Why does Scotland have two flags?

Scotland is one of my favorite nations on the planet. But it has some weird cultural quirks.

One of the most notable is that it’s the owner of two different flags (unlike most countries, which usually only have one).

So why does Scotland have two flags? What’s the difference between them? Are they both official? What do they represent? And why does one nation have to be so flag-greedy?

In this handy guide, we’ve covered all that and more. Read on!

Why Does Scotland Have Two Flags

How Many Flags Does Scotland Have?

There are two official flags of Scotland. The first is the Royal Standard of Scotland, also known as the Lion Rampant. This flag features a red lion rampant on a yellow background. The second flag is the official Flag of Scotland, also known as the St. Andrew’s Cross or the Saltire. This flag features a white saltire, or cross, on a blue background.

The Saltire, the Official Flag of Scotland
The Saltire, the Official Flag of Scotland
The Lion Rampant Flag of Scotland
The Lion Rampant Flag of Scotland

Having 2 flags makes Scotland pretty unique compared to most other nations on the planet. 

Although Scotland has two flags, only one of them is official: the Saltire.

But you might also have seen another.

This yellow and red flag features a lion emblem, and it’s commonly seen in cities, at sporting events, and draped across the nation’s souvenir stores. But what is it? What’s it called? Why does Scotland have it? And what does it represent?

In the coming questions, we’ve covered all that and lots more. Expect some brief history lessons, some pretty surprising stuff, and a big bundle of fun facts.

Why Does Scotland Have Two Flags?

Again, Scotland only has one official flag… the blue and white ‘Saltire’. It has this official flag for the same reasons that any nation has one official flag.

But it also has another—and that second flag represents some very different stuff.

Known as the Scottish ‘Lion Rampant,’ this second flag is an unofficial (but much-loved) emblem of Scotland. It’s an important insight into the history and heritage of the nation’s kings and queens.

Coming up, we’ve discussed both flags, what they mean, what they represent, and how they differ from one another.

First up, the official Saltire!

What is the Official National Flag of Scotland?

The official national flag of Scotland is the so-called Saltire, which features a blue background covered by a white cross. This white cross runs corner to corner, diagonally, across the flag.

The Saltire Flag Flying on Top of a Medieval Tower in Edinburgh
The Saltire flag flying on top of a medieval tower in Edinburgh

Simple but striking, it’s one of the most well-known national flags on the planet.

Depending on who you ask, the flag is also known as Saint Andrew’s Cross… but we’ll come to all the history and heritage of that name (and more) very soon.

How Old is the Scottish Flag?

The blue and white Scottish Saltire flag was adopted as the national flag of Scotland around 500 years ago, in 1542… but its story and history predate that period by a pretty hefty margin, reaching all the way back to biblical times.

(More on that soon).

Interestingly, the color of the Saltire was only standardized back in 2003. Until then, the blue of the flag could be any number of shades, so there was no uniformity between the various flags draped around the nation.

But in 2003, Scottish members of parliament voted to change that, choosing one shade, and making that shade the always-used color for Saltires around the planet.

The Lion Rampant flag, although it’s not the official flag of Scotland, has actually been in existence for longer than the Saltire. The image of the lion was first used in 1222, on a coat of arms. It’s not exactly clear when it was first used on a flag… but whenever it was, it was definitely before the date of 1542.

What is the History and Meaning of Scotland’s White and Blue Flag?

Okay, this one’s pretty complicated and controversial—so be patient while I guide you along a meandering journey of context, disclaimers, and uncertainty. Here we go…

The patron saint of Scotland is St. Andrew, and the Scottish white and blue Saltire flag is inspired by good old Andrew and his actions.

We don’t know for sure why St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, but here are some things we do know about him…

He was one of Jesus’ first disciples, and would frequently hang around with the big man himself. He was probably a fisherman, and his remains were repeatedly moved around after his death.

But more importantly (or more importantly in relation to this guide), St. Andrew was crucified on a diagonal cross, as he didn’t deem himself worthy enough to be crucified on the same-shaped cross as Jesus.

Martyrdom of Saint Andrew in the Nuremberg Chronicle
Martyrdom of Saint Andrew in the Nuremberg Chronicle

The people of Scotland love him. The nation’s first university is named after him, there’s an entire town named after him(!), and (as you’ve probably guessed by now), the Saltire flag was (probably) crafted in honor of his self-effacing actions.

The town named after him (St. Andrews, unsurprisingly), is home to a cathedral… which is called St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Founded in 1158, it was the nation’s biggest medieval church, but it’s now in a state of ruinous disrepair.

St Andrews Cathedral Ruins
St Andrews Cathedral ruins

At one point in time, some of St. Andrew’s bones were allegedly held at this cathedral. Quite how, why, and when the bones got there, no one really seems to be sure. But some speculate that St. Andrew became the patron saint of Scotland because of the historical presence of those bones.

St. Andrew became the patron saint of Scotland sometime shortly before AD 1000, but no one knows for sure exactly when that happened. 

In honor of the man, Scotland celebrates St. Andrew’s Day every year, on the 30th of November. Most people are given the day off work, and the nation hosts various events to celebrate the date.

Disclaimer

There are other theories about how and why the Saltire came to be, with speculation related to battles, armies, and hallucinations. So I can’t be absolutely sure that it’s related to St. Andrew’s crucifixion. But the most widely accepted explanation for the shape of the Saltire is exactly what I’ve outlined above. For the sake of us both, I hope I’m right.

Fun Fact 1

St. Andrew is actually the patron saint of 5 other nations: Romania, Russia, Barbados, Spain, and Ukraine. And he’s also closely associated with many other places in the world, as varied as Malta, Italy, and Greece. What a popular guy.

