By Tim Porteus

THERE is a legend attached to a small rocky outcrop at Markle, which is close to present-day East Linton.

The legend tells us it was from this location that the Pictish King Angus II saw an x-shaped cross in the sky in AD 832 during the Battle of Athelstaneford.

This was said to be a miracle sent by St Andrew, and was foretold to the king in a dream. A local tradition claims that the name Markle is actually a corruption of the word miracle, a reference to this legendary intervention of the saint on that day.

This event is now seen as the ‘birth of the Scottish flag’, the Saltire thereafter becoming the flag of Scotland; the tale is well told by the Scottish Flag Trust in the doocot by Athelstaneford Kirk, which has been wonderfully adapted into the Flag Heritage Centre.

But why was it St Andrew who came to the aid of the Picts and Scots on that day and not, say, St Columba? The answer to this question may begin in a 1,300-year-old crypt in Northumberland.

This crypt lies underneath the abbey of Hexham, a town in northern England. The crypt is an amazing survival from Anglo-Saxon times, built in the seventh century, more than 150 years before the Battle of Athelstaneford is said to have taken place.

The crypt was part of a monastery built on the orders of the then abbot Wilfrid and it had a special purpose.

Wilfrid was a passionate devotee of St Andrew. He had travelled to Rome and returned with a relic connected to the saint. Christianity at this time had not yet fully established its dominance, and Wilfrid was determined to create a great Christian holy site to encourage the spread of his faith.

And what better way to do this than use a relic of St Andrew, an Apostle of Jesus himself?

So he established St Andrew’s monastery at Hexham in AD 674, and in the crypt below there was a shrine, in which the relic of the saint was kept.

Pilgrims began to flock to the site and, although small, the design of the crypt gave an intense religious experience.

The entrance was by the high altar of the church, with dark passageways for the pilgrims to file towards and pay homage to the relic of St Andrew.

Even today, the now-empty shrine has the atmosphere of a sacred inner sanctum. The ancient feel of it is added to by the fact it was constructed with stones taken from abandoned Roman buildings, as Hexham is close to Hadrian’s Wall and the Roman garrison town of Corbridge.

But what is the connection with the miracle at Markle?

The connection begins with Wilfrid’s successor Acca, who became the abbot of St Andrew’s in Hexham in AD 709. He had travelled with Wilfrid and shared his devotion to St Andrew. It is said Acca acquired his own relics of St Andrew and added them to the collection at Hexham.

But Acca the abbot was an evangelising monk. In AD 732, he left Hexham and journeyed beyond the old crumbling Roman wall and further north.

It was around this time that East Lothian became part of Northumbria. But the kingdom beyond the sea (the Firth of Forth) was the land of the Picts.

The story tells us that Acca met with the Pictish king Angus (Oengus) at a place called Kilrymont in Fife. Here, we are told, Acca gave the Christian Pictish leader some relics of St Andrew he had taken from Hexham and urged the king to create a new centre of Christian pilgrimage for the saint.

From the limited historical accounts available, it does seem that it was indeed around this time that the religious site of St Andrews in Fife was established, at the place previously called Kilrymont.

Further evidence of this is the amazing St Andrews Sarcophagus, which was discovered at St Andrews in the early 19th century. It can now be seen in the cathedral museum, where it is described as “one of the finest examples of early medieval sculpture in Europe”. It dates from the mid-700s and was almost certainly commissioned by Angus for his own burial. He died in AD 761.

And so the veneration of St Andrew in Scotland had begun well before the miracle at Markle, with King Angus resting at St Andrews in his magnificent sarcophagus. No wonder, then, when a later King Angus (often called Oengus II) was in need of divine intervention in AD 832, the saint he prayed to was St Andrew, who is then said to have replied in such a legendary, dramatic fashion.

Here is the connection between the crypt at Hexham and the miracle seen at Markle: the relics of St Andrew brought to Fife which began the Scottish attachment to the saint may well have been part of the Hexham collection.

But wait a minute! That’s not the story I have always been told when I go to St Andrews. The oft-told legend is that it was St Rule (or Regulus) who brought the relics to Fife in the fourth century. He was the bishop of the Greek city of Patras, where St Andrew was crucified.

The story tells us he had a dream in which he was told that the relics of the saint, which he was the custodian of, were in danger and he must set sail with them. The dream told him that wherever he was shipwrecked, there the relics would find their new home.

After months at sea, his ship was wrecked at Kilrymont in Fife. And so he established a new shrine and re-named the place St Andrews. No mention of a Northumbrian abbot, or relics from Hexham in this story!

What are we to believe? There is often a haze between history and legend and they sometimes meet in a place too misty for us to see. Historical truth can be an elusive creature. You think you have grasped it when suddenly it slips away, leaving you searching once again. And sometimes a lost historical truth is to be found hidden in a legend.

In the tale of St Andrew’s relics, history will side with the abbot, I suspect, but the romanticised and dramatic tale of St Rule has become the more popular and well-known explanation.

But the reason for this is another story in itself.

With thanks to Anna Blair, whose tale ‘Saint and Saltire’ inspired my research into this story.