Arbroath’s Story

Arbroath on the East coast of Scotland, is a Royal and Ancient Burgh that enjoys the reputation of being ‘kind to strangers’. So welcome to a bustling town and community of between 23-24,000 souls which once had more Churches and Hostelries (Pubs) per capita, than anywhere else in Scotland.

We began with churches and so did Arbroath in effect when in 1178, William the Lion, King of Scotland, founded the Abbey of Aberbrothock, in memory of his friend Thomas a Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury in England, who had been murdered in his own Cathedral by Henry II of England. The Abbey of Arbroath, because of royal patronage and many privileges granted to it, grew to be the second wealthiest Abbey in Scotland and so the town around it developed and prospered.

Needless to say many events in Scottish history were connected with Arbroath Abbey but none greater than that which took place on the 6th of April in the year 1320. Robert the Bruce, King of Scots and hero of the Battle of Bannockburn 1314 (anyone of Scottish origin should know that date) held a parliament at Arbroath on that day, attended by the nobility, clergy and the people from which emerged one of the finest documents ever written on the subject of liberty and the rights of peoples and nations to live at peace with one another. “The Declaration of Scottish Independence”, a passionate yet stately and dignified letter to the Pope, drafted by Bernard de Linton, Abbot of Aberbrothock (the old name for Arbroath), Lord Chancellor of Scotland and friend of King Robert was signed and sealed by the barons of Scotland in the presence of their King and contained the following glowing passages;

“Yet Robert himself should he turn aside from the task that he has begun and yield Scotland or us to the English King and people, we should cast out as the enemy of us all, as subverter of our rights and of his own and choose another king to defend our freedom.”

“For so long as a hundred of us are left alive we will yield in no least way to English dominion.”

“We fight not for glory, nor for wealth, nor honours, but only and alone we fight for freedom, which no good man surrenders but with his life.”

These stirring words ring down the centuries and find a distinct resonance today! It may be of interest to know that the “The Declaration of Arbroath” as it is sometimes called (a copy of which can still be seen from time to time in Edinburgh) formed the basis of some of the sentiments expressed in the American Declaration of Independence, just over 200 years ago. “Tartan Day”, celebrating all things Scottish in the United States of America, started in 1997 and held on 6th of April each year also remembers Arbroath’s ‘greatest moment’ in history.

Coming back from the dizzy heights of great matters of state we find our abbey after such a noble past in decline and in ruins as it is today. However, the still beautiful red sandstone remains are complemented by a £1.5 million state of the art Visitor Centre that does justice to our once proud Abbey Church. Visit it soon! It’s just across the street from St Andrew’s Church.

The Royal Burgh of Arbroath received its Royal Charter in 1599 from King James VI and marked 400 years of its granting in 1999 with the restoration of the Arbroath Abbey Pageant performed within the floodlit ruins of the Abbey, portraying the events of 6th of April 1320.

In 1687 a man of some means in the area described Arbroath as being ‘a pleasant sweet place and excellent good land about it. They have a shore, some shipping and a small trade. It hath one long street and some bye-streets. It is tolerably well built, and hath some good houses in it.’

Fishing came to Arbroath in 1705 from the nearby village of Auchmithie, immortalised in Sir Walter Scott’s book “The Antiquary”. There was a dispute about the move and it was in fact not until 1830 that the famous delicacy the Arbroath Smokie emerged, being a smoked haddock heated slowly with smouldering oak chips in a half sunken barrel.

The Harbour at Arbroath originally built by the Abbot of the Abbey was one of the keys to prosperity for the town when the processing of flax came along and trade between the Baltic Ports developed. The River Brothock on which the town stands and got its name eventually provided the flowing water for the many huge mills which sprang up producing textiles, principally coarse linen (Osnaburg) and with the advent of steam the flax industry grew until in 1817 the town was Scotland’s biggest sailcloth producer.

The town of Arbroath has enjoyed the benefits of the Angus hinterland providing a high yield per acre and the ideal pastures for the famous Aberdeen Angus cattle.

It was in 1807 that the Bell Rock Lighthouse was started by Robert Stevenson on a treacherous reef in the North Sea, 12 miles off Arbroath. The reef gave rise to a famous poem by Robert Southey depicting a pirate called Ralph the Rover who removed the bell originally placed on the rock by the good Abbot of Aberbrothock and after plundering the wrecks, years later he himself came to grief on the self same rock.

Deep in Arbroath’s folklore is the remarkable and still unequalled achievement of its football team in beating Aberdeen Bon Accord 36 goals to nil. In related matters of entertainment, pleasure and tourism the attractions of the sunshine town of Arbroath began a long time ago with the red sandstone cliffs, its picturesque harbour, the abbey and in more recent times Kerr’s Miniature Railway and one of the largest outdoor swimming pools ever built. These attractions and many others saw holiday traffic reach a peak in the 1950’s when much of the population had to take their holidays elsewhere to make room for the much appreciated visitors from Scotlands’ second city, during the Glasgow Fair holidays.

No historical notes about Arbroath could fail to include an incident at the Abbey of Arbroath on the 11th of April 1951, bringing us back to where Arbroath began. On that day the world learned that the Stone of Destiny, also known as the Stone of Scone, had been placed at the High Altar of the Abbey by those who had taken it from beneath the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey, London, some six months previously. The Stone of Scone, the ancient throne of Scottish Kings had been plundered by Edward I of England in 1299 and was used at the Coronation of every King and Queen of England including our present Queen of the United Kingdom. The stone rested but a few hours at Arbroath and amidst high security was rapidly returned to Westminster Abbey where it remained until 1996 when finally it was returned to Scotland after 700 years and 670 years after its promised return. It can be seen today at Edinburgh Castle with the ancient Scottish Crown Jewels – but is it the real Stone of Destiny?