FOLK get in a flap about flags. Or at least folk in mainland Britain and Northern Ireland do. Scandinavians, Canadians and other civilised people probably fly their national flags more than most. It’s not a problem for them. It’s just a display of mild-mannered pride.

But here, in gross Britannia, things are more complicated. In England, flying the St George’s Cross is seen by the woke as akin to Nazism. In Northern Ireland, flag waving is caught up in tribal sectarian rivalry.

And in Scotland? Oh, Scotland, weirdest little country in the world. Some faint at the sight of a Saltire and others get annoyed by the Union flag. We shall return to the latter anon.

Today, we focus on the Saltire, a rather innocuous, even quite pleasant looking flag, you’d have thought.

That said, its origins are said to lie in battle and, indeed, it’s thought that flags in general began as military standards, perhaps in particular as rallying points or field signs.

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It’s not clear how much good they did. I don’t think the much-conquering Romans had them, though they did have silver or bronze eagles on sticks, which they invested with semi-religious significance because, like everyone in the past, they were nutters.

According to the United Nations International Index of Peculiarity, Scotland has more nutters per head than any other country in the world, and

these are sometimes found avidly waving Union flags.

However, on demonstrations for independence, massed Saltires are often seen, and this can make even the present writer uncomfortable. He tends to the view that flags are best seen singly.

So, where did the first, single Saltire come from? Why, from the sky, of course. The story goes that, in 832AD, an army of Picts and Scots fought the Angles at Athelstaneford, East Lothian, and – in a surprise development – they actually won.

It seems they’d been on what the Scottish Flag Trust calls a “punitive raid” into what was then Northumbrian territory ruled by Anglo-Saxon Athelstan.

As they were legging it homewards, Athelstan’s army caught up with them and they turned round to make a stand. At this point, it’s important to depict the battle in standard Scottish historical terms. So, all together now, what was the Anglo-Saxon army? Correct: much bigger.

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What happened next? Well, unfortunately, there were no newspapers around at the time, so we have to rely on a load of nonsense instead.

The story goes that Angus mac Fergus, High King of Alba (before Alex Salmond), went to bed that night, fearing a blootering in the morning.

For some reason, St Andrew, a bloke who was crucified in Greece in 60AD, came to Angus in a dream. “Watch for a sign of the cross in the air, ken? Don’t let me down. I’ve got money on you.”


You have to remember that Angus had enjoyed a big feast before turning in, so it was possibly the cheese that caused this.

At any rate, a white diagonal cross of cloud appeared against a blue sky next day, and Andrew collected his winnings. The alternative version is that, just before the battle, the diagonal clouds appeared in the sky, and Angus vowed that, if he won, he’d make Andrew the patron saint of Scotland and his saltire the putative nation’s flag.

Pie in the sky? Who knows? Actually, a pie would make a pretty good Scottish flag design, placed in the middle with two diagonal oven chips intersecting it. The chips should not be crinkle-cut, as these are frowned upon in heraldry.

I should explain what a lower case saltire is and how St Andrew comes into it or, rather, onto it.

The word “saltire” is supposed to come from the old French saultoir or saultour, meaning a type of stile made from two cross pieces.

As for St Andrew, poor chap, he was nailed to one of these.

Why he wasn’t nailed to a proper cross like any reasonable martyr is said to have been at his insistence, because he didn’t think himself worthy of dying on one the same shape as Christ’s. Seems a bit picky. You can imagine him saying to his executioners: “Could you birl it roond to the right a bit? Little bit more. That’s it. Brilliant. Thanks.”

His association with Scotland is also unclear. The Declaration of Arbroath says he brought Christianity to Scotland but the Deccie, as we’ve seen in a previous instalment, is full of tripe. It’s also said that bits of him, his “relics”, were brought to St Andrews. Spreading himself about, so to speak.

Whatever the case, we seem to have some connection, either in reality-style life or as medieval revisionist history. You’d think the 832AD link would justify Scottish claims that the St Andrews Cross is the oldest flag in the world. But that distinction is often awarded to Denmark, which one source puts at 1370 with Scotland’s at 1542. I think it’s to do with formal identification of adoption in written documents, and so isn’t really right.

The Saltire was incorporated into the Union flag or Jack in 1606 after the union of the crowns. Scots protested about England’s St George’s Cross being, in a surprise development, uppermost. Indeed, designs were produced with the white diagonal cross of the Saltire dominant.

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As for the Union Jack, the old trope about the latter being purely naval has been questioned by recent research, though the debate continues. Let’s compromise and call it the Union Flack.

Back to the Saltire: for some reason, I remember sitting in a village cafe in Fife, and seeing one nearby flapping gently against an azure sky, and I thought it looked nice.

Not military or macho but civic and decent. Probably just my interpretation. I think, ultimately, it’s because I like sky blue (the background comes in various hues as deep as navy, but I prefer the lighter one).

Not so good that it’s essentially a crucifix, right enough. Just a blessing that Andrew wasn’t hanged, otherwise we’d have a noose on our flag.