November 30th is St Andrew's Day in Scotland. As well as his role as the patron saint of Scotland, and several other countries, St Andrew is also the saint of fishmongers, gout, singers, sore throats, spinsters, maidens, old maids and women wishing to become mothers. But just who was Saint Andrew and how did he become the patron saint of Scotland?

Written by Michael T R B Turnbull, author of Saint Andrew: Myth, Legend and Reality

What is the history of St Andrew?

Saint Andrew was an agile and hardy Galilean fisherman whose name means “strong”. Having Saint Andrew as Scotland's patron saint gave the country several advantages: because he was the brother of Saint Peter, founder of the Church, the Scots were able to appeal to the Pope in 1320 (The Declaration of Arbroath) for protection against the attempts of English kings to conquer the Scots. Early Scots claimed that they were descended from the Scythians who lived on the shores of the Black Sea in what is now Romania and Bulgaria and were converted by Saint Andrew himself.

In another fascinating legend, St Andrew was claimed to have come all the way to the shore of Scotland and established a church in Fife, in the town now known as St Andrews. 

As Scotland slowly became a nation it needed a national symbol to rally round and motivate the country. Saint Andrew was an inspired choice and the early Picts and Scots modelled themselves on Saint Andrew and on one of his strong supporters, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. Although a pagan who worshipped the Roman sun god Sol, Constantine later became a Christian and went on to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

It all began near Rome in 312 AD when, on the night of a make-or-break battle against a rival emperor, he saw the symbol X P (Greek for the first two letters of 'Christ') in the dazzling light of the setting sun and then had a dream in which he was promised victory. Constantine ordered his troops to hold the Christian cross at the front of the army, and won.

Find out more about who St Andrew was.

Around 500 years later, King Angus of the Picts, facing a large army of Saxons at Athelstaneford in what is now East Lothian in Scotland, was overwhelmed by a blinding light the night before the battle and, during the night, had a dream. The message he was given was that he would see a Cross in the sky and would conquer his enemies in its name.

The following morning King Angus looked into the rising sun and saw the Saltire Cross in its blinding light. This filled him and his men with great confidence and they were victorious. From that time Saint Andrew and his Saltire Cross were adopted as the national symbols for an emerging Scotland.

The Saltire Cross became the heraldic arms that every Scot is entitled to fly and wear. However, its colour was not white at first but silver (Argent), as in heraldry white stands for silver.

Both William Wallace and King Robert the Bruce appealed to Saint Andrew to guide them in times of national emergency. The Saltire was flown on Scottish ships and used as the logo of Scottish banks, on Scottish coins and seals and displayed at the funerals of Scottish kings and queens - that of King James VI for example and of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots. When King George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822 he was presented with a Saltire Cross made of pearls on velvet, within a circle of gold.

There are also broader connections. Saint Andrew and his relics at St Mary's Metropolitan Cathedral, Edinburgh provides Scots with a special link to Amalfi in Italy and Patras in Greece (where two Cathedrals named after the saint also hold his relics). The many St Andrew Societies worldwide, set up originally as self-help organisations for Scots who had fallen on hard times, form a network of Scots who are all united under the Saltire Cross of Saint Andrew. They give Scotland a European and worldwide dimension.

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