Who was St Andrew? Did he have anything to do with Scotland? And what does the saltire on the Scottish flag have to do with him? Rab Houston, professor emeritus in History at the University of St Andrews, reveals what we know about Andrew’s life and how he became a patron saint…


Andrew was one of the apostles

Little is known about the life of St Andrew. A fisherman from Galilee – whose name in Greek means ‘manly’ – he was among the first of Jesus Christ’s 12 apostles along with his brother Peter. Christ said he would make them “fishers of men”.

The saltire (diagonal cross) on the Scottish flag comes from Andrew’s execution

Around AD 60, Andrew was martyred by the Romans in the Greek city of Patras. Legend has it that he requested to be crucified on a X-shaped cross, or saltire, because he did not feel worthy to be executed on the same shaped cross as Jesus. That became known as the Saint Andrew’s Cross and a symbol of Scotland in the medieval period.

The saltire (diagonal cross) on the Scottish flag comes from Andrew’s execution. (Image by RF Getty Images)
The saltire (diagonal cross) on the Scottish flag comes from Andrew’s execution. (Image by RF Getty Images)

More patron saints history:

There were other contenders for Scotland’s patron saint

During the Dark Ages, it looked as though another would have the best claim to the status Andrew eventually enjoyed. Though saints such as Duthac and Ninian had regional standing (in the far north and deep south respectively), it was Columba who initially looked most likely to become the emerging nation of Alba’s patron saint.

But then its political and ecclesiastical focus moved east (and later south) as Irish Gaels made inroads from the west. Originally championed by the Northumbrian Angles, one of whom introduced the cult of the apostle into Fife in the early eighth century, the Picts promoted the more exotic Andrew as a counterweight to Columba, with his Irish roots.

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While St Andrew never came to Scotland, it is said that his remains did

Legend has it that St Regulus (also called Rule), a fourth-century monk in Patras, was told by an angel to hide some of Andrew’s bones. He took them from their resting place in Constantinople, of which Andrew was also patron saint, and sought to place them at the ends of the earth, eventually being shipwrecked on the coast of Fife, at the Pictish royal centre of Cennrígmonaid (later renamed St Andrews). The Céli Dé, or Culdees (hermitical Celtic monks) already settled there erected a chapel to house a sarcophagus or box-shrine, possibly containing the relics.

The town that became St Andrews became the centre of Scottish religious life

In a public relations triumph, clergy and laity alike promoted the community’s development as a pilgrimage destination. The identification of the prelate [ecclesiastical dignitary] based at St Andrews as bishop of the Scots in the 11th century strongly suggests the pre-eminence of both the community and its saint. Then, starting around 1160, a massive new cathedral of the Augustinian canons was built.

St Andrew’s status as patron saint of Scotland was established by 1320

From a regional, minority cult, St Andrew gradually became the spiritual father of all of Scotland. This was officially recognised in 1286, when he appears on the seal of the Guardians of Scotland – the regents after the death of King Alexander III – framed by his diagonal cross and surrounded by the words: Andreas dux esto Scotis compatriotis (‘Andrew be leader of the Scots, your fellow countrymen’).

St Andrew became a protector of Scots, and an (honorary) Scotsman himself. Association with the Scottish cause in the late 13th and early 14th-century Wars of Independence only cemented his status, turning him into a powerful national symbol. The 1320 Declaration of Arbroath officially named Andrew as patron saint.

Other countries have St Andrew as their patron saint

His evident virtue explains Andrew’s widespread popularity, because he is also the patron saint of Greece, Romania, and Russia (among others). Today, dozens of St Andrew’s societies exist in many parts of the Scottish diaspora: notably Australia, Canada and the US, but also Abu Dhabi, Argentina, India and Singapore.

While Andrew is primarily the patron saint of fisherfolk, his cult could be used for divination. Into the 20th century, young women had a prayer and ritual to invoke his help in identifying and winning a husband.

A Russian style orthodox church dedicated to Saint Andrew
A Russian style orthodox church dedicated to Saint Andrew at the village of Episkopio in Cyprus. (Image by Getty Images)

Interest in Andrew revived and evolved in the Renaissance

While pilgrimages to St Andrews declined in the later Middle Ages, King James III of Scotland may have considered a chivalric order of St Andrew during the 15th century – on the model of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy’s Order of the Golden Fleece in 1430, which was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St Andrew.

A century later, court poet and herald Sir David Lindsay created a new royal armorial, featuring Andrew, the blue saltire, a redesigned lion rampant and a thistle. These components became icons of Scotland, a reminder that saints had political (and commercial) as well as spiritual uses. Renaissance Andrew was very much a royal saint. Yet, over time, saints like him became generalised models of virtue, heroic figures for public wonder rather than private affection. They became peoples’ saints.

Even the Reformation did not destroy St Andrew’s status

The coming of Protestantism the mid-16th century saw St Andrew’s Cathedral partly destroyed and any remaining relics scattered. Yet even after this, Protestants and Catholics alike were devoted to the apostle as a broadly Christian model, rather than a strictly sectarian one. For all high-profile saints, what mattered was the goodness they brought by affinity with God. The friend of God was the friend of humankind.

Vintage engraving of Saint Andrew the Apostle
Vintage engraving of Saint Andrew the Apostle. For all high-profile saints, what mattered was the goodness they brought by affinity with God, writes Rab Houston. (Image by Getty Images)

St Andrew’s Day took off not in Scotland, but the New World

People of Scots descent often adopted a stronger sense of Scottish culture than those they had left behind, perhaps to maintain their ancestral identity. Thus, the first documented post-Reformation celebration of 30 November as St Andrew’s Day was in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1729.

It had been organised by a philanthropic society that bears the apostle’s name, and carried on the original point of the feast day in the Catholic Church, which was for communities to surpass themselves in penitence and charity to make them worthy of the saint’s protection.

The first documented post-Reformation celebration of 30 November as St Andrew’s Day was in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1729

Along with music and dancing, a meal featuring a cooked sheep’s head seems to have been a centrepiece of St Andrew’s society celebrations throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. That tradition is now, some would say mercifully, lost.

St Andrews Day has relatively recently been a public holiday in Scotland

It was only in 2007 that 30 November (or the following Monday should 30 November fall on a weekend) officially became a public holiday in Scotland, and celebrations remain much lower key than on Hogmanay (31 December) and Burns Night (25 January).


Rab Houston is Professor Emeritus in History at the University of St Andrews and author of Scotland: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2008)