Flying the flag for stuff of legends
SCOTLAND has two flags. There is the Royal Flag of Scotland, displaying the red lion rampant on a yellow background, which should, strictly speaking, only be used by a reigning monarch in his or her capacity as King or Queen of Scotland. The design is thought to be based on an older flag first used by King Alexander II or his father, William the Lion.
The other flag of Scotland, known as the Saltire, consists of a white cross on a blue background, and is undoubtedly recognised by most people around the world as "the" flag of Scotland.
But the Saltire is also known - probably more correctly - as the Cross of St Andrew, and this begs several questions: who was Saint Andrew? How did he become the patron saint of Scotland and why is his cross called the Saltire? To answer these questions we have to go back in time to the Holy Land and the first few centuries after the death of Christ.
St Andrew was one of the disciples, the younger brother of Simon Peter, and they both earned their living as fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, until Jesus came along and persuaded them to follow a higher calling.
Legend has it that Andrew was the man mostly responsible for spreading Christianity throughout Asia Minor and Greece. Another tradition - although it is difficult to say how accurate the account is - maintains he was put to death by the Romans who crucified him on an X-shaped cross, as opposed to the more normal cross-shape which was adopted by the English as the Cross of Saint George.
There is also the theory, although this again is impossible to verify, that Andrew actually chose the shape of his own implement of crucifixion because he deemed himself unworthy of dying in the same manner as Christ.
The execution is thought to have taken place in southern Greece where his bones lay at rest until they were exhumed for some reason by the Emperor Constantine and transported to Constantinople in or around 300 AD.
ACCORDING to yet another legend, a certain Greek monk had a dream in which an angel warned him of Constantine’s intentions and instructed him to help himself to as many of the saint’s bones as he could carry (the same legend says he only managed a few bones, including a tooth and a couple of fingers) and take them to "the ends of the earth" where they could be preserved for all time in relative safety.
At that time, the land we now call Scotland was on the very periphery of the known world and just about as far from the centre of civilisation as it was possible to be. So the monk dutifully obeyed the instructions and set off on his journey, finishing up on the east coast at a spot now known as St Andrews.
And this is how some of Andrew’s bones are supposed to have reached Scotland’s shores and how its long association with the senior of Christ’s followers began.
The actual adoption of the Saltire as a symbol of Scotland and basis for the design of its flag is told in yet another legend. In the eighth century, Unust, King of the Picts, was engaged in a fierce battle with the Northumbrians and things were not going too well for him. In fact, his southern opponents were beating the living daylights out of his army and utter defeat seemed a distinct possibility if not a dead certainty.
But then, lo and behold, the Pictish king raised his eyes towards heaven and saw huge white clouds in the shape of St Andrew’s cross against the blue background of the sky. This was taken as an omen of victory, and the tide of battle turned - the English sent home with their tails between their legs. So not only did the Picts have a victory but Scotland had acquired its flag.
So why is the Cross of Saint Andrew known more commonly as the Saltire? The answer to this has very little to do with Scottish history and even less with the Church. In fact, to find the answer we have to turn to heraldry and equestrianism.
Ask an exponent of horse-riding to name the basic tackle to be found in any stable and in addition to the saddles, browbands, snaffles, cantles and throat latches, he or she will also mention the stirrups.
The word "stirrup" is a corruption of the Old English "stigrap" which itself was a contraction of two words, stig and rap, which just meant "climbing rope" as this was the device used in Saxon times to help a rider mount his steed. Stig (from the verb stigan "to climb") survives in modern English words such as "sty", the infection which causes the eyelid to rise up, and "stile", the device for allowing walkers to climb over a fence.
THE word saltire dates from the 14th century when some bright spark must have noticed that the St Andrew’s cross was the perfect shape for a stirrup and gave it the Medieval Latin term saltatorium, from the verb saltare "to jump" or "to leap". This then made its way into Old French as "saultoir" and this, obviously, is the origin of the word as we know it today.
And what about the innocuous looking little word "flag"? It first appeared in English in the 15th century, and is derived from the Icelandic verb flaka, "to flap".
But the same Icelandic verb had the additional meaning of "to be loose" and so came to be used figuratively in the sense of becoming weak and droopy which is why, when we are feeling a little bit tired and listless, we can also talk about our energy "flagging".
AR Tulloch is a freelance writer
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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