Athelstaneford: Origins of the Saltire

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Lying some twenty miles outside of Edinburgh, the unassuming village of Athelstaneford is home to one of Scotland’s most legendary historical events; One that would see Scotland gain a new Patron Saint and a national emblem.

As with any tale, the origin story of Scotland’s national emblem is shrouded in myth and legend. However for the sake of the story, I will follow one path of direction.

In the year of 832AD Scotland was under threat from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. Marching to East Lothian – which at the time was part of the Kingdom of Northumbria – Oengus II, King of the Picts meant to meet his opposite number Athelstan in battle.

Outnumbered, surrounded – and given the military capacity of the Anglo-Saxons – more than at a disadvantage, he turned to god for strength and salvation.

On the eve of battle Oengus may well have been forgiven for seeking solitude and prayer over preparation, for his kingdom and people were at stake. Under the clear night sky the king found a glimmer of hope however, a signal from god that would embolden the Pictish-Scot alliance and lead them to victory over the southern invaders. stock-photo-191594357

Before him appeared a cloud formation in the shape of the saltire – The shape of the cross upon which Saint Andrew is said to have been crucified. With this message from God came the king’s solemn vow; If Saint Andrew would guide the Picts to victory he would adopt him as the kingdoms patron saint.

Taking to the field north of the present day village, the two armies met in a bloody clash. The battle ebbed and flowed like the very waters of the ford in which they hacked and bludgeoned. Emboldened by their divine signal however, the Picts & Scots won the day.

Legend states that the Saxon king Athelstan died in the ford itself, fighting to the death in and among the vanguard; Thus the village came to be known as Athelstaneford.

Despite the myth and legend, the Saltire itself does not come into popular use for some several centuries. It is not until the 14th century that we see the Saltire coming into regular use in Scotland, with the Acts of Parliament of King Robert II requiring that Scottish soldiers embroider the emblem into their uniform. Additionally, records suggest that Saint Andrew was not fully adopted until around the year 1000AD, some 170 years later.

A tale with many conflicting angles, but a compelling one nonetheless, and one that still remains in Scottish popular culture over a millennia later.


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