The Six Celtic Flags
written by Daniel Salym Padovano

Click on each flag to see a larger photograph of it.

The flags of the Celtic nations represent the historical, legendary and mythological backgrounds of each Celtic nation. Below is a brief description of each national flag, its history and symbolism.

The Flag of Scotland — Click to enlarge

Alba. Popularly known as “The Cross of Saint Andrew,” the national flag of Alba (Scotland) is among the oldest of national flags. The design, saltire argent azure (a white saltire on a field of blue) is identified as the seal used by a chapter of Saint Andrew’s Cathedral c. 1180. The motif found in the cathedral has its origins in an eighth century battle legend.

That legend is associated with an eighth century warrior known as King Hungus. Hungus was leader of an allied army of East Lothians, Picts and Scots who were fighting the Northumbrian Angels. The Northumbrian army was lead by Athelstan who surrounded Hungus and his army. Hungus prayed for a miracle that would save his army. That night he dreamt that Saint Andrew came to him and told him that his army would not only be saved but would be victorious over the Angels. The next day, the two armies met in combat. During the battle, Hungus and his men saw a white saltire appear in the blue sky. The vision gave Hungus and his army the inspiration and morale needed to defeat Athelstan and the Angels. The site of the battle is near present day Athelstanford.

About a century later, the Guardians of Scotland wore this design with an image of Saint Andrew upon the white saltire as their emblem. The earliest documented use of the white cross on blue dates from 1385 when Scottish soldiers used the design as part of their uniforms. Non-military use of this design probably began not long afterwards. In the early 16th century, the blue field was changed to red but returned back to blue by 1542.

The flag of Brittany — Click to Enlarge

Breizh. Perhaps one of the most unique national flags is that of Breizh (Brittany). The design is of modern vintage having been created by Morvan Marchal in 1923. Marchal was a founding member of a nationalist movement called Breizh Ato, or “Brittany Forever.” Marchal’s inspiration is known as the “Gwen ha Du,” or black and white and incorporates two Breton symbols that are almost a thousand years old: the colours of black and white and the ermine. The flag was flown in public for the first time in 1925. In 1997, the Regional Council of Brittany approved this design as the regional flag.

Ninth century Breton warriors were identified by their shields which bore these two colours. In the thirteenth century, Breton Crusaders used the “Kroaz Du,” a flag of white charged with a black cross. Coincidentally, this design was the reverse of the Cornish flag. It is possible that the use of these colours may be related to the fact that Cornish emigres arrived in Brittany (then known as Armorica) in the sixth and seventh centuries.

The ermine motif dates from 1213. In that year, French King Philippe-Auguste gave Brittany to Pierre of Dreux Mauclerc as a duchy. Mauclerc’s personal shield featured an ermine motif. This motif, les Herminois Plain, was used as the provincial standard between 1532 and 1789.

Marchal’s design does not specify the number of ermine spots for the Gwen ha Du. Some flags feature seven or nine; most show eleven. One interpretation of eleven ermine spots is that they represent the letters in phrase “Breizh Dieuh,” which means “Free Brittany.” The nine stripes represent the nine counties of Brittany. The four white stripes represent the four Breton speaking counties of Lower Brittany: Leon, Dregor, Kernov and Genev. The five black stripes represent the five predominantly French speaking counties of Upper Brittany: Bro Roazhon, Bro Nanoed, Bro de Dol, Sant-Malo and Penthievre.

The Flag of Wales — Click to enlarge

Cymru. The Red Dragon or Y Ddraig Goch of Wales is an ancient and fiery symbol which dates from Roman times. Y Ddraig Goch encompasses both historical and legendary motifs that make it one of the more striking of ethnic and national flags used today.

Roman legions (and later Welsh armies) used battle standards featuring the dragon, some of which were hollowed and had a cloth windsock attached. The standards were then waved during battle. The waving action would create a grumbling roar that would (hopefully) weaken the resolve of the enemy. It is theorised that these dragon standards may have been bronze or brass and had a golden like appearance. Welsh dragons from the medieval period were generally golden with the colour turning to red sometime after the thirteenth century.

Nennius in his “Historia Brittonvm” relates that the Britons (Celts) used the red dragon as their symbol while fighting the Saxons, some of whom used a white dragon. This parallels the legend of “Llud a Llefelys.” In this legend, Myrddin (Merlin) manages to drug the two fighting dragons (one red, the other white) who are terrorising Britain. In the end Myrddin tells the King that the two dragons are fated to share the same land and will have to learn to cooperate and live with one another although they will be in opposition to each other. Allegorically, this reflected the medieval situation in Britain as well as in present day.

Ddraig (dragon) has been translated as warrior. When prefixed with “pen” (as in pendragon), it means Chief or Head Warrior (i.e warlord in modern usage). In the Arthurian Tales, King Arthwr’s father, Uther is referred to as Uther Pendragon and used a golden coloured dragon as his symbol. A contemporary warlord of Arthwr (sometimes identified as Arthwr), Cadwaladr of Gwynedd also used a dragon banner, although his is reputed to have been red.

Standards and banners featuring the dragon were used by Romans, Britons (Celts), Saxons and Angels in Britain from the Classical Era through the Middle Ages. Illustrations and documents depict the dragon accompanying troops into battle at Burford (752), Hastings (1066), Standard (1138), on the third Crusade with Richard Couer deLane (1191), Lewes 1216, Crecy (1346) and at Agincourt in 1415. Owain Glyn Dwr used a dragon standard until 1404 during his revolt against the English.

