Athelstaneford: Origins of the Saltire

Athelstaneford
Image: Endrick Shellycoat

Lying some 20 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 many origin stories, how Scotland came to adopt its national symbol, the Saltire, is shrouded in myth and legend.

In the year of 832, Scotland was under threat from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. Marching to Saxon-held East Lothian, Oengus II, King of the Picts sought to meet his opposite number, Aethelstan, in battle.

Outnumbered and surrounded he turned to God for strength and salvation.

A Divine Signal

On the eve of battle, the Pictish king sought solitude and prayer, for his kingdom and people were at stake. Beneath the clear night sky the king found a glimmer of hope, a signal from God that would embolden the Pictish-Scot alliance and lead them to victory over the Northumbrians.

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 he was victorious he would adopt the disciple Andrew and the kingdom’s 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 as the two forces hacked and bludgeoned. Emboldened by their divine signal, however, the Picts and 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 it come into regular use in Scotland.

The emblem was carried onto the field at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and, later on, 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 – featured Saint Andrew on his X-shaped cross. Additionally, during the reign of King Robert III, the Saint appears on coins of the realm.

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 makes for exciting reading and is still a well-favoured origin story.


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