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Celebrating St Andrew: From Humble Disciple to Patron Saint of Scotland

Today is St Andrew’s Day here in Scotland- our national day. Some of you reading this outside Scotland might be wondering who is St Andrew and why does he have a special day in Scotland? This article will answer those questions as well as look at some of the ways he has been honoured and remembered. First, we must look at the man we now know as St Andrew.

St Andrew- the Man

St Andrew was believed to be a fisherman in Galilee and became a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. It is said that he did not think himself worthy to be crucified on a cross the same way as Christ. Therefore, he was crucified on an x-shaped (saltire) cross (St Andrew’s cross is represented on The Saltire- our national flag). St Andrew’s relics eventually made their way to Scotland and there are conflicting accounts as to how and when this happened. One of the most famous legends in Scotland says that St Rule (Regulus) was the keeper of St Andrew’s relics in Greece. In AD 345, he decided to transport the relics out of Greece elsewhere, but shipwrecked off the coast of Fife. This is how St Andrew’s relics came to rest in Scotland. Sit tight because we will come back to and expand upon our story of St Rule and St Andrew’s relics.

The Origins of St Andrews Day in Scotland

Feasts in St Andrew’s honour can be dated back as far as 1000 AD. In 1320, Scotland’s Independence was declared with the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath. It was at this time that St Andrew was officially declared Scotland’s patron saint. Related to this- 2020 is the 700th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath. From 27 March to 26 April 2020, this historic document of national significance will go on public display for the time in 15 years at the National Museum of Scotland here in Edinburgh. No worries if you can’t make it as we will be sure to have a blog article to cover such a momentous occasion.

To make things even more interesting, according to, the formation of St Andrews Day as we know it today has its origins outside of Scotland. It originated in the United States- in Charleston, South Carolina! In 1729, a group of wealthy, Scottish expats formed the ‘St Andrews Society of Charleston’. Furthermore, points out that it “is actually the oldest Scottish society of its type in the world. They became famous throughout the region for their work assisting orphans and widows in that area”. Another similar society was formed in New York state in 1756 - ‘The St Andrew’s Society of the State of New York’. It “is the oldest charity of any kind registered in New York and was founded by Scotsmen who were looking to relieve the poor and distressed in the town”. These early societies provided the foundation for the idea of Scots celebrating St Andrew on a special day as we now do every year on November 30th.

Representations of St Andrew

Representations of St Andrew are found throughout Scotland. I recently visited the National Museum of Scotland to see what I could find for artefacts relating to our patron saint to help in honouring his day. One of the most prominent objects I found was a carved oak figure of St Andrew which is on display in the Kingdom of the Scots gallery. With this figure, we can see that St Andrew is carrying his saltire cross.

Moving on to a more intricate piece, there is an exquisite travelling canteen that once belonged to Prince Charles Edward. This item is part of the Jacobite collection of the National Museum. A representation of St Andrew on his cross can be found on the lid. According to the National Museum, it was made by Ebenezer Oliphant who was an Edinburgh silversmith in 1740-1.

One last artefact I would like to feature is small, but rather distinct. If you look carefully at the picture below, you can see St Andrew is the figure located in the middle to the far right. He is carved out of coral, which the Museum states, “had a special importance because it was interpreted as symbolizing Christ’s blood”. These figures are dated 17th or 18th century and are from Trapani, Sicily.

Please make sure to visit the National Museum of Scotland's website for more information on their fabulous collections and how you can plan a visit; it's an absolute must-do attraction for all visitors to Edinburgh.

St Andrew and Scotland’s Most Magnificent Cathedral

We now return to our story about St Andrew’s relics. One of the most significant places that was created to honour St Andrew was the cathedral named after him. The ruins of the Cathedral are now located in the town of St Andrews which also has a castle and university all named after the patron saint. It is important to note that the history of the site dates to at least the 700s. Additionally, there was a church, St Rule’s, that came before the cathedral named after St Andrew. According to Historic Scotland, “the dating of St Rule’s is one of the great problems of Scottish architectural history…However, most of the architecture at St Rule’s appears to date from after 1123…”. What is significant about St Rule’s is that during its time, it was the place where St Andrew’s relics were originally kept. In fact, the church had a tower over 30m (100ft) high, that “would have served as a beacon for pilgrims heading for the shrine of St Andrew”.

Most of St Rule’s is gone except the tower. We highly recommend paying the small entry fee to access the Tower as it has some of the best panoramic views of St Andrews. I’m not going to lie, it is quite a steep, narrow climb (156 steps). However, as I said, it has incredible views that you can’t get anywhere else in the area and helps you to appreciate just how vast St Andrews Cathedral once was.

At some point, the community of Augustinian monks decided that they needed something larger to honour St Andrew and set about building “the largest and most magnificent church in medieval Scotland”.

Work on St Andrews Cathedral started in 1160, took over a century to complete, and was consecrated on 5 July 1318. The architecture alone was quite fascinating as you can see how it started with Romanesque and transitioned to Gothic architecture. According to Historic Scotland, there is evidence of this looking from “east to west in the surviving nave wall…in the design of the windows, which pass from the simple round-headed form at the east end to pointed arches with Y-shaped bars at the west end”.

The sheer scale and magnificence of the Cathedral must have been an incredible site to behold. As I stated earlier, it was the largest church in medieval Scotland. The grounds of the Cathedral covered a vast area and consisted of St Rule’s Church, the Cathedral itself (with a typical nave, transepts, choir, and presbytery), the Relic Chapel of St Andrew, and the Cathedral Priory. The entire Cathedral complex was surrounded by a precinct wall (which is the most complete precinct wall to still exist in Scotland) with entry through Pends Gate (see below) at the south-west of the cathedral.

The Relic Chapel of St Andrew is significant because it is the chapel that housed the shrine that contained the relics of St Andrew. Historic Scotland outlines how the “Scottish church claimed to have three fingers of his right hand, a part of one arm, a kneecap and a tooth”. To be in possession of such relics would place “St Andrews on a par with the great shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela in Spain”. Clearly it was an important place for believers to make a pilgrimage.

Unfortunately, the Cathedral suffered under the Reformation as did many buildings of Catholic significance during that time. In 1559, John Knox gave a fiery sermon that worked up his congregation (in a nearby parish church) so much so that they “attacked the cathedral and tore down its rich furnishings”. After that, it was all downhill for the Cathedral and it stood in complete ruins by the end of the 1600s.

Today, there are only a few surviving sections that allude to just how grand St Andrews Cathedral and complex once stood. A tower from the west façade along with the arched entryway still stands. This would have been the great processional entrance and only used on special occasions. One end of the choir and presbytery still stands and provides more visuals and clues as to the height of the Cathedral. Some arches from the south transept still survived. There is an impressive graveyard on the cathedral grounds, and most of the graves date from post-Reformation period.

St Andrews Cathedral is operated by Historic Scotland. Make sure to visit their website for more information on visiting this incredible historic site (as well as hundreds of other locations). They were an invaluable reference for this article- I am always grateful for their knowledge and the work they have done to make history more accessible to all visitors.

One Act of Kindness

Well, I hope you have enjoyed our brief look at St Andrew and the way he has been and is honoured here in Scotland. We wish everyone a Happy St Andrew’s Day wherever you may be in the world. We also ask that you please follow in his footsteps and mark his day (and beyond!) by doing at least one act of kindness. I hope that we can all celebrate the values of helping those less fortunate and in need- especially as we enter the holiday season.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!

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