Fun Fact 2

The Saltire is thought to be the oldest flag in Europe.

Why is the Scottish Flag Called a Saltire?

So, as you now know, the white and blue official national flag of Scotland is known as the Saltire.

That name sort of comes from Latin, in a roundabout way.

As you probably know, lots of the English language is influenced by the French language—and that’s the case for the word ‘Saltire.’

The official term for any X-shaped cross is ‘Saltire,’ which comes from the ancient French word ‘saultoir’ or ‘salteur.’ That ancient French term originally comes from the Latin word ‘saltatorium.’

So, in short, ‘saltire’ really just means ‘diagonal cross.’ Yep, that’s right, it’s purely a descriptive term, and nothing more exciting or imaginative than that.

What is the History and Meaning of Scotland’s Yellow and Red Flag?

Here’s where things get interesting—and somehow even more convoluted.

While the blue and white Saltire flag has ties to religion, martyrdom, and St. Andrew, the yellow and red Lion Rampant flag is intrinsically linked to Scottish royalty.

Lion Rampant Crest, Edinburgh Castle
Lion Rampant Crest, Edinburgh Castle

Back in the year 1222, the image of this lion was seen in Scotland for what was probably the first time: it was used as the royal emblem for Alexander II, who was the incumbent king of Scotland. He was a pretty important guy—he helped to define a clear-cut boundary between England and Scotland, and that clear-cut boundary remains pretty unchanged today. 

It seems this lion emblem might have been inspired by Richard I, who was King of England from 1189 until 1199. Known as ‘Richard the Lionheart,’ most people reckon it was his influence that eventually caused the lion emblem to be heavily associated with the British monarchy.

In the Scottish Lion Rampant flag, the lion looks prepped for battle… which is where the ‘rampant’ part of the ‘Scottish Lion Rampant’ flag is thought to have come from.

Fun Fact

Because of the Lion Rampant, you might understandably assume that the lion is the national animal of Scotland. Incorrect! The official national animal of Scotland is actually the unicorn. I told you Scotland has some weird cultural quirks.

What Does the Scottish Lion Rampant Represent?

The Scottish Lion Rampant Flag represents Scottish royalty (or, at least, it represents Scottish royalty in a historical sense, because there hasn’t been a Scottish-specific monarch since the 17th century).

The Scottish Lion Rampant Flag

These days, Scotland and England don’t have separate monarchs. Instead, the UK as a whole has only one monarch at any given time.

But from 1222 up until the 17th century, the Lion Rampant flag was used to represent the strength, courage, and power of whoever was the reigning Scottish monarch at the time. That’s why a lion was used, and not, say, a mouse, or a pigeon.

Fun Fact

The last Scottish monarch was James VI, son of the much-more-famous Mary Queen of Scots. In 1603, he also became James I of England, when the two crowns were combined. And they’ve been combined ever since.

These days, the Lion Rampant flag doesn’t represent a specific person or a specific period. Instead, it simply represents the history and heritage of Scotland’s royalty… and the character of the people who once ruled the nation. But because many Scottish people are super proud of their heritage, the flag sort of represents the character of the nation and its people.

That said, the Scottish Lion Rampant is still sometimes displayed at Scottish royal residences, including Balmoral Castle and Holyrood Palace—but it’s only displayed when the British Queen isn’t in these locations.

Lion Rampant Flag, Balmoral Castle
The Lion Rampant Flag at Balmoral Castle

When she is in residence at these locations, the Royal Standard is instead flown. This Royal Standard is a big combo of various flags, to represent the royal sovereignty of the United Kingdom as a whole.

Is It Illegal to Use the Scottish Lion Rampant Flag?

Officially speaking, it’s illegal to fly the Scottish Lion Rampant flag, apart from at Scottish royal residences. That said, that rule is basically never enforced. It’s one of those archaic laws, like how you’re not supposed to eat donkey meat outside of the Vatican while playing the harmonica on a Thursday or whatever.

Because of that, you’ll see the Scottish Lion Rampant flag throughout many parts of Scotland. If you visit, expect to see the flag at sporting events, political events, on homes, and in stores.

You’re especially likely to see it in super-touristy areas, like Fort William, central Edinburgh, and anywhere with lots of souvenir stores.

Technically, there’s a £100 per-day fine for displaying the Scottish Lion Rampant flag incorrectly, but I’d be surprised if anyone alive has even been made to pay that fine.

What About the Union Jack? is That an Official Flag of Scotland?

To make things even more complicated, Scotland sort of has a third flag.

The Union Jack is the unofficial flag of the United Kingdom (which is England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland combined). Though it’s technically the region’s unofficial flag, it’s become sort-of official because it’s used so often and so widely.

The City of Edinburgh Waving National Flags of the United Kingdom or the Union Jack and the Flag of Scotland the Saltire
The city of Edinburgh waving national flags of the United Kingdom or the Union Jack and The flag of Scotland the Saltire

The Union Jack combines features of the flags of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland—and because it’s the unofficial flag of the entire region, you’ll sometimes see the Union Jack in Scotland. That said, it’s much more common in Scotland to see the Saltire than the Union Jack.

Why Does Scotland Have Two Flags? Final Thoughts and Further Reading

Hopefully, we’ve covered all of your questions about the major mystery of Scotland’s two separate flags.

If you want to know anything else about Scotland’s strange quirks, check out our guides on traditional Scottish clothes, 21 weird facts about Loch Ness, and some of the things you really shouldn’t do during your trip to the nation.

Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next time!