The history behind Scotland’s flags

Saltire flag and silhouetted thistles in the borders.Saltire flag and silhouetted thistles in the borders.
Saltire flag and silhouetted thistles in the borders.
Scotland’s flags have long been a symbol of our proud history, but how did they actually come to be?


The word ‘Saltire’ by definition means “a diagonal cross as a heraldic ordinary” and is the defining factor of Scottish national flag. First hoisted in 1512, the Saltire is thought to be the oldest in Europe. Its white diagonal cross on a blue background represents the crucifixion of the apostle St Andrew - the younger brother of Simon Peter.

It is said that St Andrew himself felt unworthy of being crucified on a cross similar to the one Jesus died on so instead hung on a diagonal cross. However, some historians believe St Andrew was crucified by the Romans in Greece, where this diagonal cross was more commonly used.

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Picture: Athelstaneford - birthplace of Scotland's flagPicture: Athelstaneford - birthplace of Scotland's flag
Picture: Athelstaneford - birthplace of Scotland's flag

To this day Andrew is patron saint in Greece, Russia and the Ukraine.


As recommended by a Scottish Parliamentary committee in 2003, the shade of blue on the Saltire became standardized to the shade Pantone 300.


Picture: The Lion RampantPicture: The Lion Rampant
Picture: The Lion Rampant

Part of the tradition is that St Andrew wore blue, and so the white of the wooden cross he was crucified on against the blue of his robes gave us the colours of our national flag.

The origin of the flag comes from an old legend that outlines that it was first originated in a battle fought near the East Lothian village of Athelstaneford..

It is said that, under King Angus, an army of Picts and Scots invaded the Lothians which was still Northumbrian territory. The army found themselves outnumbered by Saxons led by Athelstan. Apprehensive as to what the outcome may be, King Angus led prayers for salvation and as a result, a cloud formation of a white Saltire appeared against the blue sky.

The king then vowed that if he gained victory, then Andrew would thereafter be the patron saint of Scotland. Victory was indeed theirs, Angus remembered his vow, and so Andrew became our patron saint and his cross our flag. The date is believed to have been 832AD.

Of course, there are other accounts of how the Saltire came to be. Some say that on the eve of the battle, St Andrew appeared to Angus and assured him of victory. The following morning a formation of clouds gathered against the backdrop of a clear blue sky, depicting a white saltire that was visible to both sides.

The Saltire appears in Scottish history thereafter in various forms. One of particular interest was in the 14th century where flags said to have been carried at the Battle of Otterburn in 1388, included a saltire on a sage green background.

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By the start of the 16th century the plain white saltire on a blue field had become established. For instance, in 1511, the Great Michael, the largest warship of its day, was built for King James IV and carried the St Andrew’s Cross at its head, according to the Scottish Flag Trust.

In the latter half of the 20th century, there was a major resurgence in the use of the St Andrew’s Cross, and it has regained its status as the legally established national flag of Scotland. It is used by all Scottish teams in international competitions. It is now widely flown on the flagstaffs of public buildings, sometimes alone and sometimes side by side with the Union Flag. The saltire is also used by many bodies, both private and public, as a logo.


The Lion Rampant is the Royal Standard of the King or Queen of Scots and is the personal banner of the monarchs.


The Lion Rampant flag depicts a lion, the king of beasts, rearing up with three of its clawed paws outstretched as if in battle. The flag contains more colour than the Saltire, its bright yellow and red makes it more recognisable.


The first recorded use of the Lion Rampant as an emblem in Scotland was by Alexander II in 1222. The emblem occupied the shield of the royal coat of arms of the ancient Kingdom of Scotland which was used by the King of Scots until 1603. The Lion Rampant has since been incorporated into both the royal arms and royal banners of successive Scottish then British monarchs in order to symbolise Scotland. It can be seen today in the Royal Standard of the United Kingdom.