St Andrew the fisherman

Categories: History of food

Miracles, myths and legends: a brief history of the apostle and Scottish patron St Andrew

Words: Mark Riddaway

If you’re going to have a patron saint, you might as well pick a good one. Ireland and Wales went for local heroes, which is fair enough, while England was swayed by dubious stories of dragon-slaying. Scotland, though, decided to go big. In the pantheon of saints, St Andrew sits pretty close to the pinnacle: top five at least.

A fisherman born and raised in the Palestinian port of Bethsaida, Andrew was introduced to Jesus through John the Baptist, and was the first of the apostles to recognise him as the Messiah. It was Andrew who brought the biggest saint of them all, his own brother Peter, into the fold. He was there for the loaves and fishes; he was one of the diners at the Last Supper.

With St George, it’s not entirely clear why he deserved to be a saint; with St Andrew there are no such doubts. Catholic tradition suggests that after the death of Christ, Andrew travelled around Greece, Asia Minor and the Black Sea. If the apocryphal Acts of Andrew, probably written in the 2nd century, are to be believed, he spent much of that time impressing the locals with his miracles: raising the dead, curing the sick, casting out demons and—when forced by a villainous proconsul to battle a coterie of wild beasts—seeing off a wild boar, a bull and a “fierce leopard” by the sheer force of his righteousness.

Flesh-hungry cannibals
One of the best stories, contained within a separate text known as Acts of Andrew and Matthias and popularised in an Old English poem, finds him arriving on an island inhabited by flesh-hungry cannibals and undergoing an adventure with more gore than a 1970s schlock horror. Andrew’s own death was pretty horrific: crucified in Patras, a city in the Peloponnese, after converting the wife of local bigwig Egeas to Christianity and rather rashly encouraging her to leave her husband.

Legend has it (although the source is unclear), that he chose to be crucified on an x-shaped cross so as not to invite comparison with Jesus. The Acts of Andrew states that he carried on preaching for a full three days before dying, which is a quite an effort whatever the shape of the cross. So how did St Andrew come to be associated with Scotland?

The most seductive, and almost certainly least true, story involves a 4th century Greek monk, known at St Regulus or St Rule, smuggling some of the saint’s bones out of his shrine in Patras after being ordered to do so by a visiting angel. After wandering through Europe, he somehow ended up on the east coast of Scotland, at a place called Muckross, where he established a church, the location of which later became known as St Andrews.

Scotland’s sole bishopric
A more plausible theory suggests that the much-venerated relics at St Andrews were brought to the region by Acca, the 8th century bishop of Hexham, who had picked them up in Rome. By around 908, the shrine at St Andrews was such a draw that Scotland’s sole bishopric was relocated there.

During the 11th century reign of Malcolm Canmore and the exceptionally devout Queen Margaret, the cult of St Andrew grew to be a national phenomenon, inspiring pilgrimages from far and wide—the landing sites on both banks of the Forth river from which pilgrims made their way to St Andrews are still known as North and South Queensferry.

In Scotland’s long and bitter struggle with the Auld Enemy south of the border, St Andrew became a potent symbol of national identity. In 832, a mystical cross of St Andrew is said to have appeared in the sky during a battle between the forces of King Angus and an army of Northumbrian invaders, inspiring the home team to victory: hence the use of a white saltire on a blue background as the national flag (its adoption was formalised in law in 1385).

Robert the Bruce and William Wallace both tapped into the iconography of St Andrew to fuel their rebellions, while the Declaration of Arbroath, written in 1320 as a statement of Scotland’s right to independence from England, stated that Jesus chose St Andrew to bring the Scots into the faith and “desired him to keep them under his protection as their patron for ever”.

It’s a long way from the coast of Palestine to the Firth of Forth, but St Andrew somehow ended up as thoroughly Scottish as tatties and neeps and single malt. He has remained that way ever since.