St. Andrew’s Day is celebrated on November 30 – that’s Friday of this week in 2018 – a Scottish Bank Holiday.
It’s a day when we have an excuse to drink rather more than we would on a normal Thursday, become maudlin and pontificate, glass in hand, “Wha’s like us? Damn few – an’ they’re a’ deid”. Yet many Scots have little or no idea of why St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland and why our national flag is … no, not the lion rampant … the saltire, a white cross on a sky-blue background.
In the eighth century, the Pictish King Oengus I built a monastery on the east coast of Fife to house some bones which were said to have come from the body of Andrew, one of Christ’s original twelve disciples, who was crucified on a saltire-shaped cross - a cross like a multiplication sign. King Oengus II, son of Oengus I, is said to have offered prayers to the saint before a battle against English forces from Northumberland; and soon afterwards, clouds supposedly formed a saltire shape in the sky, which the Picts took as a sign of a blessing. When they were victorious against all the odds, Oengus declared Saint Andrew to be Scotland’s patron saint and the cloud saltire to be the basis of Scotland’s national flag.
So that’s how Andrew became Scotland’s patron saint and how the saltire became our national flag. But what about our national flower, the emblem of Scotland? How was the thistle chosen for this honour? An oft-repeated legend is that an invading Norse army was creeping towards the resting Scottish army in darkness, hoping to catch them unawares before what was to become the Battle of Largs in 1263. One Norseman, barefoot for some reason on an October morning, stepped on a thistle and yelled something which sounded like, “Au-da-uf-da-au!” … “Oooh-yah!” … alerting the Scottish watchmen and resulting in the flamboyant, purple thistle flower with which we are all familiar being nominated as the national flower. As one might say, “That’s a likely story!”
And why am I not happy with this very common version of the reason for the thistle’s selection? Well, the thistle which would indeed be painful if stood on in bare feet is, surprisingly enough, commonly called the ‘spear thistle’ … Cirsium vulgare, to be technical … and is native to Scotland. So that bit is possible. But would a man creeping through the darkness towards other men intent on killing them and risking his own life and the lives of his colleagues in the process really surrender his advantage by shouting out in pain? Hmmm. And then there is the matter of the variety of thistle. The thistle usually used as our national emblem is actually, botanically, Onopordum Acanthium, commonly called the ‘cotton thistle’. It’s tall, showy and spectacular – but it almost certainly was not to be found, let alone stood on, in thirteenth century Scotland. No, I think there’s a more mundane and less romantic reason for the cotton thistle being chosen as the flower of Scotland.
In mediaeval times many plants were accorded Christian connections; and thistles were associated with Mary, the mother of Christ, probably because their white sap could bring to mind Mary breast-feeding her infant son in the stable in Bethlehem. Thistles were also associated with loyalty. I think religious belief and loyalty explain the thistle’s choice. And there’s a fascinating similarity between the motto associated with the thistle emblem of the French region of Lorraine … think Auld Alliance … and our national motto. The Duke of Lorraine’s motto was “Qui s’y frotte s’y pique” - “who touches it, pricks oneself”; and the Scottish motto is “Nemo me impune lacessit” – “Wha daur meddle wi’ me?” Interesting!