Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 86 - The National Flag Heritage Centre

Scotland Magazine Issue 86
April 2016


This article is 2 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

The National Flag Heritage Centre

Home of the Saltire

The legend tells us that on or around the year 832AD, the Picts of the East and the Scots of the West formed a coalition to defend themselves against an invading army of Northumbrians led by the Saxon King Athelstane. The two armies confronted each other across the Cogtail Burn in what is now known as East Lothian. Blood was to be shed.

On the morning of the battle, a diagonal cross of white cloud, symbolic of that upon which St Andrew was crucified at Patras, Greece, appeared against a clear blue sky over the fields of Markle. According to the legend, the impressionable Scots avowed that should victory be granted to them, the Saltire of St Andrew would be adopted as the national flag of Scotland. Tradition has it that King Athelstane was killed in the ensuing conflict. Afterwards, his head was cut off and displayed on a pike on the island of Inchgarvie in the Firth of Forth – not, it has to be observed, the most accessible place for it to be viewed by those concerned.

However, his body, it is rumoured, was buried near the ford of the Cogtail Burn. To a degree this was confirmed by the Victorian writer John Martine who wrote that when a quarry was opened on the spot in 1840, the workmen unearthed a stone coffin formed of five handsome freestones, and that it contained a human skeleton with the jawbone in a very decayed state. Since the skull was missing, it was widely assumed that these were the remains of none other than King Athelstane of Northumbria himself. Following the Reformation, the lands at what had by then come to be known as Athelstaneford passed from the Culdee Priory of St Andrews to the Chapel Royal of Holyrood; but the flag in the sky and Scotland's victory was not to be ignored. In 1965, a large plaque was erected by public subscription in the churchyard of the 16th Century Athelstaneford Parish Church.

To its rear is a 16th Century lectern dovecot that, in 1996, was imaginatively restored to become the National Flag Heritage Centre. Nearby, there is a viewing point with an interpretive panel indicating the site of the battlefield which, it has to be said, has not changed all that much over the centuries. And sometimes, if the time is right, there is even a white cross of cloud to be seen in the sky.’

Claim your free Scotland Magazine trial issue