BEAUTIFUL in its simplicity, Scotland’s precious national flag is usually just known by Scots as the Saltire, and it is revered by many Scottish people as the most important symbol of our nationhood.

The Saltire has ancient roots in heraldry, and is also a reminder of just how long Scotland has been a nation. When we vote Yes in the second referendum, we will not be winning independence but regaining that status we enjoyed for almost 900 years before the Union of 1707.

States come and go all the time. When the United Nations was founded in 1945, there were just 51 countries in its membership. There are now 193, the majority of new members being countries freed from the yoke of imperialism – 65 of them from the British Empire alone – and nations freed from the Communist regimes such as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Many of the “new” nations are actually people and territories that have survived from ancient times which have stepped up to recreate or become countries in their own right. So when the Union ends, as it surely will, it shall simply be Scotland – and for that matter England, Wales and Northern Ireland – reasserting our rights as distinct nations. There is a major test of the Union approaching – next month, on December 23, we will see the centenary of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 which created the six counties that became Northern Ireland, though that name was only added to the United Kingdom of Great Britain in 1927. I wonder how that centenary will be marked.

Readers may recall that I asked for local history and heritage projects to be brought to my attention, and I am glad to say I now already have a backlog – please keep sending them to the above email address and I will get round them all eventually.

One which drew my immediate attention as a local project with national implications is the Scottish Flag Trust’s project to restore properties at Athelstaneford, long recognised as the birthplace of the Saltire.

As we approach St Andrew’s Day, it is a good time to reflect on the origins and significance of Scotland’s national flag, which is one of the oldest flags in the world still in everyday use.

The design of the flag comes from the martyrdom of our patron Saint Andrew, the apostle who was crucified at Patras in Greece on an X-shaped cross at his request, believing he was unworthy to die like Jesus Christ on an upright cross.

Legend has it that a monk called Regulus, apparently escaping from persecution, carried some of Andrew’s bones from Patras to a settlement in Fife that was then named after the saint.

Later named as a saint himself, Regulus spread the word of the relics and St Andrews became a place of veneration, so much so that Andrew became recognised as one of Scotland’s main saints by the 10th century, though Columba was usually recognised as the country’s patron up to that point.

As always with Scottish history in the first millennium, there is no contemporaneous written record of what happened at Athelstaneford in the year 832AD, but later chroniclers state that there was a battle in what is now East Lothian.

The Picts and the Scots of Dalriada were a formidable joint force even before they were united under King Kenneth MacAlpin, usually held to be the first King of Scots. Both peoples cast envious eyes to the south, particularly those lands in the Lothians held by the Northumbrians.

The Picts and Scots, led by Pictish king Oengus (Angus) II had raided deep into Northumbria, the kingdom still ruled by the Angles who had invaded and seized the north east of what became England several centuries before. Athelstan appears to have been a military leader of the Northumbrians, but not king. He and the Northumbrian army pursued the raiders all way into East Lothian to a ford about 20 miles east of Edinburgh.

ON the night before the battle, King Angus had a dream in which he had a vision of St Andrew and was promised triumph in battle.

Legend has it as the battle was about to begin, the troops of Angus saw a white Saltire cross shining against the background of a bright blue sky. The king promised that if he won, Andrew would be the new patron saint.

We know little about the battle, but it appears that Athelstan was either killed in, or his body was flung into, the ford that now bears his name – Athelstaneford. Please note that this Athelstan should not be confused with Athelstan or Athelstane, the Anglo-Saxon monarch who became the first king of the English and who lived almost a century later.

As news of the victory and the tale of the Saltire spread, it became the badge of the people on St Andrew’s Day, and was increasingly used by Scottish royalty and nobility – by 1286, the Great Seal of the Guardians of Scotland incorporated a St Andrew’s Cross.

It may even have been part of the flags flown by Sir William Wallace and King Robert the Bruce, but that is a matter of speculation. What is undoubted is that the Saltire was formally taken up as the national flag from 1385, when the Scottish Parliament decreed that in the army preparing to invade England, “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”. In 1388, the Douglas Standard, said to have been carried at the Battle of Otterburn, included a white saltire on a sage green background and the Saltire was also introduced by King Robert III onto Scottish coins in 1390.

