Anyone who has browsed the ScotClans site can’t help but notice that our logo incorporates the saltire (or at least a reversed out and colourised version of it). Take a walk through Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness or any other Scottish town and city and you will see countless saltire flags. They adorn the flagpoles of buildings, appear on t-shirts, key rings, mugs – anything that can accommodate one. But how many know the story behind Scotland’s national flag – prepare to be enlightened!
First of all lets start with a very remarkable fact; The saltire is believe it or not the oldest continuously used sovereign flag in the world. Legend has it that in 832 AD, a Pictish army under King Angus MacFergus, High King of Alba, along with a force of Scots under Eochaidh, King of Dalriada (and grandfather of Kenneth MacAlpin), came up against a Northumbrian force under King Aethelstan of East Anglia in Lothian. The Pictish army were surrounded by superior numbers and prayed for assistance. That night Saint Andrew who was martyred on a saltire shaped cross appeared to Angus and assured him of victory.
As both armies prepared for battle the following morning an image appeared in the sky of a white cross. The image encouraged the Picts and frightened the Northumbrian army who fled in panic. The site of the battle is known as Athelstanford after the Northumbrian leader who was killed in the battle. From then onwards the Saltire has been used as Scotland’s national flag. Traditionally the saltire is blue (some say to represent the sky in the vision) but some versions have existed which have the white cross on a black background (due to the shortage of vegetable dyes that could reproduce the colour) and even green or red.
The Saltire is also referred to as St Andrew’s cross and as you will certainly know he is the patron saint of Scotland. what you may not know (unless you come from these countries) is that he also happens to be patron saint of Romania and Russia. St Andrew was a fisherman from Galilee and brother of Simon (Peter). One of the first disciples of Christ, Andrew is thought to have went on to be a missionary in Asia and Greece. He was finally crucified by the Romans at Patras in 69 AD. The legend of St Andrews cross came from the fact that feeling unworthy of a crucifixion similar to Christ he demanded to be crucified on an X shaped cross.
His remains were entombed in Constantinople but later removed by St Rule who was told to take the remains to the ‘ends of the earth’ for safe keeping. He removed a tooth, arm bone, kneecap and some fingers from the tomb and set off for the most remote place he could find. That place was on Scotland’s east coast and has become known as St Andrews. The relics were later destroyed during the Reformation and most of the other remains were stolen from Constantinople and moved to Amalfi in Italy. Some of these relics were presented to Scotland in 1879 and 1969.
And so the Saltire became the flag of Scotland. The Saltire with its clear religious significance was worn by Scottish crusaders to the Holy Land and incorporated into their coats of arms. Many Scottish noble families adopted the saltire in this way; Bruces, Johnstones, Kirkpatrics and even some Norman families.
In 1511 the warship ‘The Great Michael’ was launched. commissioned by King James IV of Scotland this was the biggest warship in the world at that time. The ‘mayn standert’ was the saltire and records show that it cost a whopping £72.95 7s. 6d. A few years later just before the battle of Flodden the flag makers were once again busy. Records of the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer show details of the commission for purchase of material and labour costs for making the King’s standards.
During the Scottish Reformation the Saltire appeared on many flags of the Covenanting forces. It is suggested that this “Covenanters flag” inspired the blue in the new flag of the United States during the American Revolution.
In the 1707 Act of Union, Scotland and England became the United Kingdom. A new flag was designed that united the crosses of St Andrew and St George. in early versions of the union flag flown in Scotland the cross of St Andrew appeared in front of the Cross of St George. Later the cross of St Patrick was added to recognise Irelands inclusion on the union. This cross is a red saltire which completes the well known design of the Union Flag (it is mistaken to refer to this flag as the ‘Union Jack’ as a ‘jack’ is a flag flown on a ships bow and not on land so any other representation of this flag should be called the union flag) Another interesting point regarding the union flag is that it has never been legally recognised as the official flag of the United Kingdom.
During the time of the Jacobite rebellions the Jacobite forces again used the saltire, however this version sometimes featured a gold cross on a blue background rather than red.
The official blue of the saltire has varied over the years; from sky blue to dark navy and this depended on the availability of dyes. The saltire component of the Union Flag is a darker navy blue and many saltire makers adopted this colour. In 2003 the Scottish Parliament met to discuss the matter and decided after consultation with the Lord Lyon King of Arms to adopt a lighter shade (Pantone 300 to be precise).
As Scotland faces an exciting future filled with the promise of greater autonomy and self determination the Saltire will become even more important as a rallying symbol not just for residents of Scotland but for all those in every corner of the world who’s hearts are here.