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Scotland: Legendary Origin of the Flag

Last modified: 2011-07-02 by rob raeside
Keywords: scotland | cross: saint andrew | saint andrew | saltire | athelstaneford |
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[Flag of Scotland] 2:3 (also used in other dimensions); image by António Martins-Tuválkin, 30 May 2006

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Legendary Origin of the Flag

The Scottish flag traces its ancestry back to the Battle of Athelstaneford, making it possibly the oldest of national flags, although among modern independent nations that honour generally falls to the Danish flag.

One legend, (very much a story but of interest nonetheless), concerns the fact that it is believed by generations of Scotsmen that our national flag, the white saltire on a blue ground, the oldest flag in the British Commonwealth, originated in a battle fought, a little more than a mile from present day Markle,in the Parish of Prestonkirk in East Lothian, in the Dark Ages between the Picts and Scots on one side and the Angles of Northumbria on the other. There are various versions of the tale but it is generally agreed around the time of the 8th century, an army of Picts and Scots under King Hungus found themselves surrounded by a force of Angles under their leader Athelstan. King Hungus prayed earnestly for deliverance to God and the saints and that night St Andrew appeared to the King and promised them victory. Next day, when battle was joined, the vision of the white saltire (the diagonal cross on which the Apostle had been martyred) was seen by all in the blue sky. This so encouraged the Picts and Scots and affrighted their adversaries that a victory was won. King Athelstan was slain at the crossing of the burn, still known to this day as Athelstaneford. The story continues that this all was seen as a 'Miracle' and may have been the origin of the name "Markle"! In the nearby East Lothian village of Athelstaneford, a flag heritage centre commemorates and discusses the development of the legendary white cross on the blue background.
Thomas Middlemass, 6 February 2000

Nick Groom in his book, The Union Jack, the story of the British Flag, published April 2006 claims the following: page 85.
"Constant attacks from the Vikings".
"It was during the course of these raids that king Angus adopted St. Andrew as the Patron Saint...and the next day as a silver saltire shone in the bright blue sky...thereafter the Picts adopted the diagonal white cross as their national banner". He notes "Bellenden's 1536 translation of Hector Boece 1520...worked from a lost source c1165...this is erroneously given as the eve of a battle with the Saxons at East Lothian in 832".
Also on the Bristol University website, The Union Jack, Nick Groom:
"The St Andrew's cross, a silver saltire on blue...It was also the omen seen in the sky by the Pictish king Angus before he defeated a Danish invasion".

In my opinion the enemy of the Picts at the Battle of Athelstaneford, were Angles-Saxons and not Vikings-Danes. So, I e-mailed Mr. Groom. He stated that: "used the Oxford Companion to British History (1997), and then followed up original sources (as indicated in footnotes and bibliography)". All the sources I can find, show the enemy of the Picts at the Battle of Athelstaneford to be Angles-Saxons.


