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 of how Scotland’s national emblem came to be is shrouded in myth and legend.
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 sought to meet his opposite number, Aethelstan, 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.
A Divine Signal
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.
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 could guide his host 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, Aethelstan, died in the ford itself – fighting to the death with what remained of his forces.
It is this act that gave life to the name Athelstaneford.
Myth and Legend
The story behind how Scotland gained its national emblem is a compelling one. What’s not to love about this story?
Heroic warrior kings, a great battle and a divine signal – it has it all. However, the reality is that the Saltire itself does not appear in recorded history until several centuries later.
It is not until the late 14th century that we see the Saltire come into regular use in Scotland. The emblem was carried onto the field at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, and King Robert II is said to have required that soldiers embroider the emblem onto their garments
There are also other supposed uses of Saint Andrew’s Cross being used around this period. In 1286, the Seal of the Guardians of Scotland – which was used to authenticate legal documents – had a representation of Saint Andrew on his X-shaped cross.
Additionally, during the reign of King Robert III, the Saint appears on coins of the realm. Five shilling pieces minted during the late 14th century depict the Saint.
Records suggest that Saint Andrew was not fully adopted as Scotland’s patron saint until around the year 1000AD. With such an extended period of time between this event and his supposed adoption as patron saint, one should read this tale with a pinch of salt.
Regardless of the authenticity of the Saltire’s origin, the story is a compelling one and is still one of the most widely accepted origin stories.