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Athelstaneford - Birthplace of Scotland's Flag

The Flag of Scotland

The Flag of ScotlandIn the year 832AD, Angus mac Fergus, High King of Alba, clashed with a force of Angles and Saxons led by Athelstan. Encouraged by the appearance of a white cross of St Andrew in the blue sky. the Scots and Picts won the battle. Thereafter St Andrew became the patron of Scotland, and his cross, or saltire, the emblem of the Scottish people.


Such is the legendary origin of the Scottish flag. A memorial stands in the churchyard at Athelstaneford, East Lothian, and there the flag of St Andrew, "azure, a saltire argent". flies permanently. floodlit at night.

Armorial of Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount 1542St Andrew was probably the patron of Scotland by the year 1000. In 1286, the Seal of the Guardians of Scotland already bears, on the obverse, a representation of St Andrew on his X-shaped cross, with the Latin inscription "ANDREA SCOTIS DUX ESTO COMPATRIOTIS" (St Andrew be leader of the compatriot Scots). In I 390, St Andrew was used as a national symbol on a coin of the realm, the five-shilling piece minted in the reign of Robert Ill.

In 1385, as the Scots made preparations to invade England, the Scots Parliament decreed that "every man shall have a sign before and behind, namely a white St Andrew’s Cross, and if his coat is white he shall bear the same white cross on a piece of black cloth". Note that blue as a background had not yet been developed. The crosses of St Andrew and St George are so strikingly dissimilar as to be easily recognisable in the heat of battle, and their importance in medieval warfare is therefore understandable.

There are other references in the 14th century to saltires with fields which were not blue. The Douglas Standard, said to have been carried at the Battle of Otterburn in 1388, included a saltire on a sage green background.

The Great MichaelAbout 1460, a white saltire on a blue background appears as part of a more complex design on the "Blue Blanket" standard, said to have been given to the incorporated trades of Edinburgh by James Ill.

By the start of the 16th century the plain white saltire on a blue field had become established. For instance, in 1511, the Great Michael, the largest warship of its day, was built for King James IV and carried the St Andrew’s Cross at its head.

In 1606 James VI and I established the first Union Flag combining the flags of St Andrew and St George. The St Andrew’s Cross was allowed to continue as Scotland’s national flag, and the Union Flag was restricted to royal ships by Charles I in 1634.

Numerous 17th century examples are found of ships flying the saltire: it became a true national flag at sea. When in I 672 the Public Register of Arms was set up, the St Andrew’s Cross was recorded as the badge of Scotland, and many seaport arms show ships flying it.

Designs approved by the Earl of Nottingham circa 1604 for marrying the crosses of St Andrew and St George in one flagThe St Andrew’s Cross was also commonly the basis of the colours of Scottish Regiments in the Civil Wars, and later of those of the Covenanters.

In 1672, by Act of Parliament, the legal jurisdiction over the display of flags in Scotland came within the sole discretion of a Scottish authority - the I.ord Lyon King of Arms. He remains to this day supreme in heraldic matters throughout Scotland.

One of the consequences of 1707 was the introduction of the Union Flag as the flag of Great Britain. Queen Anne duly saw fit to make the Scottish flag the ground of the new one, placing thereon that of St George, and this continued to be the Union Flag until 1801 when the so-called cross of St Patrick (really the red saltire of the Fitzgerald arms) was added.

The "Scottish Red Ensign"The new flag was not generally welcomed -neither in England nor in Scotland. The English protested that the white field of the St George’s Cross was obscured by the St Andrew’s blue. The Scots were angered that the St George’s Cross was left entire, and not only obscured the cross of St Andrew but also cut it into pieces. Moreover, in the Royal Navy the flag of England remained predominant (the White Ensign consisting of a St George’s Cross with a relatively insignificant Union Flag in the canton).

Young Scottish Supporters and HampdenAfter the Act of Union, the use of the St Andrew’s Cross declined. Ayellow or gold saltire on a blue field was used, however, during the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745.

In the latter half of the 20th century, there was a major resurgence in the use of the St Andrew’s Cross, and it has regained its status as the legally established national flag of Scotland. It is used by all Scottish teams in international competitions. It is now widely flown on the flagstaffs of public buildings, sometimes alone and sometimes side by side with the Union Flag. The saltire is also used by many bodies, both private and public, as a logo, a purpose for which it is well suited.

