St Andrew’s Day: What’s the story?

Today is St Andrew’s Day in Scotland, and also in Barbados, Greece, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine among others places. A bank holiday in Scotland since 2006, St Andrew’s Day marks the start of the winter festivals which run right through to Burns’ Night in February. The day is celebrated with ceilidhs, music, feasts and special events across the country. This year, the national tourism agency Visit Scotland staged an unusual celebration of our national day.

But how did Andrew become Scotland’s patron saint? St Andrew’s Day has been marked on November 30 since the middle of the 5th century, that date being widely accepted as the anniversary of his martyrdom. However, the reason for his adoption as Scotland’s patron saint is shrouded in mystery and legend. 

One of the 12 disciples of Jesus, and brother of St Peter, Andrew is linked with Greece, Russia, Romania and Ukraine because he travelled extensively, preaching Christianity, around the Black Sea and along the Dnieper River. He was killed at Patras in Greece after refusing the Roman governor’s command to stop preaching. Legend says he was crucified on an X-shaped cross, because he didn’t consider himself worthy of the same execution as Jesus, but there is no evidence from the time of the shape of the cross.

His association with Scotland is less direct. His popularity as a saint spread west from Constantinople, where, in the 4th century, the emperor had acquired Andrew’s bones in a bid to balance the religious power and importance of St Peter and Rome. Churches and monasteries began to be founded in Andrew’s name across Italy, France and, by the end of the 6th century, the British Isles.In one version of the legend linking Andrew and Scotland, the monk Regulus (or Rule) brought some of the saint’s bones to Kinrymont in Fife (modern day St Andrews) in the 8th or 9th century. They were housed in a new church built by the Pictish King Oengus (or Angus) and inspired the development of St Andrews as a place of pilgrimage. St Andrews ultimately became the most important ecclesiastical centre in Scotland.

St Andrews Cathedral housed the saint’s bones until it was destroyed in the Reformation.
Image credit: Kadluba on Visual Hunt, CC BY-SA

In another version of the legend, King Oengus led a raid by a combined force of Scots and Picts into East Lothian (then part of the kingdom of Northumbria) in 832 and was facing a large Anglo-Saxon army, supposedly under the command of Northumbrian King Athelstan. Oengus is said to have prayed for help and had a vision or a dream in which St Andrew promised his support in the coming battle. Legend also has it that Oengus saw clouds forming a white cross against a blue sky and vowed that if his army was victorious, Andrew would be his patron saint. The Picts and Scots did win the Battle of Athelstaneford and were later united in a single kingdom. By the year 1000, Andrew had been adopted as Scotland’s foremost religious patron and, in due course the white, diagonal cross on a blue background became the country’s flag.

White clouds forming a cross in a blue sky are said to have been the inspiration for Scotland’s national flag, the Saltire. Image credit: Robert Couse-Baker on Visual Hunt, CC BY

However, it wasn’t until the 13th century that Andrew was firmly established as Scotland’s ‘official’ patron saint. After King Alexander III died in a riding accident, Scotland was without a monarch. The guardians appointed to rule the kingdom had a great seal made featuring St Andrew in place of the king. The seal bore the motto Andreas dux esto Scotis compatriotis (Andrew be leader of your Scottish compatriots) to position Andrew as the people’s champion and a symbol of national unity. In the wars that followed, as Scotland fought to retain its independence, St Andrew featured regularly in appeals to the Pope to recognise Scotland’s independence. The famous Declaration of Arbroath, a letter from Scotland’s barons to Pope John XXII in 1320, points out that Andrew, as Scotland’s protector and patron, was not “merely anyone but… the first of [the] Apostles… the most gentle Saint Andrew, the Blessed Peter’s brother”.

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