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The origins of Scotland's Saltire flag


Michael T R B Turnbull explores the origins of the Saltire flag, which lie in Biblical manuscripts and the Roman occupation of Britain.

The Court of the Lord Lyon tells us that the Saltire is ‘the flag of Saint Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland. Blue with a white or silver diagonal cross reaching to its edges, this is the correct flag for all Scots or Scottish corporate bodies to fly to demonstrate their loyalty and their Scottish nationality.’


Where and when does the Cross of St Andrew originate? Drawing upon the New Testament and second century manuscripts, the story of the Saltire is also rooted in the ‘Vision of the Cross’, seen in the blazing light of the sun by Constantine the Great as the Chi Rho (the first two Greek letters of the word ‘Christ’) a few hours prior to the Battle of Milvian Bridge (the bridge is pictured here) by the River Tiber outside Rome the day before his landmark victory on 28 October 312 AD.

In recent years a stone altar was discovered on the site of the Roman fort at Inveresk near Musselburgh. It was dedicated to the Roman sun god Sol, originally worshipped by Constantine and shows that sun-worship took place in the Roman army in Scotland as early as the 2nd century AD.

Constantine’s success paved the way for the toleration of Christianity which later, under Theodosius, became the official religion of the Roman Empire and laid the foundations for modern European culture. While still a military tribune, Constantine (pictured) visited Britain, accompanying his father, for example, the Emperor Constantius I, in his campaign against the Highland tribes in AD 306 in the north of modern Scotland.

After his father’s death in York later that year, Constantine was unanimously proclaimed emperor in that city by the Roman army (his statue is pictured here). Constantine returned to Britannia two or three times more and perhaps once again ventured beyond Hadrian’s Wall. Some of his coinage has been found, one at Traprain Law and another in Edinburgh.

The encouragement the Battle of Athelstaneford gave to King Angus as he faced an equally significant engagement to secure the stability of an emerging Scotland echoes Constantine’s vision of the cross in the sky. This explains the reason for the names of several kings north of Hadrian’s Wall - Constantine, King of Picts (AD 789-820) and 3 kings of Alba: Constantine I (AD 862-79), Constantine II (AD 900-40) and Constantine III (AD 995-7). Even the sound of Constantine’s name gave the fledgling dynasty the feeling of greater stability and legitimacy.


Saint Andrew and his Saltire Cross reach out to all parts of Scotland and the Scottish people as a sign of integrity and dedication. As a fisherman St Andrew was a networker but also a communicator – the first to bring the non-Jews to Jesus, and brought forward the wee boy at the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Tradition records that his missionary preaching extended to Greece and along the shores of the Black Sea to Kiev in the Ukraine, an area from which, the Declaration of Arbroath (1320) claims, the Scottish people originated. Perhaps Saint Andrew should be the patron saint of social media?

In heraldic terms the white cross of the Saltire is routinely used as to represent silver because silver tarnishes easily and is relatively expensive. The Saltire is not only a multiplication sign, an appropriate symbol for a dynamic Scotland, but is a beacon of light shining down from the sky, proclaiming the unity in diversity which has always characterised the Scottish nation from the time of Bruce and Wallace to the present day.

Michael T R B Turnbull is the author of Saint Andrew: Scotland’s Myth and Identity published by Neil Wilson Publishing. The book  brings the story of the country's Patron Saint up to date and incorporates many of the opinions of Scotland's most influential people as well as worldwide reports from the many Scots who celebrate Saint Andrew's Day on 30 November.









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