  • Chronicle of the Scottish nation, John of Fordun (died c.1384 or 1385), edited by William F. Skene, translated from the Latin. Pages 144-144; "Now we must show who this Athelstan was, whom King Hungus overthrew in battle". "the second was the one in question" "whom his father bestowed all the of the English-born nation" "except the kingdom of Wessex". "Content with only his ancestral kingdom of the West Saxons, as soon as he began to reign he handed over to his eldest son, Athelstan, the other dependencies which his father had subjugated". "King Athelstan" "massing together the" "whole English nation". "so great a panic invaded the hearts of the enemy, that their ranks were broken and they all turned to flee, except a few with the king who held their ground, and were overcome and slain". "king's head" was cut off" "and taken away by Hungus". To prove that there is no confusion with Vikings-Danes. For example; on page 147, "a great fleet of heathen, Danes, Norwegians, and Frisians, emerged".
  • The Chronicles of Scotland, Hector Boece (1464-1536). "Translated into Scots by John Bellenden, 1531". Pages 27-29; "Hungus, King of Pichtis" "Athelstane, King of Saxonis" "Achayus, havand Inglismen at extreme hattrent, send xm (x=10 m=1000, 10x1000=10000) chosin men in support of his gude bruthder Hungus." "King Hungus beand on sleip, apperit the Apostill Sanctandrow and bad him be gude confort" "for he suld haif the nixt day ane glorious victory of Englismen". "It is said that ane schynand croce was sene" "the samym croce that the Apostill deit on". "The slauchter was made sa huge at this tyme on Englismen that skairslye war left of all thair army VC (V=5 C=100, 5x100=500) men on live". "Athelestane" "and slayn with sindry nobillis of England". "In memory herof the place quhair he was slayn and his army diffayit is callit yite Athelstanefurd". To prove that there is no confusion with Vikings-Danes. For example; on page 63, Gadanus, King of Denmark, come with ane grete army first aganis Scottis and syne angis Inglismen." and page 64, "The Scottis and Inglismen war sa astonyst be this cruelte of Danys". Also, "Danys" mentioned another nine times and once "Danis". The Historie of Scotland, John Leslie(1527-1596). "Translated in Scottish by Father James Dalrymple in 1596". Pages 267-268; "Hung king of Peichtis" "Athelstane king of Easte Saxone". "ffor the Croce quhairvpon S.Andro diet" "suddanlie apperit, in viue and bricht colouris, in a manner, sett in the Aire". "the Saxounis war sa slane doune, that of al thair armie, skairse chaipet fyve hunder". "Athelstane thair king thair being slane, the place quhair that feild was strukene, was eftir named Athelstane". "S. Androis croce was ay borne befor in the Ansignye, and armes of the cuntrey." "This the Scotis evin vnto this day obserues maist religiouslie, in the rememberance of yt victorie wonn throuch the helpe of S. Andro".
    To prove that there is no confusion with the Vikings-Danes. For example; on page 278, "Quhen Constantin his realme, now put to rest, in dainger be the Danes ne fallis neist. for Cadan king of Denmark". "With ane gret armie against Scotland".
  • The History of The Church and State of Scotland, Book I, John Spottiswood (1565-1639); Page 23, "We are now at the year 800, or thereabout" "An.800". "amongst the Picts Hungus, a Prince" "Athelstane king of the West-Saxons". "The history addeth, that in the joyning of the battel there appeared in the air a cross, in the form of the Letter X". "King Athelstane himself there killed, whereupon the village took the name which at this day enjoyeth, Athelstan Foord". "Hungus" "he did appoint the cross of S. Andrew to be the Badge and cognisance of the Picts".
  • Scotichronicon, Volume 2, Book IV, Walter Bower (1385-1449), General Editor D E R Watt, Edited by John and Winifred MacQueen, Aberdeen University Press. Page 305; "At the same time as that Hungus King A/Ethelwulf was reigning in Wessex. In 802 his eldest son Athelstan had his head impaled on a stake and King Hungus carried it away to his kingdom with him, after he had been victorious in battle, as will appear in detail in the next chapter."
    Page 307-311; "The second Athelstan, the subject of the present account, was the son of A/Ethelwulf, and his father during his lifetime conferred on him all the regions of the English people" "except" "Wessex". "A/Ethelwulf "content with merely the kingdom of the West Saxons". "Hungus king of the Picts led a great army to lay waste the nations of the Angles nearest to him, the Northumbrians". After various days' marches" "came" "to a pleasant plain in Lothian" "at a place now called Athelstaneford". "When Athelstan heard this, he brought together the might of the Angles both north and south" "he came unexpectedly upon the place where Hungus was encamped and so successfully surrounded him on all sides" "that no way of escape was left open to him." "Although far fewer in number, they rushed the enemy" "panic seized their enemies" "and turned away to flee, except for a few around the king who held their ground, but they were likewise overcome and killed". King Athelstan's head was cut off".
    To prove that there is no confusion with the Vikings-Danes. For example, page 329, "Dane" "Danish". Page 331, "The pagans of the Danish race". "But after some years a certain Dane".
  • History of Scotland, Volume 1, George Buchanan (1506-1582). Page 263; "when Athelstane, the Angle, wasted the neighbouring country of the Picts, Hungus their king obtained from Achaius, already incensed against the English, ten thousand Scots". "Athelstane" "following close upon his route, overtook him not far from the town of Haddington." "It is added, that a decussated cross appeared visible in the heavens" "which so terrified the English, that they were scarcely able to withstand the first attack of the Picts". "Athelstane having been killed here, is said to have given his name to the place, which to this day is called Athelstaneford." "Hungus who ascribed the victory" "to the power of St. Andrew".
  • A History of Greater Britain, Book II, John Major (1469-1550). Page 108; "Hungus the Pict put to flight Athelstan of England near to Athelstaneford." "There it was that the cross of St. Andrew appeared to Hungus, when in time of need he had been made king of the Picts."
Thomas Murray, 20 December 2007 (originally sent to Dauvit Brown, June 2006)

