According to legend, in 832 AD a force of Picts under King Hungus (or Angus), returning from a punitive expedition into Northumbria, was overtaken near Markle by a much larger force of Saxons led by the Northumbrian king or prince Athelstan. Hemmed in by the Peffer Burn, the Picts and a supporting detachment of Scots led by King Eochaidh of Dalriada prepared to make a stand the following day.
That evening Hungus prayed to Saint Andrew and promised that, if his forces carried the day, he would ensure that Andrew would become the patron saint of his kingdom. Just before the battle a saltire appeared in the sky, formed by white clouds against the blue background. Against all the odds the Picts and Scots won an overwhelming victory and Athelstan was beheaded after the battle. The village that later developed nearby was named Athelstaneford in commemoration of one of the key events in the foundation of the Scottish victory.
"Against all the odds the Picts and Scots won an overwhelming victory!"
This version of the origin of the place name has come down to us from Walter Bower (1385-1449), an Augustinian monk from Haddington and author of the Scotichronicon. However, it is widely disputed, not least because there never was a Northumbrian king called Athelstan. The only recorded Athelstan to visit Scotland was a Wessex man who did so in the 10th century and departed with his head still on his shoulders.
On the other hand, Angus, king of Picts and son of Fergus, is recorded as having defeated Eadbert of Northumbria in the 8th century at Niwambirg, with the total destruction of Eadbert's army. Given the scarcity and impenetrability of historical records from the 8th and 9th centuries, this is probably as close to a definitive account of a conclusive engagement between Angus/Hungus and his Northumbrian counterpart as we are likely to find.
So how did the name Athelstaneford come about? A number of historians, notably East Lothian writer Iain Johnstone, suggest that it may be a conflation of Gaelic and the Norse name Aolsteinn (noble stone, and the equivalent of the Anglian/Saxon Aoelstan). Contrary to what was widely believed until fairly recently, Gaelic and Norse place names abound in the Lothians.
Memorial tablet and 18th century gravestones
Whatever the derivation of its name, Athelstaneford is a delightful small village nestling at the east end of the Garleton Hills; the traditional abbreviated local pronunciation is now rarely heard. The present Parish Kirk on the long main street was built in 1868, but the kirkyard contains some very fine C18 carved gravestones. Behind the kirk stands a small doocot built in 1583 by George Hepburn whose family occupied nearby Athelstaneford Castle or House, all traces of which have disappeared. In 1633 his son Sir John Hepburn raised the Royal Regiment, later the Royal Scots, whose banner was the saltire.
In 1997 the Scottish Flag Trust opened a heritage and interpretation centre in the doocot, outlining the legend of the battle of Athelstaneford and the origins of the national flag. Despite the diminutive scale of the building, the audio-visual display and interpretative boards are well presented. Some of the nesting holes have been preserved.
Outside the doocot there is a semi -circular bench looking out across the supposed site of the battle. Beside the bench is a memorial tablet set in the ground, commemorating the contributions of Allen Macartney and Nigel Tranter to the study of Scottish history and the wider cause of Scotland.
Article by SCA member John Pringle published in The Journal, issue 15