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January 14, 2020

Local vexillology

Some years ago I cycled through the Pyrenees.  Apart from the steepness of the hills, the thing I remember most as we made our way through small French and Spanish villages was the different flags that each village would be flying. Hanging out of windows, on flagpoles or just stuck in the ground, they seemed to signify some sort of particular civic identity for each village. It seems that a similar vexillological ( word of the week) trend may be taking root in Scotland. Sitting below the saltire, Scotland now has 11 localised flags, 8 of which have been registered in the last three years.

Martin Williams , The Herald

IT may be the national flag of Scotland but for increasing number of communities the Saltire is just not enough for a feeling of identity and belonging.

There are now 11 registered regional, town or city flags in Scotland with eight of those sanctioned in the past three years alone – with five designed to recognise Nordic connections.

And now a further four islands are wanting in on the act and are in the process of wanting to impose their status with their own internationally recognised emblem – Skye, Eriskay, Benbecula and North Uist.

Philip Tibbetts, community vexillologist, for the Flag Institute, the charity that maintains and manages the registry believes the appetite for such community symbols has stemmed from Scotland’s great tradition of sub-national identity as revealed through tartans and names.

“This tradition is so great that the very richness of identity within Scotland has become a defining part of Scottish identity. The desire for a county, island or regional flag is part of this,” he said.

“As to why this is taking off now I think it is due to communities seeing the popular success of other such flags. This explains why after Shetland became the first [regional flag in 1969] the momentum has been building. First with neighbouring Orkney and Caithness, then for communities across Scotland.”

Shetland’s was designed in 1969 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the transfer of Shetland from Norway to Scotland. The colours were inspired by Scotland’s national flag, and the cross shape is from Scandinavian tradition.

According to the registry the first town or city flag arrived in Edinburgh. Auld Reekie’s city flag with its castle and colours of white, black, red dates back to 1732.

A competition to design a flag for Skye has attracted 200 entries, with shortlisting due to take place in January ahead of a public vote. The final design will be revealed in March.

Highland councillor John Finlayson from Skye said the attraction of having its own flag, was not just about identity. “Skye as you know has a unique history, culture and heritage which is becoming increasingly well known because of the huge rise in tourism,” he said.

“I am often asked by visitors from overseas if Skye has a flag and I have often thought that it would be a good idea to have one to further consolidate our identity and our distinctive place in Scottish history as well as our growing popularity as an international tourist destination.


“This is why I have been actively involved in the process to host a competition to create a Skye Flag. I also think it would add to the Skye brand and further develop our sense of identity. ”

Ultimate approval of any flag design lies with the Lyon Court, which exists to grand and record arms for those that want them. The Right Honourable the Lord Lyon King of Arms, the head of Lyon Court, is the Scottish official with responsibility for regulating heraldry in the country, issuing new grants of arms, and serving as the judge of the Court of the Lord Lyon, the oldest heraldic court in the world that is still in daily operation.

“The general principle would be that Scots can have arms & banners in principle,”said Mr Tibbetts. “This is borne out historically as former Lord Lyon Sir Thomas Innes [who served from 1945 to 1969] noted, that the general uptake of heraldry in Scotland is historically far higher per capita than in England.”

Orkney became the third Scottish community to have its own flag, receiving official recognition in April, 2007.

It was designed by postman Duncan Tullock, who sketched out his initial idea using his young grandchildren’s crayons.

Mr Tullock’s blue, yellow and red design was voted the best of 100 designs submitted to the islands’ council.

It replaced an older flag, the red and yellow cross of St Magnus which was considered to be too similar to other national banners.

It would take another nine years before a fourth Scottish community flag was approved, leading to a new wave of interest in having a recognised emblem.

Mr Tibbetts said: “For a community a flag firstly provides a simple symbol that locals can connect with together. Secondly it can then be used to raise the visibility of that community externally.

“It is also important nationally as this reinforces the Scottish tradition of having a rich array of symbolism across the nation as seen in tartans and heraldry.”

Caithness kickstarted the latest appetite for new Scottish heraldry, unfurling their flag in January, 2016.

It features a Nordic cross and galley symbolising Caithness’ ancient ties to the Vikings.

The design was picked from suggestions sent to Highland Council from all over the world.

Six months later there was one in Kirkcudbrightshire and then a flag in Denny and Dunipace in Stirlingshire.

The Kirkcudbrightshire flag was organised to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday.

The green and white quarters reference the checks that appeared on a former local authority’s coat of arms, and also the checked cloth used historically to count taxes by the Stewards of the Lords of Galloway.

It also features a St Cuthbert’s cross to reference the origin of the name Kirkcudbrightshire as the “shire of the church of Cuthbert”.

Denny and Dunipace’s town flag is a green, white and blue design showing the River Carron separating Dunipace and its 11-pointed star to the north and Denny’s two-towered castle symbolising the River of Forts to the south.

In the Western Isles, South Uist’s Nordic cross in the pattern of Norway’s flag secured official recognition for its banner in May, 2017.

Donnie Steele, a former councillor, championed South Uist’s flag, organising a petition to gather support for official recognition.

And by the end of that year Barra’s green and white Nordic cross, used by residents of the Hebridean island for decades secured official recognition.

In June, that year, the flag was draped over the coffin of Barra’s Eilidh MacLeod, 14, who was among the victims of the Manchester Arena attack.

Tiree unfurled its new official flag in September, last year. Donald Cameron’s green and gold “Land of Barley” design was chosen after a competition launched earlier that year.

“A competition allows for hundreds of designs to be in with a shout. By engaging with the community, such as with the school talks on Skye, and including information with the competition pack explaining what makes an effective flag then as many people as possible can be given as good a chance as possible at creating eligible designs and ultimately winning the final public vote,” said Mr Tibbetts.

Another public vote led to Sutherland being among the latest to get official recognition in December, 2018

The winning design features a Saltire and a Nordic cross. Three other flags were in contention, including one originally selected by a judging panel and drew public criticism for its eagle and stars design.

The design represents Sutherland’s position as the historic mainland frontier between Scotland the Vikings.

East Lothian also had a new flag registered in the same month after another competition. The designer, Archie Martin, sadly passed away after submitting his design.