Neil McLennan: Time to ditch the Saltire?

Saltires in front of the Forth Road Bridge. Picture: PA
Saltires in front of the Forth Road Bridge. Picture: PA
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This year will be an important year not only politically but moreover historically and socially. It is an opportunity to take stock of the past, present and future.

Flags from across the world are everywhere for the World Cup and are about to adorn Scotland for the Commonwealth Games. In the ongoing 2014 debates and discussions the Scottish flag is very much so in the public eye. Maybe the Saltire should also be voted on.

It has not always been around and there is no reason why it should remain the same in the future. Scottish people, from the epicentre of the enlightenment, should do what they are good at: challenging norms, innovating, creating, future-gazing and striving for equality and people’s voices to be heard. Nations unite around a common purpose and past. The creation of an army, a police force, an education system “united” many “new” countries. That unity can be superficial, especially when imagined histories are established. Citizens essentially rally around symbols like flags. But who creates them or are they just “aye been”?

That is why a rethink about many of the things that make us Scottish might help us to gain a deeper understanding of our past, articulate our offering at the present and move forward positively and collectively.

The Scottish flag we know today, was not necessarily the dominant one in the Bannockburn battlefields 700 years ago. Indeed on inception it only represents one group of the many peoples who occupied what eventually was called Scotland.

It dates from 832 when the King of Alba did battle on an East Lothian battlefield. Allegedly, a white cross appeared set against the blue skies above Athelstaneford. It is unclear when St Andrew officially became patron saint of Scotland although by 1286 Seals showed an “X” shape and inscriptions noted his name.

Many Scots today would be unaware of how a foreign fisherman links to Scotland.

By 1385, a parliament decree, as Scots prepared to raid England, stated that every man would bear St Andrew’s cross but set against black cloth.

Later in the century this symbol began to appear on coins. However blue was still not a feature. Indeed, the Douglas standard, carried into the Battle of Otterburn (1388) had a green background and also contained the lion as a predominant symbol.

It might have been 1460 before the white Saltire against a blue background first appears in the “blue blanket” standard of the Edinburgh incorporated trades. Again it was not the predominant symbol and was vertical and to one side of the banner.

Alas, it is the colour scheme we know today and which is now the central and only symbol on the Saltire and which also features on the Union flag. The history of that flag is also one of multiple choice and variations. For the Union Flag as it stands was not the only initial design. There were several. Things could have looked very different.

The act of deciding upon symbolic flags has pressed many, even the European Union. Following a design competition 1400-plus proposed flags were whittled down to 12 by an international jury before yellow stars adorned its blue background. With that history of options and change locally, nationally and internationally, and the creativity going into new flags, is it time for us to look at a new flag for Scotland?

Neil McLennan is an author, educator and social entrepreneur