Today—November 30—is St. Andrew’s Day. In Scotland, it’s celebrated as Andermas, Scotland’s official National Day and the first day of my ancestral homeland’s winter festival which also includes Hogmany (New Year’s Day) and Burns Night (the annual celebration of the birthday of Scotland’s favorite poet, Robert Burns, on January 25). But wait a minute: how did Andrew end up as Scotland’s patron saint? Wasn’t he Simon Peter’s brother, a humble Jewish fisherman eking out a living on the Sea of Galilee in a dusty corner of the Roman empire called Palestine?
In the early Christian church, Andrew was revered as the first-called of Jesus’ twelve apostles. He was also the one Jesus sent to round up those few loaves and fishes that miraculously fed the hungry crowd who came to hear the sermon on the mount. After Jesus’ death, it was Andrew who founded the first Christian church in Byzantium, a seditious act which resulted in his death by crucifixion on an x-shaped cross with bars of equal length—a crux decussata or ‘saltire.’ Why an x-shaped cross? Because Andrew did not believe he was worthy of dying on a cross similar to the one on which Jesus was crucified.
But then how did Andrew’s cross—the Saltire—come to be the insignia of Scotland? The legend is that an early Christian monk named Regulus was advised in a dream to hide some of Andrew’s bones, and then to take those relics “to the ends of the earth” for protection. He set sail from Petras in Greece in 347 with one of Andrew’s kneecaps, a bone from his upper arm, three fingers, and a tooth. When Regulus’ boat foundered off Fife on Scotland’s east coast, Regulus brought Andrew’s bones ashore and built a tower to house them. That tower eventually became part of a great new cathedral, one that gave its name to the town that grew up around it—a town better known today as the home of golf—St. Andrews, of course.
But one legend is never enough, particularly in a country like Scotland. There is a second story about how the Saltire came to be the flag of Scotland. Back in the year 832, a Pictish king by the name of Angus mac Fergus prayed to good St. Andrew on the eve of a great battle. For his devotion, Angus was granted a vision of crossed white clouds floating in a blue sky, and on the following day, he was victorious over a large army of invading Saxons at the battle of Athelstaneford. The image of crossed white clouds in a blue sky soon became Angus’ standard, and so whichever legend you choose to believe, it’s Andrew’s cross that still protects the Scots.
The Scots are, if nothing else, a canny people. By claiming Andrew as their patron saint, in 1320, Scottish nobles were able to appeal to one of Simon Peter’s descendants, Pope John, for protection against their unruly neighbors to the south who were always causing trouble. That appeal—in the form of the Declaration of Arbroath—asserted Scotland’s ancient right to be an independent kingdom, and denounced King Edward (better known as Edward Longshanks or, alas, The Hammer of the Scots) for his numerous attempts to subjugate Scotland to English rule.
The Saltire remains the proud emblem of Scottish nationalism, emblazoned in the hearts of those among us who hold that Scotland is independent, separate, and free. And today, on Andermas 2021, it’s the flag that is flying over my home.
So Happy Andermas and Saor Alba!
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown, MD. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.