With connections to a prince, a king, a well-known songwriter, and the birth of the Saltire (Scotland’s national flag), the little parish kirk in Athelstaneford is steeped in history. So, naturally, I was delighted when I stumbled upon it during one of my “drive-around-and-see-what-we-discover” trips in Scotland.
A Victory for the Picts With the Help of a Saint
It is said that, in the year 832AD, King Angus led his Picts south into the Lothians. At the time, this territory still belonged to Northumbria. The army of Picts were supported by a contingent of Scots, but they were still not a very large fighting group.
The Northumbrians didn’t take kindly to being invaded, so an army under the command of Athelstan went to meet the Picts. It was near what is now the village of Athelstaneford, that the two armies laid eyes on one another.
King Angus realised that his soldiers were greatly outnumbered. He feared a complete slaughter of his men.
Angus called his men together and led them in prayers for deliverance. As they looked up to the clear blue skies, a cloud formation in the shape of a diagonal white cross appeared. Angus took this as a sign from St Andrew (who was martyred on a diagonal white cross), and vowed that if, with St Andrew’s help, he gained victory, then St Andrew would be declared the patron saint of Scotland.
The battle was fierce and bloody, but the Picts were victorious. And St Andrew became the patron saint of Scotland. And the diagonal white cross on a sky-blue background became Scotland’s national flag – the Saltire.
It is said that Athelstan, the leader of the Northumbrian army, was slain at a small river crossing nearby. The little village, Athelstaneford, is named after him.
The First Church at Athelstaneford
Ada, Countess of Northumbria was a powerful and wealthy woman in her own right. She worked tirelessly to found and support various religious places, during her lifetime. She married Prince Henry of Scotland (eldest son of King David I of Scotland) and they had six children, two of whom later became kings of Scotland.
Around 1176, Ada built the first church at Athelstaneford. Years later, during the reign of her son, William I (the Lion), a royal palace was built in nearby Haddington, and it is believed that King William I visited the church at Athelstaneford on several occasions.
This little church remained in use until 1780 when a new church was erected.
A Model Village in East Lothian
In the late 18th century, Sir David Kinloch of Gilmerton planned and developed a “model village” near his stately home, Gilmerton House.
Two-roomed cottages were built along the main street (costing £15 each to build). A new church was built on the site of the earlier church, to serve the spiritual needs of the villagers.
By 1784, the new church was in use and only a small part of the original church was still standing – this being used as a burial vault for the Kinloch family. It was at this church that Adam Skirving (1719 – 1803) worshiped. He was a poet and songwriter who wrote the famous song “Hey, Johnney Cope” about the Jacobite victory over the Hanoverian Army (led by Sir John Cope) in 1745. Skirving is buried at the parish church in Athelstaneford and his grave can be found on the west wall in the churchyard.
For reasons lost over time, this “second church” was again rebuilt in 1854 and it is this we can still see today. There is now no trace of the earlier buildings.
What Not to Miss at Athelstaneford Kirk
The church itself is a beautiful example of 19th century architecture with its Norman-style arched doorway. The churchyard offers a great many interesting carved gravestones, particularly on the south side, near the road.
In the south-east corner of the churchyard, is a memorial commemorating the origin of the Scottish Flag. The memorial was unveiled in 1965 by Lt-Gen Sir George C. Gordon Lennox and raised by public subscription.
On the opposite side of the church, you’ll find the 16th-century doocot which now houses the Flag Heritage Centre. There is a wonderfully interesting audio-visual presentation, telling the story of the founding of the Saltire – not to be missed!
The kirk and heritage centre are both open to visitors, most days. It is free to enter, and you can make a donation at the heritage centre, should you wish to do so.
Historical Sites Nearby
- Greyfriars Kirk lies in the centre of Edinburgh, 22 miles west along the A1
- The ruinous Rosyth Castle is located 41 miles away
- The ruins of Old St Mungo’s church in Penicuik are 27 miles away
- The historic Soutra Aisle lies 16 miles south, along the B6368
- The ruins of the medieval St Martin’s Kirk in Haddington, are only 4 miles away
- Site visit and observation
- On-site information boards
- Audio-visual presentation in the Flag Heritage Centre, Athelstaneford
- Scottish Flag Trust website
- Canmore website
- Undiscovered Scotland website
- The Church Explorer’s Handbook by Clive Fewins (2005)