Thursday, March 27, 2008

X Marks The Scot

Not often, but occasionally, I get someone who acknowledges the front plate on my vehicle. About 1/3 of the time I get someone who actually knows what my plate is. Another third gives me a blank stare and asks “What’s that on your plate?”

The final third just thinks they have a clue; they ask me where I found the “cool blue Confederate flag”.

Spare me.

For the past five years my front plate has been a Saint Andrews Cross with a Lion Rampant in the center. For those uninitiated, that means I have a plate with the Scottish national flag on it, superimposed with the royal lion. Surely you’ve seen these plates before?

According to legend, in 832 A.D. King Angus led the Picts and Scots in battle against the Angles and their King Athelstan near modern-day Athelstaneford in East Lothian. King Angus and his men were surrounded and he prayed for deliverance. During the night Saint Andrew, who was martyred on a saltire cross (an x-shaped cross) appeared to Angus and assured him of victory. On the following morning a white saltire against the background of a blue sky appeared to both sides. The Picts and Scots were heartened by this, but the Angles lost confidence and were defeated. This saltire design has been the Scottish flag ever since.

Material evidence of the saltire's use dates from somewhat later. In 1385 the Parliament of Scotland decreed that Scottish soldiers should wear the saltire as a distinguishing mark. The earliest surviving Scottish flag consisting solely of the saltire dates from 1503: a white cross on a red background. By 1540 the legend of King Angus had been altered to include the vision of the saltire cross against a blue sky. Thereafter, this saltire design in its present form became the national flag of Scotland.

The first official flag of the Confederacy, called the "Stars and Bars," was flown from March 5, 1861 to May 26, 1863.

The very first national flag of the Confederacy was designed by Prussian artist Nicola Marschall in Marion, Alabama. The Stars and Bars flag was adopted March 4, 1861 in Montgomery, Alabama and raised over the dome of that first Confederate Capitol. Marschall also designed the Confederate uniform.

One of the first acts of the Provisional Confederate Congress was to create the Committee on the Flag and Seal, chaired by William Porcher Miles of South Carolina. The committee asked the public to submit thoughts and ideas on the topic, and the committee was overwhelmed by requests not to abandon the 'old flag' of the United States. Miles had already designed a flag that would later become the Confederate battle flag, and he favored his flag over the "Stars and Bars" proposal. But given the popular support for a flag similar to the U.S. flag ("the Stars and Stripes"), the Stars and Bars design was approved by the committee. When war broke out, the Stars and Bars caused confusion on the battlefield because of its similarity to the U.S. flag of the U.S. Army.

The Stars and Bars, the first national flag of the CSA

At the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) the similarity between the Stars and Bars and the Stars and Stripes caused confusion and military problems. Regiments carried flags to help commanders observe and assess battles in the warfare of the era. At a distance, the two national flags were hard to tell apart. In addition, Confederate regiments carried many other flags, which added to the possibility of confusion.

After the battle, Confederate General Beauregard wrote that he was "resolved then to have [our flag] changed if possible, or to adopt for my command a 'Battle flag', which would be Entirely different from any State or Federal flag." He turned to his aide, who happened to be the aforementioned William Porcher Miles, the former chair of Committee on the Flag and Seal. Miles described his rejected national flag design to Beauregard; Miles also told the Committee about the general's complaints and request for the national flag to be changed. The committee rejected this idea by a four to one vote, after which Beauregard proposed the idea of having two flags. He described the idea in a letter to his commander General Joseph E. Johnston: "I wrote to [Miles] that we should have two flags — a peace or parade flag, and a war flag to be used only on the field of battle — but congress having adjourned no action will be taken on the matter — How would it do us to address the War Department on the subject of Regimental or badge flags made of red with two blue bars crossing each other diagonally on which shall be introduced the stars, ... We would then on the field of battle know our friends from our Enemies."

The flag that Miles had favored when he was chair of the Committee on the Flag and Seal eventually became the battle flag and, ultimately, the most popular flag of the Confederacy.