Scottish Stamps Saltire Logos

The Influence of the Saltire

Scottish FlagAs part of the Union Flag, the St Andrew's Cross of Scotland appears on the flags of Commonwealth countries too numerous to mention.

Provincial flag of Nova ScotiaThe only flag which appears to have been directly derived from the St Andrew’s Cross is the provincial flag of Nova Scotia. This depicts a blue saltire on a white field, with a small shield of the Scottish Royal Arms in the centre.

There are thought to be two principal lines of descent of the saltire in flags. First, in the 15th century, the Duke of Burgundy, having received from Constantinople a supposed fragment of St Andrew, began to use the saltire. By 1516 the Hapsburgs had inherited the thrones of both Burgundy and Spain, and the saltire began to appear there on military colours and naval flags. This may account for the subsequent use of flags based on the saltire by the Basques, Paraguay, Belgium, and Burundi.

A second line of descent relates to reforms introduced by Tsar Peter the Great of Russia following visits to Western Europe in the 1690s. He designed a naval flag with a blue saltire on a white background, and this became the Russian Imperial naval ensign up to 1917. This in turn gave rise to the use of other naval flags based on the saltire, e.g. in Bulgaria, Estonia and Latvia.

Could there be a Scottish line of descent? It is not impossible that the Burgundians, having adopted St Andrew as their patron, got the idea of the saltire flag from that already established in Scotland. Three centuries later, Peter the Great, on his visit to the Netherlands, might easily have seen a Spanish naval ensign based on the saltire. If such conjectures could be substantiated, the flag of Scotland might turn out to be the remote ancestor of most of the other saltire flags used throughout history!

The flag of Jamaica More recently and quite independently, some saltire flags have appeared elsewhere. The flag of Jamaica has a yellow saltire on a field of green and black. Black symbolises past hardships; gold, natural wealth; and green, hope. The saltire is apparently inspired by the arms of the capital, the official name of which is Kingston and St Andrew.

The battle flag of the Confederate States of AmericaThe battle flag of the Confederate States of America, from 1861 to 1865, also incorporated a saltire, in this case a blue cross on a red field, with 13 white stars representing the states. Today, this flag forms part of the state flags of Georgia and Mississippi.


Become a Friend of the Scottish Flag Trust

The Legend of the SaltireAthelstaneford has a special place in Scotland’s history. Tradition records that near this East Lothian village in 832AD a battle was fought which led to the adoption of the St Andrew’s Cross or Saltire as Scotland’s national flag. An army of Picts under King Angus and aided by a contingent of Scots was invading Lothian (at that time still Northumbrian territory), and found itself surrounded by a larger force of Saxons led by Athelstan. Fearing the outcome, Angus led prayers for deliverance and was rewarded by seeing against a blue sky a great white cross like St Andrew’s. The king vowed that if, with the saint’s help, he gained the victory, then Andrew would thereafter be the patron saint of Scotland. The Scots did win, and the Saltire became the flag of Scotland.

Heritage Centre and Saltire Memorial

In 1997, a Heritage Centre was opened in a restored doocot next to Athelstaneford Church, and visitors are now able to learn much more about Scotland’s flag and to enjoy a short audio visual dramatisation of its origins. The Centre is open from 10am till 5pm each day from April till September, and admission is free.

The public are also encouraged to walk through the churchyard, to enter the historic Church, and to visit the Saltire Memorial which was erected in 1965. A Saltire is flown permanently at the Memorial, even during the hours of darkness when it is floodlit.

Friends of The Scottish Flag Trust

Responsibility for the upkeep and operational costs of the Heritage Centre and the Saltire Memorial lies with the Scottish Flag Trust, a registered charity.

To enable funds to be raised for this purpose, a ‘Friends of the Scottish Flag Trust’ organisation has been established. ‘Friends’ give their support for the work of the Trust by way of an annual subscription of £10 (minimum), and in return receive a newsletter, and have their names added to the richly decorated Book of the Saltire which is on display within Athelstaneford Church. Should you wish to become a Friend of the Scottish Flag Trust contact:

Allan W. Gray, CA, Treasurer, The Scottish Flag Trust P.O. Box 84, Edinburgh, Scotland.

How to get there

Learn about St Andrew, Scotland's Patron Saint, here!