Scotland’s national flag, the Saltire, is reputedly the oldest in Europe. According to legend, its origins can be traced back to the ninth century AD, to a battle fought by a combined army of Scots and Picts against the English of Northumbria. On the night before the battle, the Pictish king ‘Hungus’ vowed to make Andrew the patron saint of Scotland if the English were defeated. In response, the Apostle himself appeared in a vision, promising Hungus and his Dál Riatan allies a great victory. The next morning, as the opposing forces prepared to fight, a strange cloud-formation in the shape of a huge diagonal cross appeared in the blue sky. Flushed with hope, the Picts and Scots attacked their enemies ferociously, despite being heavily outnumbered. The English and their king ‘Athelstan’ were soundly beaten, and the Cross of Saint Andrew became the emblem of Scotland.
It’s a good story, even if it isn’t based on real events. It may have been created in the thirteenth century, around the time when Saint Andrew’s Cross started being used as a national emblem. Before 1286, the diagonal cross traditionally associated with the Apostle’s crucifixion had been used in Scotland but only in religious contexts, as an emblem of St Andrews Cathedral. The fabled Pictish king ‘Hungus’ turns up as a key figure in the cathedral’s own origin-legends, so his appearance in the Saltire story is certainly appropriate.
The battle in which the Saltire appeared in the sky supposedly took place in the year 832, near the present-day village of Athelstaneford in East Lothian. The village proudly proclaims its status as the birthplace of Scotland’s flag. In the graveyard of the parish church stands an impressive memorial commemorating the great victory. The main panel shows King Hungus and his army facing the defeated English, who have thrown down their weapons in token of surrender. Above is a smaller panel containing an inscription with these words:
‘Tradition says that near this place in times remote, Pictish and Scottish warriors about to defeat an army of Northumbrians saw against a blue sky a great white cross like Saint Andrew’s, and in its image made a banner which became the flag of Scotland’
Behind the church is a doocot (the Scots word for ‘dovecote’) constructed in the sixteenth century as a nesting-place for pigeons. Inside this tiny building is the Flag Heritage Centre where visitors can learn about the Saltire legend via an audiovisual presentation. A leaflet describing the battle, the memorial, the church and the doocot is also available. It gives additional information, telling us that the battle was said to have taken place at an ancient ford on the Peffer Burn. The village of Athelstaneford takes its name from this crossing-point.
A few snippets of real history are embedded in the legend. We know, for instance, that the figure of King Hungus is based on one or more genuine Pictish kings who bore the name ‘Angus’ (Óengus in Gaelic; Onuist or Unust in Pictish). The most famous of these was the great warlord Óengus, son of Fergus, who conquered Dál Riata in the eighth century. A slightly later namesake – probably a member of the same family – ruled the Picts from 820 to 834 and is usually identified as the king in both the Saltire legend and the foundation-tale of St Andrews Cathedral. The Scots who fought alongside Hungus at Athelstaneford were commanded by Eochaid, grandfather of Cináed mac Ailpín. Little is known of Eochaid but he appears in the genealogical traditions attached to Cináed and may have been a historical figure. The defeated Northumbrian ruler ‘Athelstan’ is presumably based on the famous English king of this name, a West Saxon by birth, who lived a century after the Saltire battle. In 832, the traditional date of the legendary encounter, the Northumbrians were actually ruled by a king called Eanred.
The true origin of the name Athelstaneford is unknown. It might commemorate the real King Athelstan – who campaigned in Scotland in the 930s – or perhaps a local namesake who happened to own land around the Peffer Burn. Whatever the truth of the matter, this quiet East Lothian village is forever linked to the most recognizable symbol of Scottish nationhood. If you like old folklore, Pictish legends and half-forgotten history, it’s well worth a visit.
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The Flag Heritage Centre is maintained by the Scottish Flag Trust.
Information about the Cross of Saint Andrew can be found at the National Archives of Scotland.
Athelstaneford village has its own website.
Photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.
In an earlier blogpost I wrote about the two Pictish kings named Óengus and their connection with St Andrews.
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