Scotland Flag - the legend of St Andrew
The blue and white cross of Scotland's flag is called a saltire. You'll see a lot of these flying here in Scotland today, stirred by a wind of change.
The Scotland Flag and its Legends
The Scotland flag flies prominently in a variety of places throughout the nation. The header picture is of a saltire flying at the Stronachlachar Pier at the west end of Loch Katrine, in the Trossachs. The next photo shows the Scottish icon on top of the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh, as it happens. And, do you know, I never noticed till now I’d also photographed one of those security cameras that Scotland has in such profusion. I really ought to have cropped it out. (There was that statistic, a few years back, about the very small and mostly rural Shetland Islands Council having more cameras than the San Francisco Police Department.)
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes, the Scottish flag. Sometimes it’s called the saltire. This is from the Latin verb, saltare, to leap, and, no, I don’t quite see the connection either.
Chambers Dictionary also describes it as an ‘ordinary’, which is, in this context, a heraldic term describing a class of simple straight-lined geometric forms used in heraldry. This form goes right across - for example - a shield.
So, strictly speaking, a saltire is a general term describing this kind of geometric figure as it appears in heraldic 'media' - so you see a saltire in all kinds of flags, including military organisations, towns, states, territories or countries - for example, the Russian Navy, the Maltese fishing port of Marsaxlokk, the state of Alabama, Teneriffe and Jamaica (and many, many more).
So when Scots refer to 'The Saltire' it really just means a heraldic device. Of course it also refers to Andrew, the religious figure crucified at Patras in Greece. He became a saint, hence the other definition of the saltire as the St Andrew's Cross. Andrew – fisherman and apostle - is the patron saint of Scotland, though he shares this job with Russia, Greece and Romania.
We were always told at school how he thoughtfully asked his Roman persecutors for a different shaped cross from the one that had been used for his colleague, hence this type of diagonal cross is now associated with him. I suppose part of the function of that tale is to make something noble out of an act of brutality. It kind of comes with the territory of being a saint, I suppose.
The Legend of the Saltire
Aside from the story of the diagonal cross, various legends also surround the linkage of the cross to the Scotland flag. The cult of St Andrew was focused on the town of St Andrews because, fable has it, the keeper of his venerated bones at Patras, a certain St Regulus (or Rule), had a vision to hide some of the relics and await further communications. Next, enter the Emperor Constantine who wheeched away the rest of St Andrew’s mortal remains and took them to Constantinople.
So Regulus had another other-worldly communication: this time an instruction to take the relics aboard ship and wherever he was shipwrecked, that’s where he had to found a church. Lo, this all came to pass at St Andrews. Pilgrims came from miles around thereafter…(I have a bad feeling I’m telescoping this a little.)
Anyway, another legend has St Andrew himself visiting a certain 9th-century King Angus of the Picts in a dream – maybe – and promising him victory against the Angles. For all know, it is possible that Andrew at this time also specified that the blue ground colour of the Scottish flag had to be Pantone 300.
Another bit of the legend involves King Angus at the head of his forces seeing a St Andrews Cross shaped cloud formation as just a wee sign of encouragement on the morning of the battle. I like to think that Angus suddenly was in a massive time-warp and that he was looking at the con-trails of two passing jets – as this explanation is as likely as the rest of the story so far.
The ‘cross-in-the-sky’ legend is specifically located at Athelstaneford, away out in the rich fields of East Lothian, near Haddington. A saltire (or is The Saltire?) always flies there and, if you are reverent about such things, you can visit this little place on your way back from your East Lothian tour from Edinburgh.
The interesting politics of Scotland, with its Independence Referendum back in 2014, ensured the Scotland flag was much in evidence at that time of hope and excitement. Pictured here is a whole bunch of them, going down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, with the High Kirk of St Giles in the background.
As we all know, people living in Scotland (not the same as 'the Scots') narrowly voted to remain in the Union with England for the time being. With the next referendum, people living in Scotland voted to remain in Europe. However, at time of writing, this has been denied to them. Overall, it seems likely that the Scottish flag will remain high profile.
It may not be part of the Union flag for much longer. Who can say? I wonder what St Andrew’s views on Scottish independence would be? Perhaps he would just ask St George (patron saint of England) and do as he was told. After all, most of the Scots seem have done that for generations. What were we thinking about? But things are changing…
So that’s the gist of the story of the iconic Scottish banner – except for the other Scottish flag, the Lion Rampant, associated with the pretty groovy King William ‘the Lion’ of Scotland, one of the more successful of the Scottish kings. (Follow that link for a list of kings.)
The Curse of Scotland
As a footnote, (which I wanted to put somewhere!) The Curse of Scotland is one of those phrases bandied around by Scottish guides, often as they approach Glencoe. The story goes that it refers to the nine of diamonds in a set of playing cards. The orders for the Massacre of Glencoe were written on the back of a playing card, it is said.
This conveniently ignores the fact that the order is historically still in existence and certainly wouldn’t have fitted on the back of a card! However, the Secretary of State for Scotland, who issued the order for the Campbell militia to fall upon their MacDonald hosts, was Sir John Dalrymple, 1st Earl of Stair, a deeply unpopular operator in the murky politics of the late 18th century. Surprise, his family crest has nine diamonds on it.
And what has this got to do with the saltire? Well, two possible connections: the first is the family crest is also in the form of a saltire and secondly, there is also a possibility that the ‘curse of Scotland’ is actually a misunderstanding of the phrase the ‘Corse of Scotland’ ie where corse is an old spelling of cross, obviously referring to the saltire again.