Great Scots

St Andrew’s Day history: Who was Saint Andrew?

With St Andrew’s Day approaching, we ask who was Scotland’s patron saint and why is he so celebrated?

Today when contrails cross, the Saltire, believed to be the oldest national flag in the world, can fill the sky, emblazoning St Andrew and Scotland to all who lift their eyes. 

Andrew has been an important saint for the Scots since the early days of Christianity. It is said that Óengus II, King of the Picts 820-834, had a vision of him on the eve of battle against the invading Angles. In the morning the clouds formed a St Andrew’s cross and Óengus utterly defeated the enemy. The Angle’s leader, Athelstan, was killed while crossing the Cogtail Burn at Athelstaneford in East Lothian. The Picts adopted the cross as their flag and named Andrew their patron saint. In heraldic language the standard is called the Saltire from the old French saultoir, a type of early cross-shaped stirrup.

Andrew, of course, was the first called by Christ to follow him. The brother of Simon Peter, he was always among the most prominent of the apostles.

Credit: Chronicle/Alamy

He founded Byzantium, later Constantinople, and in 62 AD, the Roman governor of Patras in Greece had him crucified for preaching the gospel. At his own request, he was bound to an X-shaped cross, as he said he was unworthy of sharing the same death as Christ – 20,000 of his followers were said to have witnessed his martyrdom.

Andrew’s relics were widely distributed and some were brought over to Britain by St Augustine in 597 on his mission to convert the English. They were acquired by the avid relic collector St Acca of Hexham. He was driven from Northumbria in 732 and founded the bishopric of St Andrews with the relics at its heart. Another version of the story states that St Regulus or St Rule fled Patras in 345 AD carrying St Andrew’s relics when they were under the threat of being removed to Constantinople. His ship was wrecked at Kilrymont, now St Andrews, where he was welcomed and founded a church.

The feudal system was based on status and precedence so the medieval rulers of Scotland promoted the St Regulus version. It showed that the Scots were converted more than two centuries before the English and by St Andrew rather than Augustine, a mere Benedictine monk.

The Saltire came to be used on seals from the late 1100s. When the nation was without a king after Alexander III was killed falling off his horse, the Guardians of Scotland used it to authenticate letters to Europe and on legal documents. The seal included the inscription: ‘Andrea Scotis dux esto compatriotis’ (Andrew, be leader of the compatriot Scots).

Pope Boniface VIII went along with this in his bull of 1299 demanding Edward I cease waging war against Scotland because the country was “converted, and won to the unity of the Christian faith, by the venerable relics of the blessed Apostle Andrew, with a great outpouring of the divine power.”

And, the nation’s most sacred document, the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320, states that Scotland was “the special charge of the Blessed Peter’s brother”. England under Edward III adopted St George as their patron saint, Wales had St David and Ireland St Patrick but none had the divine clout of St Andrew.

In the Middle Ages St Andrews became an important place of pilgrimage because its church, soon replaced by a great cathedral, housed one of the saint’s teeth, a kneecap, arm and finger bones. The Queen’s Ferry across the Forth was inaugurated to facilitate the pilgrims’ journey. 

During the Reformation in 1559 the cathedral’s interior was trashed and its relics thrown away by followers of John Knox. Today, among the ruins, St Rule’s Tower from the original church where the relics were displayed, still soars above the coastal plain to mark the pilgrims’ goal. 

On the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in Scotland in 1878 the Bishop of Amalfi gave a portion of St Andrew’s shoulder to the Roman Catholic St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh. Pope Paul VI contributed part of the saint’s skull in 1969 to mark the creation of Joseph Gray as the first Scots cardinal in 400 years.

Andrew is patron saint of the Order of the Thistle, founded by James VII in 1687. The Saltire was flown on Scottish ships and used as the logo of Scottish banks, coins and seals. It was displayed at the funerals of Scottish kings and queens and since 2002, the Saltire has had precedence over the Union flag on all Scottish public buildings.

The celebration of St Andrew’s Day on 30 November began with emigrants who wished to cherish their Scots identity. The St Andrews Society of Charleston, South Carolina, was founded in 1729, while that of New York began in 1756 and is the oldest charitable organisation in the state. Today more than 100 similar societies have been formed by expatriate Scots across the world. And all have special events to mark the saint’s day. 

The torchlight parade in Glasgow on St Andrew’s Day. Credit: WENN Rights Ltd/Alamy

Although St Andrew’s Day has long been observed in Scotland, it was not until 2006 that the Scottish Parliament enacted that 30 November be an official bank holiday. Nowadays it is celebrated across the nation. If you register online (historicenvironment.scot) there is free entry to more than 40 Historic Environment Scotland sites. In most towns and cities there are parades, cèilidhs and fireworks.

In Glasgow, a torchlight procession through the West End has pipe bands, samba bands, drummers and even fire-eaters. And, as well as celebrations for St Andrew’s Day itself, it is also the one day a year that the public has access to the incomparable museum in the clubhouse of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in the saint’s namesake town of St Andrews.

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