November 30th is the feast day of Saint Andrew, best known in the UK as the patron saint of Scotland. It marks the first of a series of Scottish winter celebrations, which continues with Christmas, Hogmanay and Burns Night.
Like other festivals in Scotland, St Andrew’s day is marked by a celebration of Scottish culture – traditional food, music and dance. The very sociable Ceilidh dancing is popular, with large events being held around St Andrew’s Day in major Scottish cities, especially Edinburgh and Glasgow.
While the day has been celebrated by Scottish people for many years, in recent times it has taken on a more official status, largely due to the increased political autonomy that Scotland has enjoyed with its devolved government. The day has officially been a public holiday in Scotland for ten years. In 2002, the Scottish parliament passed a law stating that all public and government buildings would fly the flag of Saint Andrew (known as the saltire) on 30th November, and this has become a very noticeable element of the way the date is marked. One notable (and controversial) exception to this rule is Edinburgh Castle, which continues to fly the Union Jack due to it being the base for a detachment of the British Army.
Like most patron saints, the links between Saint Andrew and Scotland are rather complex. The saint himself is one of the twelve disciples of Jesus named in the New Testament, and according to legend subsequently preached the Christian message in South Eastern Europe. He is said to have founded the first cathedral in Byzantium (modern day Istanbul) and also preached throughout Ukraine, Romania and Southern Russia (he is the patron saint of all of these countries). Legends state that he was martyred for his Christian beliefs in the city of Patras, Greece, where he is said to have been crucified on an X-shaped cross. Traditionally, it is believed that he insisted on this as he felt himself unworthy to be executed on the same type of cross as Jesus (although this tradition did not really become established until several centuries later). The shape of that cross (saltire) became the symbol of Saint Andrew, which is why it is used on the flags of countries that have him as their patron, including Scotland. According to legend, his bones were collected after death as relics by a local monk and he set out to take them to “the ends of the world” to protect them. Sailing West towards the edge of the known world, he was shipwrecked off the coast of Scotland and the relics were brought ashore and kept at the town that now bears the name Saint Andrews. Another tradition says that the relics of Saint Andrew were actually brought to Scotland by a bishop who was a keen collector of relics. However it happened, it is almost certain that bones believed to be the saint’s relics did reach Scotland, and are still kept at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh. Veneration of such an important saint began soon afterwards. In 832 AD, a Scottish leader by the name of Oengus II was set to fight a battle against the Angles. The night before, he prayed to the saint and promised that if he won he would designate Saint Andrew as Scotland’s patron saint. The following morning, pure white clouds were said to have appeared in the shape of an X in the blue sky and, despite being heavily outnumbered, Oengus’s army was victorious. As promised, he named Saint Andrew patron saint, and the white X-shaped cross on a blue background has been the flag of Scotland since that day.
Like many biblical and early Christian figures, the life of Saint Andrew is shrouded in legend and conflicting traditions. But regardless of actual historical events, there is no doubt that the name of Saint Andrew and, especially, the saltire flag have been an important part of Scotland’s national identity for many centuries. It is fitting that his feast day on 30th November will be a time when Scots can celebrate their cultural traditions and proudly fly the flag.