Ayr Manuscript

Dating back to the reign of Robert Bruce, this manuscript incorporates some of the earliest surviving Scottish laws

What was the political situation Robert Bruce was born into?

In 1290 Margaret, heir to the Scottish throne, died with no natural successor aged only seven. The Scots turned to Edward I of England to pick a leader, in the hope of avoiding civil war.

But his choice, John Balliol, rebelled in 1296. Edward marched into the heart of Scotland, defeated him, and seized the symbol of Scottish nationality, the Stone of Destiny, at Scone.

(Edward had it incorporated within the Coronation Throne in Westminster. It remained there until 1996, when to the delight of many Scots it was returned to Edinburgh Castle.)

How did Robert become king of Scotland?

The Scots fought back against Edward, the most famous rebel being William Wallace. He trounced the English at Stirling in 1297 and was declared Guardian of Scotland. He was severely defeated the following year at Falkirk and stayed on the run until 1305, when he was captured and executed gruesomely.

Robert Bruce saw Wallace's death. He was of Norman ancestry and had sworn allegiance to Edward - but when he supported Wallace's revolt, Edward destroyed Robert's land.

They made their peace and Robert became one of the Regents of Scotland. However, in 1306, while Edward planned to take control of Scotland, Robert was wondering how to defeat him. He tried to collaborate with his nearest rival to the throne, John Comyn. But, unable to agree, Robert ended up killing Comyn during a heated argument.

Robert had to act quickly for fear of arrest. On impulse he had himself crowned king of Scotland. It was a high-risk tactic, knowing what had happened to Wallace.

In 1320 Robert sent an embassy to Rome bearing the Declaration of Arbroath and asking the Pope to recognise Scottish sovereignty. The Pope thought things over for eight years, but in 1328 he finally recognised Robert as King of Scotland. The nation remained independent for another 379 years, until the Act of Union.

How did the manuscript come to be written?

The 'Ayr Manuscript' was compiled during and perhaps just after Robert's reign (1306-1329). It includes the text of some of Scotland's early laws, passed at the Parliament of Scone in 1318, with some other material. It is the second-oldest such compilation now surviving: the Register of Charters for Arbroath Abbey is thought to be slightly older.

What laws does it contain?

The acts cover all aspects of Scottish life, including the church, the army, fishing, cattle stealing, and the administration of justice, and orders that “common law and common justice be done as well to poor people as to rich people”.

Its specific provisions include allowing the use of bloodhound to catch criminals; forbidding anyone to spread rumours against the king; directions on how men should equip themselves with weapons in time of war; tax and trading measures meant to boost the economy; and - a measure as relevant today as then - restrictions on the size of nets to preserve fish stocks.