Read this blogpost by Scottish PEN trustee and former president, Jenni Calder about the DECLARATIONS anthology and the significance of this 700th anniversary for Scottish PENApril 6, 2020
Today is the 700th Anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath. To mark this occasion Scottish PEN has partnered with Scotland Street Press and Professor Sir Tom Devine to produce an anthology of poetry and short fiction from writers in Scotland and across the globe. Here is a piece by Scottish PEN trustee and former President, Jenni Calder outlining the project in more detail
Seven hundred years ago members of the Scottish nobility gathered in Arbroath and put their names to an epistle addressed to the Pope, appealing for his support in the nation’s struggle to be protected from English aggression. We know it now as the Declaration of Arbroath, described by historian Professor Michael Lynch as ‘the most celebrated document in Scottish history’.
It’s not known who actually composed this epistle, but it has become part of the tale the Scottish people tell about their past and their identity. Every nation needs to tell its own story. But what does a 700-year-old piece of writing mean today, in Scotland or anywhere else, and why is it of interest to Scottish PEN?
Every nation needs to tell its own story. But what does a 700-year-old piece of writing mean today, in Scotland or anywhere else, and why is it of interest to Scottish PEN?
Scottish PEN is all about the written word. Simply as a piece of writing the Declaration is remarkable, both historically and in the lasting impact of its language. When I realised at some point last summer – rather late in the day, but then I’m not a medieval historian – that 6 April 2020 would mark the Declaration’s 700th anniversary I thought that Scottish PEN should play a part in the occasion, and what more appropriate than more written words? I fired off an email to the board of trustees. An anthology perhaps on themes linked with freedom of expression? A competition offering modest prizes? The board responded positively. Several members volunteered to help. We set about defining the theme, planning publicity and raising funds.
Simply as a piece of writing the Declaration is remarkable, both historically and in the lasting impact of its language.
We wanted those submitting to think of the Declaration as a springboard for reflecting on the vital importance of the freedom to write and to read, to communicate aspirations and experiences, to exchange ideas, to listen to voices from the margins, to enable access to the written word. What might ‘declaration’ mean in today’s world? And what were the consequences of censorship and suppression? What happens to democracy when minds are closed and dissension punished?
The signatories to that original Declaration were all powerful men – no women, of course – with varying vested interests in getting the English off their backs. Part of their power lay in the fact that they were literate – they were in command of language. In 1320 most of Scotland’s population had no access to the written word. The language of the Declaration, still powerfully resonant today, wasn’t intended for the ears of the Scottish people but for those of an individual who, it was believed, could change the course of history. (In fact, the Declaration had little effect – the bloodshed did not cease.) We hoped for an anthology that would speak not just to Scotland but across borders: ‘Literature knows no frontiers’ states the PEN International Charter. Words move, in both senses, in ways that, increasingly, people cannot. As I write, with nations all over the world closing borders and locking down activity within them, this seems more important than ever.
We hoped for an anthology that would speak not just to Scotland but across borders: ‘Literature knows no frontiers’ states the PEN International Charter.
By the end of September our group of five – myself, Colin Donati, Fiona Graham, Mario Relich and Rebecca Sharp – had produced a leaflet and had begun the search for funds. By the end of the year we had some funding in place and contributions were beginning to arrive. We were delighted that Professor Sir Tom Devine, a long-term PEN member, had agreed to make the final choice of three winners from our initial selection. We had also made contact with Hospitalfield in Arbroath, the centre of planning of events to mark the anniversary. They were keen for Scottish PEN to be involved in their plans. By the mid-January closing date for submissions we had over eighty contributions, some responding to particular events in Scottish history and others drawing on experiences in Myanmar and Mexico, southern Africa and Thailand, Ireland and Germany. What struck us was the way such diversity blended and echoed, drawn together by a kind of dialogue running throughout the collection. Multiple expressions of the right to write, to listen and to read, merge to communicate an overriding message: the necessity to break silence in the face of injustice and misrepresentation.
We had the makings of a book – how to reach an audience? Unsuccessful at first in our attempts to interest a publisher, we approached Scotland Street Press, a young, small, but already award-winning Edinburgh-based publisher. Yes, said Jean Findlay, who runs the press. We were delighted. It was not only a yes, but a commitment to produce finished copies by 6 April, the anniversary date. This involved intensive work on the part of the Declarations team, not to mention a rapid response from Sir Tom, to whom we are immensely grateful.
Then more good fortune. Laura Fiorentini, for decades a mainstay of Scottish PEN, pledged to make up the shortfall in funding from the estate of her late husband Paul Henderson Scott, a former president of Scottish PEN and leading figure in Scotland’s cultural scene from the 1980s until his death in 2019. Now we could focus on the material itself and the process of shaping and arranging around fifty poems and prose pieces. We decided also to include the seven letters to imprisoned or threatened writers written by writers in Scotland to mark 2019’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer.
The resulting anthology, Declarations on Freedom for Writers and Readers, has looked to the past to produce a message for the present and the future. We didn’t know that it would be born into a world much changed from that in which it was conceived, but the transformations brought by a virus that knows no frontiers makes the aims of an organisation that reaches across borders all the more vital. We didn’t know that there would be no launch in Arbroath on 6 April or that subsequent events featuring the anthology would have to be postponed. But we hope you will buy the book, read it, share it, give it to your friends. It will connect you with troubled times in the past and provide sustenance and support for troubled times in the present.Declarations on Freedom for Writers and Readers is published by Scotland Street Press, ISBN 978-1-910895-42-9, price £9.99, and is available from 6 April 2020 from the publisher www.scotlandstreetpress.com and from bookshops when they re-open.