You are quite right to object to 'Danes' as the enemy of the Picts as stated on the website: the enemy was reputedly a king Athelstan of England. The story in medieval Scottish sources is chronologically impossible, however: Athelstan and Ungus/Unust/Onuist king of the Picts were not contemporaries (doesn't matter which of two Onuists you pick: 729-61 or 820-34). I think 'Danes' must have crept in in a misguided attempt to make the story credible for the second Onuist.

In this case we are helped by the survival of two account of St Andrews foundation, both 12th century. One (the longer, called the 'B' account) can be dated to David I's reign (1124-53) as it stands, but it seems to have an earlier core dating from about 840. Unfortunately it is extremely difficult to show what belonged to this earlier core. The other (the shorter, called 'A') can be dated to sometime in or shortly after 1101. The exciting thing about the shorter legend of 1101+ is that it gives what looks like the earliest account of the famous battle. It does not say that a saltire was seen in the sky (that is a much much later detail) but it does describe a cross. The whole passage reads (with apologies for a translation that tries to stick closely to the Latin, and is not very elegant!) [note that the king, obviously Onuist, is called 'Ungus']:

'At that time, not by chance but by divine instigation, a king of the Picts called Ungus son of Urguist, rising up with a great army, killing with the cruelest devastation the British nations living in the south part of this island, finally reached the plain of Mercia and wintered there. Then all the peoples of nearly the whole island, coming with a united force, surrounded him, intending to destroy him and his army completely. Next day, the aforementioned king went out for a walk with his seven most intimate companions, and a divine light shone around them, and they fell forward onto their faces, unable to bear it [the light]. And lo!, a voice was heard from heaven: 'Ungus, Ungus, hear me, an apostle of Christ, Andrew by name, who am sent to defend and protect you. Get up; behold the sign of the cross of Christ which stands in the sky and will go before you against your enemies: nevertheless, offer a tenth part of your inheritance in alms to God Almighty and in honour of St Andrew His apostle'. Now on the third day, advised by the divine voice, [Ungus] divided his army into thirteen troops, and the image of the cross went in front of each division, and a divine light shone from the top of each and every sign. Thereupon they became victors.'

You'll notice that English are not specified explicitly, by the way, but Mercia is (the biggest Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the eighth century). Now, an early source (northern English annals of the 8th cent) refers to Onuist I and the king of Northumbria coming to terms with the king of Dumbarton on 1 August 756, and then talks of one of them (presumably Onuist) leading an army from Govan to 'Newburgh' where, on 10 August, it was nearly completely destroyed. Alex Woolf has pointed out to me that 'Newburgh' here could be a place in Staffordshire in Mercia, and that this could be the situation mentioned in the legend, when Onuist was facing annihilation in Mercia but managed to escape. What was Onuist doing down in Mercia, you might ask? Another early English chronicle (again from the 8th cent) refers to the king of Wessex in 750 rebelling against the king of Mercia and Onuist king of the Picts. It looks as if the king of Mercia and Onuist shared the position of preeminent ruler of Britain. Maybe in 756 Onuist was trying to establish himself as king of Britain, but was nearly destroyed. This interpretation might also explain the terms of reference in the account in the legend: it is not referred to as 'Picts v. English', but as Onuist v. nearly all peoples in the island of Britain. It is as if Onuist was trying to establish a more powerful monarchy, and everyone else feared him and wished to destroy him. But that is just a bit of a guess!

None of this really helps explain the saltire specifically. Also, although Andrew was clearly a very important saint to St Andrews itself and some Pictish kings, it is not clear that Andrew became patron saint of Scotland (or that there was any patron saint as such) until the eve of the wars of independence. It all depends what is meant by 'patron saint' of a 'country/nation'.
Dauvit Broun, 2 July 2006