The Declaration made a number of much-debated rhetorical points: that Scotland had always been independent, indeed for longer than England; that Edward I of England had unjustly attacked Scotland and perpetrated atrocities; that Robert the Bruce had delivered the Scottish nation from this peril; and, most controversially, that the independence of Scotland was the prerogative of the Scots people, rather than the King of Scots. In fact it stated that the nobility would choose someone else to be king if the current one did anything to threaten Scotland's independence.
While often interpreted as an early expression of 'popular sovereignty' – that kings could be chosen by the population rather than by God alone – it can also be argued to have been a means of passing the responsibility for disobeying papal commands from the king to the people. In other words, Robert I was arguing that he was forced to fight an illegal war (as far as the Pope was concerned) or face being deposed. Whatever the true motive, the fact remains that this 14th century document is one of the earliest expressions of a form of Scottish national consciousness yet found and one of the earliest documents in European history to imply that the king is chosen by the people.
Written in Latin, it is believed to have been drafted by Bernard, abbot of Arbroath Abbey (often wrongly identified with Bernard de Linton), who was the Chancellor of Scotland at the time; and by bishop Alexander Kininmund. While dated to 6 April 1320 at Arbroath Abbey, there was in fact no meeting of nobles there by whom the document was drafted. Instead the document may have been discussed at a council meeting at Newbattle Abbey, Midlothian, in March 1320, though firm evidence for such a debate is lacking. Arbroath was simply the location of the royal chancery, Abbot Bernard's writing office, and the date provides evidence only for his part in proceedings.
The seals of eight earls and as many as forty-one other Scottish nobles were appended to the document, probably over the space of some weeks and months, with nobles sending in their seals to be used. The Declaration was then taken to the papal court at Avignon.
The Pope seems to have paid some heed to the arguments contained by the Declaration, although its contemporary influence should not be overstated. It was in part due to his intervention that a short-lived peace treaty between Scotland and England, the Treaty of Northampton, renouncing all English claims to Scotland, was finally signed by the English king, Edward III, on the 1 March 1328.
The original copy of the Declaration that was sent to Avignon is lost. However, a file copy has been maintained by the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh. The most widely known English language translation was created by Sir James Fergusson, formerly Keeper of the Records of Scotland, from text that he reconstructed using this extant copy and early copies of the original draft. One passage in particular is often quoted from the Fergusson translation:
The stirring rhetoric of the Declaration has made it famous both in Scotland and internationally, and it has been suggested that it had some influence on the drafters of the United States Declaration of Independence. Debate still rages about the contemporary relevance of the document – whether it represented the genuine thoughts of the nobility regarding independence, sovereignty and the proto-democratic right of the people to choose a king, or whether it was above all a piece of royal propaganda and special pleading, drafted strictly under the control of the chief royal minister, Abbot Bernard. However, it is not disputed that the document subsequently played an influential role in the history of Scottish national identity and the creation of the common belief (whether based in legal reality or not) that in Scotland it is the 'people' that are sovereign, rather than the monarch or parliament, as in England.