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The Origins of the Saltire, the Oldest Football, and The Grave



The year is 1999, the place Stirling Castle, the object of admiration: the World’s Oldest Football, now on display there for everyone to see. It is heavy, despite being half the size of today’s standard footie ball, created by stitching cow-hide over an inflated pig’s bladder, (yes, all those rumours about kicking inflated pig’s bladders down the street were true.) It was discovered, limp and decrepit (I know the feeling,) behind the panelling of the Queen’s bed chamber of the Castle during some restoration work back in the 1970s, and apparently took over twenty years to re-inflate (balloons can be tricky, so imagine a bladder inside a cow and putting your lips to that.)

But now at last looks like it did way back in the 1540s, when the panelling first went up.

Perhaps a bit of a hint to tidy up your room more often… Take a look at it here: http://www.forthstimeline.com/exhibits/6?height=610&width=780

And speaking of things old and decrepit, it is 200 years since the birth of Robert Blair, who kick-started (no pun intended) the Graveyard School of Poetry - an un-upbeat Scot – who’d have thought it?

Actually, Robert Blair was, by all extant accounts, a very pleasant and unassuming man. Born in Edinburgh, he studied in Holland, was ordained in 1731 after which he became the Minister at Athelstaneford in East Lothian, in which position he remained for the rest of his life. Our Bob was happily married, devoted to his parish and his five children, was fond of botany and gardening, and only did the merest bit of dabbling in poetry on the side.

But, as fate would have it, in those poetic dabblings resides his fame, more specifically in his one long poem, on the theme of death and dying, catchily entitled The Grave.

The Grave was first published in London in 1743, a rather depressing combination of morbidity, ghoulishness and sermonising along the lines of Edward Young’s Night-Thoughts, with which it is contemporaneous. The whole Graveyard School that followed the publication of Blair’s poem resulted in many such works on death and bereavement, one of the best known being Thomas Gray’s Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, a poem that many people may be familiar without being aware of it, particularly the first verse:

''The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea, The ploughman homeward plods his weary way, And leaves the world to darkness and to me.''

Robert Blair’s poem was the granddaddy of them all, and was published again in 1808 with 12 illustrations by no less an artist than William Blake. Sadly, Robert Blair didn’t live to see this great accolade of his work, nor the school of poetry that grew up because of it, as he died of fever in 1746, just one year before The Grave was first published in his home town of Edinburgh.

He was buried in the graveyard of his church in Athelstaneford and is without monument, only a stone marker for his grave.

And there is another twist to this tale, as the present church at Athelstaneford, built in 1780, now houses the Saltire Flag Museum, for it is here that the Saltire first came into existence.

According to Bower’s Scotichronicon it was near Athelstaneford that the Pictish warrior king Unust was having a bit of a time of it fighting the Northumbrians.

Just as all seemed lost, Unust had a dream, and in that dream St Andrew appeared to him and promised him victory. On waking the next morning Unust looked up into the clear blue sky and saw a strange cloud formation, a diagonal cross - the crux decussata – just like that on which St Andrew had been crucified, and from these two signs – the dream and the cloud - Unust took strength, and went back into battle invigorated and won the day.

And so, because of dream and cloud, the blue-and-white saltire is now the banner of Scotland’s nationhood, and St Andrew Scotland’s patron saint (and Russia’s too, but that is beside the point.)

So, a big thanks to Unust, unsung hero of Scotland, and Robert Blair, unreasonably forgotten.

Sith do d’anam, is Clach air do Chàrn. Peace to your soul, and a stone on your cairn.

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