St. Andrew and the Scots

Today is the feast day of Saint Andrew, who according to tradition was crucified on a diagonal or X-shaped cross, as depicted on the national Flag of Scotland. In addition to being the patron saint of fisherman (and fishmongers), golfers, rope-makers, singers, and spinsters (!), Andrew is probably best known, at least in America, as the patron of Scotland.

The Saltire, symbol of Andrew's patronage, or of Scottish resistance against English aggression?

But here’s an obvious question: why would Andrew, a Jewish fisherman, brother of Peter, one of the twelve apostles who went on to be martyred in Greece and most certainly never set foot in Scotland, be the patron of that remote Celtic region? It goes back at least to the twelfth century, when legends began to appear claiming that relics of Saint Andrew were brought to Scotland as early as the mid-fourth century, and that the saint’s cross appeared as an omen in the sky to a ninth century Pictish King, Óengus mac Fergusa, promising him victory in a forthcoming battle against an Angle (English) chieftain, Æthelstan (so the Flag of Scotland basically re-creates this vision, with a cloud white saltire cross against a sky-blue background). While we can safely assume that both the relics and the vision are legendary, they tell us some interesting things about Scotland. By the twelfth century, Scotland was already dealing with English aggression, and so used the story of Andrew’s patronage to bolster its claim for sovereignty: Scotland clearly was blessed by God, since it was under the patronage of one of the 12 apostles. Furthermore, such patronage extended even to leading to righteous military victory against those bothersome English. This line of reasoning was used in appeals to the pope to command the English to leave the Scots alone. Pope Boniface did just that in 1299, ordering Edward I out of Scotland and appealing to Andrew to justify this command (to learn more about this interesting bit of Scottish medieval history, read this article on the Saint Andrew Legend from the National Archives of Scotland).

At the risk of offending all my Scottish friends and relations, I think that what worked in the middle ages isn’t quite as effective today. Scotland’s patron saint doesn’t seem to have quite the same cachet as some of the other national Celtic saints, like David of Wales or Patrick or Brigid of Ireland. Because he was chosen as the national patron for civic, rather than just religious, reasons, Andrew doesn’t seem to symbolize the degree of spiritual wisdom  that characterizes the importance of Celtic Christianity for our day. Granted, November 30 is a great day for Scotsman to don their kilts and pull out the pipes and try to blast out the eardrums of any Englishman standing nearby. Far be it from me to knock this. I just wish that Scotland had historically looked toward one or two of its own for its patronage in the high courts of heaven. Ninian (the apostle to the southern picts), Columcille (who founded Iona, and who actually is the third of Ireland’s three patrons), Kentigern (Mung0), the founder of Glasgow, or even Margaret (although Hungarian by birth, became a Queen of Scotland), all would, it seems to me, be eager to offer their celestial love and support to the sons and daughters of Caledonia. If Ireland can have three patrons, surely Scotland deserves the same, and I nominate Ninian and Margaret as the co-patrons of my ancestral home. They may not have hung out with Jesus while on earth, but at least their feet touched Scottish soil and their hearts knew and loved the land and people of Alba.

But we can worry about that some other day. Today is Saint Andrew’s day, so let us honor the Apostle who has become as much a part of Scottish national identity as Patrick is for the Irish. Listen: I can hear the pipes now.

Seamus Heaney reads "St. Kevin and the Blackbird"
Embracing Contemplative Depth (on God's Terms)
Remembering John O'Donohue
Mass in Jig Minor
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • phil foster

    “At the risk of offending all my Scottish friends and relations…”

    It’s the Scottish golfers you must be careful about offending. St. Andrew, indeed!

  • Al Jordan

    Erin Go Bragh! That’s all I got to say.

  • Kimberly Mason

    Yay for St. Andrew! Though I have to agree, I think that we could add a few to the saintly mix and certainly come out ahead. I’m a huge St. Margaret fan.

    In my church, St. Andrew’s day (which we celebrate on the first Sunday in Advent) is my excuse to eat as many homemade shortbread cookies as our resident kilt-wearing-cookie-baking-Scotsman brings.

    Thanks be to God!

  • Lisa Johnson

    Hi, Carl -
    I am very pleased with your choice of St. Margaret. I had the pleasure of visiting her chapel at Edinburgh Castle and I have long been impressed with the attributes of this lady.
    Blessings, Lisa