Saint Andrew – the man behind the legend

St AndrewMany important people are related to Scotland, in some other post for example, we talked about Robert Burns. And as Scot’s prepare to celebrate their patron saint’s holiday, today we take a look at the fascinating life of Saint Andrew! He was the first of Jesus’ apostles, according to Christian history, and has links to Georgia, Malta, Russia, Cyprus, and many other nations which he was said to have visited and preached in. However, in this part of the world at least, Saint Andrew is definitely best known for being the patron saint of Scotland!

Learn more about Robert Burns’s life

Saint Andrew was born in Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee, brother to Simon Peter, another of Jesus’ apostles. According to the New Testament and Gospels, Andrew was originally a follower of John the Baptist, and was led by him to seek out the company of Jesus, upon recognising him as the Messiah, Andrew and his brother became devoted disciples and spent much of their lives as travelling preachers bringing the teachings of Jesus to a wider audience.

He was said to have been killed in Patras, in Greece, in 60AD after baptising the wife and brother of a Greek governor who was enraged by his relative’s conversion to Christianity. The early writings after the event stated that Andrew had been martyred as Jesus was, by Latin-style crucifixion. Soon however the reports changed, and statements were made averring that Andrew had refused to be crucified on a “Latin cross”, so his tormentors turned the cross to form an “X” shape, known as a saltire, and bound Andrew to this with rope, where he suffered for three days before succumbing on November 30th, and since his confirmation as a saint he has been celebrated on this day throughout the Catholic church and countries taking him as their patron, including Scotland of course. Much of what we think we know about the life and death of Saint Andrew is of course apocryphal, but although some names and dates have been made a little fuzzy by the intervening years, we can be a little more certain of what happened later, and how he came to be so strongly associated with Scotland that we still use the saltire cross as the symbol for our national flag to this day!

Saltire flagThe story of how Saint Andrew came to be appointed as patron of Scotland dates approximately 832AD, when the Pictish king, Óengus (or Angus) II was preparing to lead his army into battle against Northumbrian foes, possibly led by someone named Athelstane, though not the English kings of that name as Óengus lived in a different time period from either of them. According to the legend, on the eve of battle Óengus was deep in prayer, knowing that his forces were badly outnumbered. While praying, he pledged that, should he be victorious, he would see to it that the Picts adopted Saint Andrew as their patron. The next morning, as the forces prepared their assault the Pictish army saw an unusual cloud formation cause a massive white “X” to fill the blue skies. Taking this as a sign from Saint Andrew the army was heartened and was ultimately successful in battle. Afterwards the Picts adopted the white saltire on a sky blue field as their emblem and it has remained one of the most instantly recognisable of Scottish symbols since! Saint Andrew was duly appointed the patron saint of the Picts after as well, and within around 70 years the bishopric of Scotland had been moved to a small settlement in Fife, where relics of Saint Andrew rested, and which came to be known as the town of St. Andrews.

Saint Andrews influence can still be seen strongly in the town which bears his name, from the many local features and buildings given his name, to the ancient Tower of Saint Rule. Saint Rule was supposed to have brought the relics of Saint Andrew to Scotland to present them to King Óengus I (an ancestor of the King Óengus above) in the early 8th century AD, however seeing as Saint Rule lived at least 100 years before Óengus I this seems very unlikely and it can be supposed that this link is more than a little fanciful, trying to link the legends of Saint Andrew to Scotland to an earlier date than is strictly true. It is more commonly accepted that Acca, a bishop from Northumbria, brought these remains when he fled his own diocese to live among the Picts.

RSt. Andrew carving in the National Museum of Scotlandelics of Saint Andrew are still held in Scotland today, although the ones now held at the National Shrine in Edinburgh are different from those brought to St. Andrews over a thousand years ago. The original relics were presumed destroyed after the sacking of St. Andrews Cathedral in 1559 by Reformation activists led by John Knox. In 1879 however the Archbishop of Amalfi, whose church retains most of the relics associated with Saint Andrew, gifted Archbishop Strain of Scotland with a new relic to grace St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Edinburgh, after the restoration of the Catholic Church in Scotland the previous year. Additionally, Cardinal Gray of the same church was welcomed into his new role in 1969 by being gifted a second relic by Pope Paul VI, with the message “Peter welcomes his brother Andrew” a clear reference to the Pope’s status as the most recent in an unbroken line of successors to the Apostle Peter, and the feeling among many Scots, especially of the Catholic church that the Scottish are a specially blessed people to be protected by Peter’s brother, and the first apostle of Christ.

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Although, as a Christian Saint, Andrew is most strongly connected with the church and canonical lore, he is also associated with a strange little Scottish piece of folklore where the saltire cross of Saint Andrew can be placed on a fireplace to stop witches from flying down your chimney to enter your house! By placing the St Andrew’s cross on any area of the fireplace, witches are prevented from entering through this opening. It is thought that the use of the symbol in this manner is related to the English phenomena of witch balls, although in the Scottish tradition the witch will be actively repelled from entering the home, whereas a witch ball would merely delay or trap the witch, not exactly something which modern Scots are very concerned with but an amusing tidbit regarding the mixing of superstitions nonetheless!

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