Welsh archers were crucial at the Battle of Crecy in 1346. These archers also hold the distinction of wearing the first “national” uniform in battle. Their tunics were green and white which were the House of Twdwr’s livery colours. Henry Twdwr used the red dragon of Cadwaladr as his emblem. Henry claimed descent form this fifth century “Battle Leader” who was from Gwynedd. After his victory over Richard III at Bosworth in 1485, he placed the dragon over the white and green of his colours. This then was the birth of the Welsh flag.

In 1807, the British Parliament decreed that “a dragon gules (red) passant standing upon a mound should be the King’s badge for Wales.” This on a background of argent superior vert (white over green). The current design has been in official use since 1953 (although it was modified with a badge and scroll until 1959).

The Flag of Ireland — Click to enlarge

Eire. The Irish tricolour dates from 1848 and symbolises the people of Ireland and the “radical” idea of peace and cooperation between Catholics and Protestants. The “radical” idea is represented by the tricolour arrangement based on the French national flag. Included with this radicalism was the aspiration of an Ireland ruled by the Irish, not the English. The three stripes have the same meaning as they do in France: Liberty, Fraternity and Equality.

Thomas Francis Meagher, a leader of Young Ireland, designed the flag sometime in the mid 1840's (dates vary, with 1847 or 1848 being the most commonly cited). Meagher explained the symbolism as follows: the Protestants, represented by the orange and the Catholics, represented by the green. The green also stands for the Ireland itself. The white stripe represents a truce between the two communities; this truce in turn unites the two communities as one nation. Orange was the livery colour William III of the House of Nassau. His forces were the victors at the Battle of the Boyne (in 1689) which solidified English rule over Ireland.

The tricolour gained more popularity than the green flag with the gold harp later in the 1800's, especially among the Republicans. It was adopted as the national flag of Ireland in 1919 and officially confirmed by the Dail Erinn in 1937.

The Flag of Cornwall — Click to enlarge

Kernow. Cornwall, which is long associated with tin, lies at the southwestern tip of Britain and is represented by the white cross of Saint Piran (Petroc).

Saint Piran was an Irish missionary who is credited with bringing Christianity to Cornwall in the fifth century. Saint Piran was also a tinsmith. According to legend, he “discovered” tin one day while working in his kiln. He saw a white fluid seep out in the shape of a cross of the blackened ashes. This is the legend of Cornwall’s flag design.

The white cross design dates from c.1188 and may have its origin in the Crusades. Flags with coloured crosses were used during the Crusades to represent various lands (such as the black cross of Brittany, or the green cross of Flanders). The Cornish flag may have been the basis for the black cross, used by Breton Crusaders. Cornish emigres went to Brittany (then known as Armorica) in the fifth and sixth centuries to escape the invading Angels and Saxons. Cornish troops carried this banner with them into battle at Agicourt in 1415.

The Flag of the Isle of Mann — Click to enlarge

Mannin. Besides Sicily, Mann (also spelled "Man") is the only other country to incorporate the triskelion into its flag. Sir William le Scorpe, Lord of Mann changed the triskelion to an armoured design in 1395. It has remained so (with minor revisions) since then. There is little evidence to connect Sicily’s triskelion with that of Mann.

The triskelion is an ancient symbol and has been used since at least the eighth century B.C., most notably by the Norse and in what is now northern Italy. On Mann, it may have been in use since the early 11th century and may be of Norse origin, not Celtic.

Mann was politically associated with the Hebrides and was part of the Norse domains between the early ninth century and 1266. Early Manx kings were related to the Norse-Irish kings of the same time period. Coins from Ireland and Mann both depict the triskelion. The triskelion itself is an ancient symbol representing the Sun’s movement across the sky. It was used extensively by many ancient cultures, including the Norse. It may also represent the Celtic Sea God Mannin MacLir, whose home is the Isle of Mann. Mannin MacLir could protect his home by raising a mist that hides the island from enemies.

Sir Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray used a banner featuring the triskelion. He is supposed to have been related to earlier Manx Kings, who in turn were related to those in Ireland. His lordship of Mann dates from 1313, the same year that Robert the Bruce established Scottish control over the island. The Earl’s triskelion as well as those used earlier bore chain mail legs, not armoured ones.

Lord Atholl sold (revested) the Lordship to the Crown (George III) in 1765 for £70,000.The Manx flag was little used as a governmental flag until 1929 when it was raised at Peel Castle, Tynwald Hill and Caer Rushen. It has been allowed to fly on public buildings since 1968. The current design was set in 1966 and is anatomically correct. The toes are set so as to form an equilateral triangle. When properly flown, the legs run clockwise dexter (right). The national motto reads “Qvocunqve Ieceris Stabit,” which means “Whichever way you throw it, it still stands.”

A symbolic meaning connected to the triskelion places the Earth as the central point of the triangle, with the legs representing the waves of the sea, the breath of the wind and the flame of fire. These were the four “elements” of the ancient world. Other Celtic meanings to the triskelion could be the representation of birth, death and rebirth, the Triple Goddess or the three classes of ancient Celtic society: the priests, rulers and warriors and artisans / farmers. In appearance, the triskelion is related to the hevoud, laubrau and right facing fyflot (swastika), all of which are life-force related symbols.