The Irish Workers' Republican Starry Plough does not have an equivalent accepted by the working class in Scotland
The Irish Workers’ Republican Starry Plough does not have an equivalent accepted by the working class in Scotland

Today is St. Andrews Day. It is not yet a full-blown public holiday, although there is some partial observance. The following article was written by Allan Armstrong for the Lothian SSP bulletin in November 2007. It is even more relevant today, when Scottish nationalists try to subsume all of us under the saltire.

The ancient Christian saltire symbol, representing the martyr St. Andrew, was first united with the cross of St.George of England, following  the 1603 Union of the Crowns. Appropriately, the conmen leading  feudal England claimed that George had been a dragon slayer!   The new combined flag became colloquially known as the Union Jack. Another mediaeval symbol, the Anglo-Irish St. Patrick’s cross, was added after the Union of the British and Irish parliaments in 1801. Not to be outdone by the promoters of St. George in England, the Irish claimed that Patrick had banished all snakes from Ireland – but perhaps  only in their serpentine form! (The officially non-recognised Irish national flag, though, was the crowned harp.) By the end of the nineteenth century, the amount of bloodshed committed under the Union Jack had led many of its victims to dub it the Butchers’ Apron.

Despite the ending of the Act of Union with Ireland in 1922, the Union Jack still incorporates St. Patrick’s symbol. Back in February of this year, prominent Brexiter, Nigel Lawson, hoped that impact of Brexit could force Ireland back into the British Union ( So we can perhaps see why the UK state insists on holding on to the full Union Jack! Ironically though, should the SNP’s proposed abolition of the 1707 Union of Parliaments come to pass, this would still leave the Butchers Apron as the flag for the Union of the Crowns, which the SNP continues to support.

In contrast, John Maclean fought  to ensure Scottish working class support for the 1919 Irish Republic. Irish banners appeared on several  Scottish working working class demonstrations in this period. Those Irish republicans from the 1848 Irish Confederate tradition had their own tricolour, modelled on the republican banners in Europe at this time.  The Irish working class had the workers’ republican Starry Plough. It was flown by the Irish Citizens Army over the Imperial Hotel (symbolic choice) during the 1916 Rising. The significance of this banner was that a Workers Republic of Ireland would control its own destiny from the plough to the stars, and the sword forged into the plough would mean the redundancy of war within an international socialist world.

Many self-styled Scottish republicans seem happy to go along with the continued use of the Christian saltire, despite genuine republicanism and secularism being inextricably linked. So we have never seen a Scottish tricolour. John Maclean, who adopted James Connolly’s break up of the UK and British Empire strategy never got round to commissioning a Scottish Worker Republican banner either. In acknowledging November 30th as the day marking the death of John Maclean, these are perhaps issues that we can think about today.


The procession at John Maclean's funeral in December1923
The procession at John Maclean’s funeral in December 1923


There has been quite a lot of talk over the last year about making November 30th, St. Andrew’s Day, a national holiday in Scotland. So far, things have got no further than allowing employers to swap another existing May holiday for the one on November 30th – not necessarily a popular move, given the comparison between the lengths of daylight hours and the weather on the two dates!

Given that the UK has the fewest public holidays in the EU, another (paid) day would be most welcome, and whatever the excuse, few are going to turn it down. However, what exactly would we be celebrating on St. Andrew’s Day? St. Andrew is meant to have been one of Jesus’s apostles. How did he become the patron saint of Scotland?

The usual explanation is the following. When the kings of the Picts, and of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, faced each other in battle, at Athelstaneford in East Lothian, clouds in the shape of a saltire appeared. The Pictish king took this as a good omen. The saltire is in the form of the cross that St. Andrew was crucified on. Unfortunately, nationalist historians don’t look too closely at the nature of this battle, if it ever took place. Picts and Anglo-Saxons would have been fighting about who had the right of conquest over the Welsh-speaking Britons, then living in the Lothians. A war of national liberation it was not.

There are other explanations. Some claim the adoption of St. Andrew as Scotland’s patron saint was an attempt to Romanise a church, which traditionally had its own Celtic saints, headed by St. Columba. One thing is clear though. St. Andrew and his saltire are Christian symbols, which are no longer appropriate for representing the people of a multi-ethnic, multi and non-faith Scotland.

However, no one wants to turn down a new holiday. Is there an alternative we can celebrate? If we look to international workers day, May 1st, we can see a useful precedent. This date was originally declared to commemorate the Haymarket Martyrs, shot and killed in Chicago, in 1886, May 1st,. In England though, this date had been a traditional day of celebration associated with morris dancers and maypoles. Socialists didn’t try to get this celebration abolished, but tried to create something much bigger and more significant on that date. They were very successful too.

So what would socialists celebrate on November 30th? As it happens, this day marks the anniversary of the death of that great Scottish internationalist and workers’ republican, John Maclean. Now, it is not usual to celebrate deaths, but when Maclean died, on November 30th, 1923, a massive demonstration accompanied his funeral. Workers commemorated his life of resistance and struggle. Furthermore, it is thought that Maclean died of pneumonia, partly because he generously loaned his only overcoat to a visiting black socialist, Neil Johnston, from Barbados. Maclean put his internationalism into practice, whether over support for struggles in Ireland and India, or for overseas comrades visiting Scotland.

In recent years, the STUC has organised an anti-racist march to coincide with St. Andrew’s Day. How much more appropriate it would be, if we were marching, red flags flying, on John Maclean Day.


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