Who owns St Andrew's Day?

Vapour trail Saltire in the sky A cloudspotting pioneer created an unbreakable bond between Scotland and St Andrew 1200 years ago

St Andrew's Day, 30 November, is Scotland's national day - or, rather, one of Scotland's national days. With the debate on Scottish identity, which has been gathering momentum for over 30 years, how far has this symbol of Scottishness become a battle ground?

In the gently rolling hills of the Scottish Lowlands in AD 832, King Angus and his small army of Scots and Picts were preparing to face their enemy, the Angles and Saxons, near the town of Athelstaneford.

Legend has it that, just before the battle, Angus prayed for help in overcoming their opponents.

And there it was: centuries before jet engine vapour trails, a giant white diagonal cross - the same kind of cross that Andrew had been crucified on - appeared in the blue sky.

Who was St Andrew?

Carved oak figure is of St Andrew and his cross, National Museums Scotland
  • St Andrew was born between AD 5 and AD 10 in Bethsaida, Palestine
  • Brother of St Peter
  • Crucified on a diagonal cross as he felt unworthy to die on the same cross as Christ
  • Believed to have been crucified on 30 November AD 60
  • Never set foot in Scotland

The Scots won the battle; Andrew became Scotland's patron saint, and this alliance was later formalised in the Saltire, Scotland's flag - a material representation of the emboldening Athelstaneford cloud formation.

Skip forward to the present day and a new battle is being waged. Scots are likely to be voting on their future in the 2014 referendum, and the yes and no campaigns are wasting no time in marking their territory.

But this is not the first time St Andrew has found himself at the centre of an ideological tussle.

Back in the Middle Ages, having St Peter's brother as a national patron acquired a political meaning for a then independent Scotland.

Tom Devine, professor of history at the University of Edinburgh, explains: "Because St Andrew was the brother of St Peter, founder of the Church, the Scots were able to appeal to the Pope in 1320 via the Declaration of Arbroath for his protection and the independence of the Scottish church from English invasion and threat of assimilation."

"As Scotland slowly emerged as a nation in the early medieval period a national symbol was needed. In a deeply religious age that was normally a saint."

A sense of Scottish identity underpins political and constitutional debate in the nation that is Scotland. It is a given. At issue, among many other elements, is whether that identity can only find full expression under independence - or whether it is satisfactorily addressed through the shared sovereignty of the UK.

That is a genuine debate. So neither side in the independence referendum debate can claim a monopoly upon Scottish patriotism. Neither side, therefore, can claim St Andrew's Day as its sole property.

In any case, St Andrew's Day has decided competition in the field of Scottish patriotism and self-expression. Frankly, the commemoration of Scotland's patron saint has some way to go before trumping Hogmanay and the annual celebration of Scotland's national bard, Robert Burns.

Hogmanay - Auld Lang Syne and the rest - is Scotland's festive gift to the world. Scots everywhere see in the New Year in fine form - and the habit has spread.

Burns Night suppers now straddle the poet's birth date, January 25, and form an extended season of Scottish culture, from the poetic to the popular.

There have been repeated efforts to draw these disparate strands together, to brand St Andrew's Day as a unified celebration of all things Scottish. Such efforts have been particularly aimed at the diaspora, Scots abroad and those of Scots origin around the globe.

To date, though, St Andrew's Day has yet to displace the existing strong brands: Hogmanay and Burns.

The Declaration of Arbroath sealed the relationship between St Andrew and the people of Scotland, but according to Scots mythology it dates back to the Scythians, an ancient population who lived near the shores of the Black Sea whom St Andrew had converted.

A cultural revival

The celebration of St Andrew as a national festival is thought to originate from the reign of Malcolm III (1034 - 1093). But it is only in more recent times that the 30 November has been given national holiday status.

In 2006, the Scottish Parliament passed the St Andrew's Day Bank Holiday Bill, introduced by independent MSP Dennis Canavan. The 30 November was thus declared a public holiday - albeit a voluntary one, meaning that employers are not legally obliged to give staff a day off.

Although some Scots point out that the 30 November is a non-holiday and, in 2011, the Scottish National Party itself called for greater celebration of St Andrew's Day, the 2006 Bill triggered a revival of Scotland's national saint day, with more events marking the occasion.

But Prof Devine argues that St Andrew and his flag gained significance earlier when, during the 1980s, "Scottishness became a more significant source of identity than Britishness".

"In 1979 the first attempt at Scottish devolution failed," he says.

"This was followed by a decade and more of Tory rule, poll tax, unemployment and deindustrialisation, despite the fact that over that period Scots had overwhelmingly voted against the Thatcher and Major governments. The result was the so-called 'democratic deficit'.

"Partly generated by this, a Scottish cultural revival occurred in literature, popular music history writing, traditional music and more, which helped to drive the movement to devolution. It enhanced national confidence and political nationalism."

The 30 November is often chosen as a date for political rallies, marches and announcements. In 2010, The Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Moore, presented the Scotland Bill, exactly a year after the Scottish Government's White Paper.

Aberdeen statue of Robert the Bruce holding the Declaration of Arbroath The Declaration of Arbroath defines the Scots "as being the special charge of the Blessed Peter's brother"

Given the past and current Scottish political landscapes, does St Andrew's day have a clear political bias in today's Scotland?

David McCrone, professor of sociology at the University of Edinburgh, does not think so. "It is political in a loose sense... If you compare it over the long duration, say, 100 years, then of course it is more political," he says.

"But that's because Scottish national identity lends itself to political much more these days, given that we are in a situation where the recovery of Scottish independence is a possibility after a referendum."

St Andrew and the flag are powerful emblems of Scottish identity and have the potential to be used by political forces on either side of the debate, according to Prof McCrone.

Robert Burns: Scotland's "real patron saint"

Statue of Robert Burns in Coal Harbor

"It's not a reactionary symbol any more than it is a progressive symbol. It's simply a symbol, one of the many symbols, of Scottish national identity."

An eye on 2014

Notions of Scottish identity will be crucial to both sides in the referendum debate - and they are vocal in their interpretation.

Pro-independence group Yes Scotland insists on the importance of the day reaching statutory status, and believe in the value of the holiday in Scotland and abroad.

When asked how they would celebrate the day, a spokesperson from the campaign said: "Local Yes Scotland groups the length and breadth of the country are marking November 30 with a range of social events, such as quiz nights, a students' independence debate and St Andrew's Night ceilidhs."

On the other side of the debate, union-supporting campaign group Better Together believes the day is a way to celebrate the achievements that Scots have made as part of the UK, arguing that there is no one single way of feeling Scottish.

"The nationalists like to think that they own patriotism, that the only pride you can feel if you are a Scot is in being a Scot," a spokesperson said.

"We know that this is nonsense. You can be proud of a great many things and a great many identities. I am proud to be Scottish and I am proud to be British. No one should make me choose between the two."

On 27 November 2012 the Scottish government accused the opposition of trying to "hijack" St Andrew for their unionist cause. Former Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Councillor Eric Milligan and former MP and MSP Dennis Canavan issued a statement to highlight the cross-party, pan-Scottish value of St Andrew's Day and the Saltire:

"The Saltire is Scotland's national flag and St Andrew's Day is Scotland's national day. They should not be hijacked by any political party or group."

So will the 30 November become more significant in the next two years? Whatever the verdict, it seems that the battle for Scottish identity is very much on.

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