Sometimes, on a clear sunny day when the sky is blue, the vapour trails from jets flying high overhead can leave a beautiful image of the Saltire, Scotland’s national flag. The Saltire is believed to be one of the oldest national flags in the world and although no-one knows for certain how it came to be chosen, tradition has it that in AD 832 an army of Picts under King Óengus (Angus), with support from Dalriadan Scots, found themselves surrounded and outnumbered by Angles. Things looked bad and Angus prayed for divine help: to his amazement the clouds formed a white Saltire against the blue sky and the Picts and Scots won the battle. St Andrew became the patron saint of Scotland and the Saltire, St Andrew’s Cross, became our flag.
In the East Lothian village of Athelstaneford – where that momentous battle is believed to have taken place – the Scottish Flag Trust run the Flag Heritage Centre where the story of Scotland’s flag is told.
When we were back in Estonia in May of this year, we visited Otepää, a ski resort in southern Estonia, the country’s ‘winter capital’. There we discovered that, like Athelstaneford in Scotland, Otepää had played an important part in the history of the national flag of Estonia. In St Mary’s Lutheran Church we heard how the blue, black and white – the sinimustvalge – of Estonia’s flag came from the three colours in the caps worn by Tartu University students in the 19th century: and that these three colours were also used in the Estonian Student Union flag.
It was this flag that was consecrated in St Mary’s Church in 1884 to become the national flag of the whole country. In 1918, when the Estonian Republic was established, these three colours became the new republic’s official national colours. Then in 1991, when Estonia once again regained its independence, it became the official flag of the the Republic of Estonia.
Otepää is home to the Estonian Flag Room which was established in 1996 to commemorate their flag – a flag that is as important to Estonians as the Saltire is to Scots. In fact, it was a delight to see so many Estonian flags being carried and waved with pride at Laulupidu, the Song Festival the previous year: not waved in anger, or superiority – but as a natural part of their lives : this is my land and I love it!
Today, November 30th, is St Andrew’s Day and is celebrated by Scots the world over. Celebrated as a mark of respect for our country and its long history. Celebrated as a sign of our shared heritage and identity. Celebrated to mark all that is good about Scotland. Almost every other country in the world celebrates their homeland in a similar way.
Symbols are important. Identity is important. Knowing where you belong, and why, is important. Sadly some people deliberately attempt to equate national pride with imperialism or xenophobia. A foolish mistake. For there is no doubt at all that it’s good to know who we are and what we believe in. It’s good to know about our past and to understand – and value – the struggles of all the ordinary people that have brought us to the point we are at now: though it can also be daunting to know that we have to play our part in these difficult times if we are to ensure that our country continues to grow and develop in a way that is good for all its citizens and not just the few.
Flags are wonderful symbols and I will be celebrating St Andrew’s Day this evening. But I’ll be celebrating Scotland every other day of the year as well!