The blue – pantone 300, as decreed by the Scottish Parliament only a few years ago – first became the background to the white Saltire in 1482 when King James III gave the famous Blue Banner to the incorporated trades of Edinburgh. It was said to have been carried as a battle flag by the army of James IV at the disastrous Battle of Flodden in 1513. By then, the Saltire was firmly established as the national flag, especially at sea. In 1511, the Great Michael, the largest warship of its day built for James IV, sailed under the Saltire. In 1672, when the Public Register of Arms was set up, the St Andrew’s Cross was recorded as the badge of Scotland. It has remained so ever since.

Other countries have had variations of saltires on their flags, probably the most notorious being the flag of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, where the Southern states’ leaders specifically rejected a flag based on the St George’s Cross band and opted for

a blue saltire on red background.

SO what’s going on at Athelstaneford? Scotland’s popular history writer Nigel Tranter lived nearby and considered Athelstaneford to be of special significance in Scotland’s story: “It can be given to few, if any nations, other than Scotland, to be able to point to a locality where its nationhood was conceived, if not yet quite born, its patron saint adopted, and its national flag established”.

A striking monument, the Saltire Memorial, was erected in the parish churchyard in 1965 to commemorate the ancient battle. Attached is a tall flagpole on which the Saltire flies permanently, floodlit at night.

Overlooking the battle site is the Hepburn Doocot, built in 1583 by George Hepburn, whose son founded the Royal Scots – the Saltire is much used by Scottish battalions. In the 1990s, the building was converted into an interpretative centre.

The Athelstaneford site attracts visitors from around the world. According to the Scottish Flag Trust, however, with the passage of time, there has been a marked deterioration of the buildings and pathways. That’s why they have launched a worldwide appeal to raise the funding needed for a programme of restoration and renewal.

The Trust stated: “As the birthplace of the Saltire is of national significance, it is essential that fresh investment is made in a programme of restoration and renewal. Improvement works have been costed, with an appeal target of £100,000 set to tackle the following issues.

“Hepburn doocot: The exterior of the building is now weathering badly. Specialist conservation work is needed to replace the harling and lime wash the walls in period colours.

“Audio visual presentation: Visitors to the Heritage Centre can enjoy a dramatisation of the ninth century battle. However, the AV equipment is now dated and increasingly prone to breakdown. Replacement using the latest technology will allow a much enhanced immersive experience.”

Madame Ecosse herself, Winnie Ewing, is patron. The Trust wrote: “There are many reasons to take pride in Scotland’s national flag. The St Andrew’s Cross or Saltire is the oldest flag in Europe, and directly associated with Scotland’s patron saint. Its distinctive design, a white cross on a blue field, is universally recognised. Moreover, it is the flag of the people – as confirmed by Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, former Lord Lyon King of Arms: ‘The Cross of St Andrew is the flag which any Scotsman (or woman) is entitled to fly or wear as evidence of his (or her) national identity or patriotism’.

“What is especially significant is that, in Athelstaneford, we have the actual birthplace of Scotland’s flag. This historic site, incorporating the Saltire Memorial within the village churchyard and Heritage Centre close by, has been maintained since 1984 by a charity, the Scottish Flag Trust, founded by the late Dr Alan Macartney. Today, however, we find that the structures and access to them are deteriorating and badly in need of investment and upgrading. The Trustees, and our patron Winnie Ewing, believe the birthplace of the national flag should be cherished by Scots everywhere, at home or abroad. Any help you can give will be greatly welcome.”

Provost of East Lothian John McMillan wrote: “I want to invite anyone and everyone with an interest in our country’s history and culture to support the work of the Trust, and to visit the place which is the birthplace of the Saltire, Scotland’s national flag. I hope to welcome you to East Lothian, and look forward to seeing you in Athelstaneford to enjoy and learn about a unique place in our nation’s story.”

Actor David Hayman is involved, writing: “I wholeheartedly support the fundraising campaign to restore and renew the Saltire Memorial and Flag Heritage Centre in Athelstaneford. The birthplace of Scotland’s flag is of national and international importance, and we must preserve it for future generations.”

The Lord Lyon King of Arms, Dr Joe Morrow, supports the appeal: “The Saltire is one of the most powerful symbols within heraldry representing our nation of Scotland. I have been privileged to address St Andrews Societies and Highland Games across the world as Lord Lyon, and the diaspora have a tremendous attachment to Scotland’s flag and its birthplace – Athelstaneford.”

Professor Sir Tom Devine added: “It is essential that the memorial to the origins of Scotland’s national flag is suitably preserved for posterity. I therefore warmly commend this fundraising campaign to Scots both at home and abroad and indeed to all who have a love of Scotland.”

Find out how you can donate at