A Tooth, an Armbone, a Kneecap and some Fingers

20 Mar 2015
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A night to celebrate Scotland

In Calgary, Alberta and Chicago, Illinois; in Tallahassee and Jacksonville, Florida and Modesto, California; in Java and Bangkok and Singapore people gather on 30th November to dance the Dashing White Sergeant, to drink a dram or two, to hear a ballad, a tale, a snatch of song and the irresistible pipe's. In short, people gather to indulge in 'Scottishness'. And why not? No events organiser could think up a better 'party pack'. But what's telling is the strength of the connection with Scotland.

Some 50 million people around the world claim Scottish ancestry and the night of the patron saint is the ideal time to celebrate such connection. And it's not just the preserve of the Diaspora either. Full-flung ceilidhs test the floorboards of many a village hall from Gretna Green to Lerwick on 30th November. In the town that bears the saint's name there's a week-long festival of arts and activities including the 'Golden Spurtle Award' for the best porridge in Fife! And since November 30th 1996, when the Stone of Destiny was returned to Scotland and housed in Edinburgh Castle it has been decreed that the Castle shall be open with free entry on every St. Andrew's Day in perpetuity to allow the people of Scotland to view the fabled Stone.

So the spirit of celebration is very much alive and the day ranks second only to Burns Night in the Scots calendar. But how did St. Andrew get to be the patron saint of Scotland in the first place? And what are they doing celebrating his night in Russia with vodka rather than whisky and balalaika not bagpipes?

From the Sea of Galilee to the North Sea

The story goes that Andrew, the Galilean fisherman who was singled out to be Christ's first disciple, preached the Gospel in the lands around the Black Sea and in Greece and was eventually crucified on an X-shaped cross in Patras. The geography of his mission explains the balalaika, for Andrew is indeed the patron saint of Russia and of Greece as well as Scotland. The association with a land he never set foot on is, not surprisingly, based on a number of conflicting legends, the most colourful of which is the story of St. Rule.

Three hundred years after Andrew's martyrdom the Roman Emperor Constantine, himself a Christian, ordered that the saint's bones should be moved from Patras to his new capital city of Constantinople. Before the order was carried out a monk called St. Rule (or St. Regulus) had a dream in which an angel told him to take what bones of Andrew's he could to 'the ends of the earth' for safe-keeping. St. Rule duly took what he could, presumably in a swift and frantic raid on the tomb, and after an epic journey with the aforementioned assortment was shipwrecked on the east coast of Scotland. He must have deemed that he had indeed reached the 'ends of the earth'!

Over a millennium later St. Rule's Tower still stands among the ruins of St. Andrew's Cathedral, which in its heyday was a great centre of Medieval pilgrimage. But the whereabouts of the relics is unknown. They were probably destroyed in the Scottish Reformation. During his visit in 1969, Pope Paul VI gave further relics of St. Andrew to Scotland with the words "St. Peter gives you his brother" and these are now displayed in a reliquary in St. Mary's Catholic Cathedral in Edinburgh. But what these comprise a distal phalange maybe, and the odd canonical fibula is not recorded.

A day to celebrate Scots

Whatever the veracity of these ancient legends the Saltire is without doubt based on the cross of Andrew's crucifixion and maybe the significance we should take today is that Andrew, although sometimes overshadowed by his bigger-billed brother Simon Peter, was the disciple. And maybe in the light of Scotland's immense contribution to human knowledge, it's legitimate to suggest that the hagiographers got it wrong and that the shards that St Rule brought to the coast of Fife were shards of the saint's cranium. Any St. Andrew's Society worth their Saltire will drink to that surely!

The Saint Andrew's Day Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award has certainly endorsed such a sentiment. Each year, four nominees from seven categories are put forward for selection as Scotsman or Scotswoman of the Year. In 2001 Harry Potter's creator J.K. Rowling won the overall Top Scot award and in 2008 cyclist and Olympic gold medallist Chris Hoy was victorious. Nominees this year include up and coming Scottish band Frightened Rabbit, actor Kevin McKidd and The Fintry Four, who have made the village of Fintry a green beacon for Scotland with their Fintry Renewable Energy Enterprise. The results will be announced, as you'd expect, on 30th November.

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