The Scottish Flag – St Andrew legend and powerful political statement

The blue and white cross of the Scottish flag is called a saltire. You’ll see a lot of these flying here in Scotland today, stirred by a wind of change.

Scotland’s flag flies prominently in a variety of places throughout the nation. It also turns up as a partisan and/or political symbol at a variety of events, sporting and national. 

The Scottish flag is usually  Sometimes called the saltire.

This is from the Latin verb, saltare, to leap, and, no, I don’t clearly see the connection either. (Maybe it means like a ‘star-jump’.)

Chambers Dictionary also describes the Scottish flag 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’.

Saltires in George Square, Glasgow. You can be sure the Scottish flag is prominent on independence marches
Scotland’s flag, the Saltire, waving in some numbers, in Glasgow.

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 on our Scottish flag.

Of course it also refers to Andrew, the religious figure crucified at Patras in Greece.

Saltire flying above St Andrews' town gate
Saltire flying above St Andrews’ town gate – appropriate given the connection between saint and settlement here.

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 asked his Roman persecutors for a different shaped cross from the one that had been used for his better-known boss, 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 barbarity. It kind of comes with the territory of being a saint, I suppose. 

The Legend Of the Scottish Flag, The Saltire

Aside from the story of the diagonal cross, various legends also surround the linkage of the cross to Scotland’s own iconic 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 in Greece, 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 in Scotland. 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. Or #006ec7 Hex Color Code. Yes, that should just about do it.

Saltires at political events
Saltires are always prominent at demonstrations and political events in Scotland. This one is passing St Giles in Edinburgh.

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

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. More here on the village’s Flag Heritage Centre.

Scotland's flag on Glasgow City Chambers
Scotland’s flag on Glasgow City Chambers
Lion Rampant on tapestry, Stirling Castle
Lion Rampant on tapestry, Stirling Castle

The saltire also represented a time of hope and excitement in recent years for many Scots. People who lived in Scotland – not necessarily the same as ‘the Scots’  – narrowly voted to remain in the union with England back in 2014.

Unlike England, they then voted clearly in 2016 to remain in the European Union and as this was denied to them it certainly looks like the flag of the Scottish nation will be high profile for the foreseeable future.

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.

Lion Rampant

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.

He was one of the more successful of the Scottish kings. (Follow that link for a list of kings.)

The Lion Rampant is the Royal Banner of Scotland and as you would expect on the sometimes touchy subject of the royals, there are more regulations surrounding its use than the saltire.

Another Scottish flag, royal this time. Don’t use it on a duvet cover.

An Act of Parliament restrict its use to the most lofty members of state, for instance, officially only flying it at royal pads in Scotland, like Holyrood or Balmoral. 

It basically represents the monarch, so there have even been cases of fines being imposed for improper use, including – ludicrously – on a manufacturer of decorative bedspreads some years ago.

Weirdly, put a term like ‘lion rampant’ into Amazon and a whole lot of stuff comes up with Lion Rampant motifs – from doormats to cushions and pillow-cases. Tee-hee. 

Over to you outraged royalists everywhere!

The Curse Of Scotland

No, this isn’t about deep-fried Mars Bars or litter from MacDonalds burgers. Or even camper-vans.

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!

The ‘cross’ of Scotland

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.

He was 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.

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.

The saltire is just a small part of Scotland’s cultural identity.