In 1863, during the session in which the Confederate Congress was voting on a second design for the National Flag, Willaim G. Swan of Tennessee's second congressional district wished to substitute the following language:
"That the flag of the Confederate States shall be as follows:
A red field with a Saint Andrew's cross of blue edged with white and emblazoned with stars."

What is now often called "The Confederate Flag" or "The Confederate Battle Flag" is actually a combination of the Battle Flag's colors with the design of the Confederate Navy’s second Jack flag (a jack is a naval ensign) Despite its never having historically represented the CSA as a nation, it has become a widely recognized symbol of the South. It is also called the "rebel" or "Dixie" flag, and is often incorrectly referred to as the "Stars and Bars" (the actual "Stars and Bars" being the First National Flag, an entirely different design).

The states of the southern USA have always been heavily populated with citizens of Scottish and Irish ancestry. Many of the wild and wooly Clansmen from the Scottish Highlands settled in the hill country of Appalachia and the Smoky Mountains after leaving oppressive British rule and became the original hillbillies. Here in the Carolinas I’m constantly running into fellow Celts. Many of my own ancestral forebears of the Clan Davidson settled in North Carolina above Charlotte (think Davidson College and the fact that the Loch Norman Pipe Band wears the kilt of Clan Davidson). I guess it was just natural for the rebels of the Confederacy to look to their past as rebels against the English for the idea for their flag.

It’s interesting though to note that in Vermont, New Hampshire, and my former home state of Maine, the percentage of Scots is even higher than it is here in the south, and during the Civil War, the 79th New York Volunteer Infantry gave itself the monicker of The Cameron Highlanders (after the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlander Regiment of the British Army) and outfitted itself in full Scottish regalia complete with kilts of the Cameron tartan and marched off to war with a bagpiper.

Here in South Carolina, several towns and county names harken back to those misty, thistle-strewn fields of heather back in Scotland: Andrews, the St. Andrews area of Charleston, Cameron, Carlisle, Johnston, Livingston, Anderson, Calhoun, and Scotia, which is a Latin form of Scotland.

I must say, though, that I am not a native Southerner and do not fly any Confederate flags of any design. I am, however, pretty big on displaying my Scottish ancestry with both my front plate and with the “Carolina Scots” sticker on my back window. The Carolina Scots design is the palmetto and crescent moon superimposed on the Scottish saltire flag. I also have a Carolina Scots t-shirt in blue with two rampant lions in white on either side of the white palmetto and moon design.

So, the next time you see a blue front plate with a white X on it, you no longer have to wonder what it means or confuse it with a Confederate flag. It’s just another crazed descendant of the kilt-wearing, bagpipe-playing, haggis-eating Highlanders.

We don't get the cool holiday every year to celebrate our patron saint on Saint Andrew's Day (November 30th) the way our Irish cousins do every March 17th, and no one ever seems to wear a button proclaiming, "Kiss Me, I'm Scottish", but somehow no one can seem to hold a Saint Patrick's Day parade without Scottish kilts and Scottish bagpipes. And sure, everyone may love a leprechaun....but Shrek has a Scots accent, and then there's that whole Braveheart thing to top it all off. You can keep the green beer; I'll have a wee dram of Scotch instead. Cheers!

The National Flag of Scotland

The Royal Flag of Scotland (the Lion Rampant)


Randy said...

Well, I've seen the license plate and I would never confuse it with the rebel flag. Having grown up in SC and being able to trace four generations of ancestors back into SC, I have a certain pride over my rebel past. And sometimes a little shame.

But I often wonder about those kilt things, they seem a little drafty to me.

superdave524 said...

Cool stuff. Though my family has been in 'Merica for many generations, and my most recent ancestors not born in America were from Sweden, my mom once gave me a Gordon Plaid tie that she said was the plaid of some of our Scottish ancestors (the Blackfords, I think. My uncle Rbt Blackford returned from Scotland recently, and says he couldn't find any Blackford tombstones, but a local there said the name refered to an imfamous, or "black", river-crossing, or "ford" near where he visited). My mom's cousin put together a geneology of a portion of our family, and can trace us back to Malcolm II, one of the early kings of Scotland.