Battlefield Historian reviews current exhibition at John Gray Centre

The exhibition, East Lothian – Birthplace of Scotland’s Flag: The Story of St Andrew and the Saltire at the John Gray Centre explores the origin and legacy of the Saltire and showcases rare and fascinating objects.

Arran P Johnston, Battlefield Historian and Historical Consultant, has reviewed the exhibition at the John Gray Centre Museum and urges anyone who has not made it along yet to try and catch it in its last few weeks.

Arran P Johnston notes that

'On the whole, the importance of a battle tends to be judged by the military or political consequences of its outcome. East Lothian is full of significant battlefields which can be considered this way. But sometimes – only very rarely – a battle’s importance transcends even such weighty considerations. Athelstaneford 832 is one of those. As is ably demonstrated by the Scottish Flag Trust’s exhibition at the John Gray Centre, it does not matter that we do not know how the actual combat occurred, or even precisely where or when. It does not matter that we do not know who Athelstan was, although we at least know who he was not! We do not know if this was a big battle or a small skirmish, but that does not matter either. What matters about the Battle of Athelstaneford is that long centuries after it took place the battle still matters to Scots, even if they are not aware of it.

The story of how the vision of St Andrew or his cross saved Picts and Scots raiders from defeat in East Lothian may be well-known locally, but it is known largely through the storytelling of later medieval writers who themselves knew little of the detail but much of the folklore. What was important to them however was that this story, neatly comparable to that of the first Christian emperor of Rome, provided in its tale of martial glory and divine intervention an explanation for the origin of the Saltire and our long association with St Andrew. 

This is the clear message of the exhibition: that it was here in East Lothian that Scotland, St Andrew and the Saltire first combined. The details of this battle, usually the area of my own interest, are in fact not the main reason for preserving its memory. This explains why the exhibition does not attempt to impose a strict narrative or analyse in detail the historiography. Instead the focus is on the long-term results of Athelstaneford, the continuing importance of St Andrew and his cross to Scottish identity. This is illustrated with artefacts such as pilgrim badges and flags like the famous Blue Blanket. 

There is also an interesting display comparing the legend of Constantine at the Milvian Bridge to the story of Athelstaneford. Pride of place however is the original copper engraving which once adored the Saltire Monument in Athelstaneford churchyard. Its size and design are striking, rewarding to any who are familiar with the stone reproduction which has since replaced it but, like me, knew nothing of its predecessor. What this exhibition does particularly well is to connect each aspect of its treatment with the local area: the importance of the St Andrews pilgrims to North Berwick; the Roman connections with Inveresk and Traprain; and of course what you can see in Athelstaneford itself. 

All this is the perfect setup for the conclusion of the exhibition, an appeal to the community to contribute ideas for an East Lothian flag design. It makes us think about the symbols around us, what they might mean and how the relate to who we now are. Above all else though, this exhibition shows that regardless of how much of what happened in 832 AD might long have been forgotten, the cultural legacy of Athelstaneford still lives on today.’

John Gray Centre staff have found that the display has been very popular with visitors and welcome feedback on all aspects of the centre events and exhibitions. We also welcome ideas for future displays and exhibition proposals from community groups and individuals. 

East Lothian – Birthplace of Scotland’s Flag: The Story of St Andrew and the Saltire runs until Tuesday 30th January, John Gray Centre, 15 Lodge Street, Haddington, East Lothian, EH41 3DX


Published: Friday, 19th January 2018