Saint Andrew: Patron Saint of Scotland

Saint Andrew: Patron Saint of Scotland

The 30th of November is Saint Andrew’s Day when people around the world celebrate Scotland’s patron saint.

While not as widely observed as Burns Night and certainly not as big a hoolie as Hogmanay, the feast day of Saint Andrew is still a great excuse to eat typically Scottish food, drink some whisky and perhaps enjoy a spot of ceilidh dancing.

There are several theories as to why St Andrew became Scotland’s patron saint. After all, he is also the patron saint of, among others, Romania, Poland and Ukraine. Not to mention his role as a protector of fishermen and comforter of those afflicted with everything from gout to sore throats.

He was not Scotland’s official patron saint until The Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. Before that, several other saints had a claim to the role with Saint Fillan, Saint Kentigern and Saint Columba all being invoked as protectors of Scotland. We should also give mention to Glasgow’s Saint Mungo and even Saint Kessog whose name was used as a war cry by Robert the Bruce during the Wars of Independence.

Political power play

As the brother of Peter, another of Christ’s original twelve disciples and the first pope, Andrew was especially useful to the Scottish wing of the Catholic Church when it was trying to assert its independence from control by English archbishops. In the 13th century, having the backing of the Church was a useful political power play and one that Robert the Bruce manipulated skilfully as Scotland took shape.

The atmospheric ruins of St Andrews Cathedral.

Veneration of Saint Andrews was based around his relics at St Andrews Cathedral in the Fife town of the same name. Legend has it that Saint Rule, a 4th century bishop in Greek city of Patras, had a dream in which he was told to take Saint Andrew’s bones, his relics, to “the edge of the earth” to protect them from Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. Rule’s boat was shipwrecked at the Pictish settlement of Kilrymont where he established a church and a shrine containing three fingers from Andrew’s hand, an upper arm bone, a kneecap and a tooth.

Rival to Santiago de Compostela

In time, that church would grow into Saint Andrews Cathedral, arguably the largest building in Scotland for several centuries. In fact, such was the pilgrim-pulling power of Saint Andrew and his relics that his awe-inspiring cathedral was said to rival that of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.

The wealth created by the pilgrims was instrumental in the foundation of Saint Andrews University in 1431. It is the oldest of the four traditional universities in Scotland. It is also the third oldest in the English speaking world after Oxford and Cambridge. The Scottish Reformation of 1560 brought an end to the Cathedral, to the pilgrimage and, for a while, it nearly spelled the end both the town of St Andrews and its university. Happily, both bounced back. Mainly because of a winning combination of golf and the arrival of the railways.

The Saltire and Saint Andrew

We also have Saint Andrew to thanks for the Saltire (main pic), the flag of Scotland. Tradition has it that he asked to be martyred on an X-shaped cross, arguing that he was unworthy of being executed on the same shape cross as Christ. The white X on a blue background refers not only to this tradition but also to another legend.

It is said that in the 9th century, Scotland’s King Angus was getting ready to do battle with the English when Saint Andrew came to him in a dream and promised victory. The next day, white clouds formed the X of Saint Andrew against the blue of the sky. Given such a saintly seal of approval, Angus inevitably won his battle and the white X on a blue background became the symbol of Scotland.

Like most origin stories, that tale is probably more important for its symbolism than its verifiable facts. But we won’t let that stop us from raising a glass on Saint Andrew’s Day on the 30th of November.

Our walking tours of Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews are a great opportunity to enjoy Scotland’s food and drink in the company of a local guide. And there is always time to talk about the country’s colourful past as well as its present. Book here.

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