. When King Alexander III of Scotland died without an heir in 1284, many men made claims on the Scottish throne. In an attempt to settle the matter, the claims of the competitors for the throne were submitted to King Edward, as their most powerful neighbor to the south. In 1291 they officially sent letter to him, which in so many words acknowledged his soverienty over the Scottish kingdom, asking for his recognition of one of their claims to the throne, and granting his possession of Scotland until he should select a king. Edward decided to back John Balioll, and it was always Edward's position that John held the kingdom of Scotland as a vassal kingdom, subject in every way to Edward's rule.

So when men like Wallace and Robert the Bruce fought against Edward, it seemed to many like the rebellion of a people against their rightful lord, an attempt to usurp a recognized authority and establish a new king through force of arms. Such violence was condemned by the Pope, and thus the interdiction on the Kingdom of Scotland, seen as the agressor.

A key part of Robert the Bruce establishing the legitimacy of his reign over Scotland was to win recogniztion by the Pope. You can read all about that struggle in an article I wrote on the Bruce several years ago.

This is where the Declaration of Arbroath fits in. This letter begins with a short history of the Scottish people, telling of how they conquered the lands they now hold, and how their kings have reigned over that land independently, despite invasions, asserting that “one hundred and thirteen kings. . . have reigned, the line unbroken by a single foreigner.” The letter then goes on to tell of Edward I’s violent invasion of their country while they were weak and without a leader. The authors make mention of his “wrongs, killings, violence, pillage, arson, imprisonment of prelates, burning down of monasteries. . . But from these countless evils we have been set free. . . by our most valiant prince, king and lord, Lord Robert, who, that his people and heritage might be delivered out of the hands of enemies, bore cheerfully toil and fatigue, hunger and danger. . . . Divine providence, the succession to his right according to our laws and customs which we shall maintain to the death, and the due consent and assent of us all, have made him our prince and king."

The Pope was apparantly convinced, and sent a letter immediately to Edward II (who by now was reigning as his father's successor) instructing him to make peace with Scotland. That peace would be a while in coming yet -- not till 1329, one month before the death of Robert the Bruce, would the English and Scots finally have a ratified peace agreement. But the Declaration of Arbroath played a key role in getting the process started.

This is the background to the April 6th celebrations that take place across Canada, the USA, and other nations where Scots have settled. Though Tartan Day honors and celebrates the contributions of Scottish immigrants to the history and culture of our society, it also hearkens back as a tribute to the bloody and hard history of Scotland, a nation that had to fight so long for its independance.

In many places Tartan Day was celebrated over the weekend. New York City, for example, had a whole Tartan Week, with a parade on April 8. In Franklin, NC, at the Scottish Tartans Museum, we didn't have a celebration quite as grand (but perhaps more on the scale of Tartan Day festivities in other small towns). We celebrated on the date of April 6, though it was a Thursday, with an Open House day at the museum. We offered free admission all day to visitors, with guided tours available (kilted tour guides, of course!). The Friends of the Museum and Walkers Shortbread provided refreshments in our gift shop -- Scotch broth soup for lunch, with Oatmeal bread, blueberry scones, empire biscuits and chocolate covered shortbread for dessert.

The picture below is of some of the museum guests enjoying the free lunch. By the way, the man helping himself at the refreshment table is wearing a kilt I made for him in the Cockburn tartan.

And what did I wear for Tartan Day? Not my new solid colored Harris Tweed kilt. No, no, one must wear tartan for Tartan Day! See the picture at the top of this post. I had on my Armstrong tartan kilt (my maternal grandmother's maiden name was Armstrong) -- a four-yard box pleated kilt, of course, made from Lochcarron's Strome weight cloth. The vest is a nineteenth century reproduction I purchased from the Leavy Foundation for Historic Preservation. The sporran is of unknown origin -- I picked it up several years ago from a vendor at a Highland Games with a lot of antiques and British military items. And the Hummel Bonner was made for my by Betty Johnson, who cards, dyes, spins and knits the bonnets herself by hand! (We sell these at the Scottish Tartans Museum gift shop, by the way).

Anyway, I hope one and all had a happy Tartan Day, 2006!


Fr. Archer said...


The reason Robert Bruce was excommunicated by Pope Clement V was because of the part he played in the murder of John "the Red" Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, in the church of the Grey Friars in Dumfries. It was not because of the rebellion against England. In fact, after Edward I invaded Scotland again, 1300, Pope Boniface VIII wrote a letter to King Edward I to remind him that he was not the overlord of Scotland. Edward replied that the pope had no business in telling him what rights over what country were his or not.

So, the Bruce was excommunicated because of the sacrilegious murder that took place in Dumfries, not because of a rebellion by Bruce.

Fr. Archer

Matthew Newsome, FSA Scot, GTS said...


Thanks for your comments clarifying the excommunication of the Bruce. Yes, murdering your political rival in a church is definitely frowned upon by the heirarchy!

I'd like to find the text of that letter from Boniface VIII. That would have been an interesting exchange!

Fr. Archer said...

Yes, interesting exchanges were made between Pope Boniface VIII and King Edward I.

In reference to a claim of overlordship by Edward, Pope Boniface VIII wrote the following:

"When, in the wars between your father Henry and Simon de Montfort, he requested the assistance of Alexander III, King of Scotland, he acknowledged by letters patent that received such assistance, not as due to him, but as a special favor. Moreover, when you yourself invited King Alexander to attend your coronation, you made the request as a matter of favor and not of right. When the King of Scotland rendered homage to you for his lands in Tynedale and Penrith, he publicly protested it was rendered not for his Kingdom, but for these lands only, since, as King of Scotland, he was independent. Yea, further, when Alexander III died, leaving an heiress to his Crown, a granddaughter in her minority, the wardship of this infant was not given to you, which it would have been if you had been Lord Superior, but is was given to certain nobles of Scotland elected for the office."

The Scottish representatives reaffirmed that in all conflicts between independent kingdoms, "it is to their equal superior, the Church of Rome, that recourse should be had."

Source: Oestreich, Thomas, et. al. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. II. (New York: The Encyclopedia Press, 1913) 662.

Fr. Archer

Fr. Archer said...

Note: Boniface quote from Macintosh, John. Historic Earls and Earldoms of Scotland - Chapter II - Earldom and Earls of Buchan. Electric Scotland. Second quote from Oestreich, p. 665