Believed to be one of the oldest flags in Europe, the Scottish Saltire has acted as an international symbol for Scotland for well over 1000 years.
Alongside its use as a flag, in 2004 it was officially “chosen” by the then-Scottish Executive as the country’s logo, to be used in it’s promotional endeavours overseas. It was a decision that reportedly cost £300,000 to arrive at.
But despite the flag’s popularity, and it largely being synonymous with Scotland, a growing number of communities are embracing their Scottish identity further, by designing and adopting their own regional flags.
“There are several reasons why flags are being adopted now,” says Philip Tibbetts, a vexillologist or flag expert. Tibbetts holds positions at the Court of the Lord Lyon, Scotland’s standing court
of law which regulates heraldry, and the UK’s Flag Institute. “A lot of it is to do with the utility these communities get out of having their own flag,” he says.
Regional flags have the dual functionality of expressing geographical identity both internally and externally, according to Tibbetts. “They allow people to unite under a shared characteristic – where they come from,” he says. “But more so, regional flags also effectively become the core of a community’s brand.”
In Scotland, 11 regions, cities and towns have registered their own flags, and a further four are in the process of doing so. Eight of the already-adopted flags have come in the last three years. The attraction toward a regional flag, Tibbetts says, comes from the Scotland’s long history of sub-national identities and rich tradition of heraldry.
Tibbetts points to heraldry – the historic system of coats of arms and other graphic armorial bearings designed to identify an individual, originally used by soldiers on battlefields – as one of the first forms of personal and community branding, and also as one of the birthplaces for modern graphic design.
“You had to make sure your own army wouldn’t kill you during battle,” he says. “Since the beginning, heraldry was really about visibility and clarity.”
“Take one symbol and give it three meanings”
Influenced by a tradition that values clear communication, Tibbetts says there is a balance to be struck between clarity and creativity when designing flags today. “Ultimately, the flag is a functional object, designed to fly on a flagpole.
“Some people approach the designing process with the idea of including everything they can think of to represent themselves or their town, but actually the most successful flag designs are those that can take one symbol and give it three meanings,” he says.
None of this is to say, however, that modern-day flag designs can’t innovate at all. Tibbetts says: “If you stick to traditional forms – things like crosses and tri-bands, for example – that will probably get you to about 80% of a serviceable design, generally speaking.
“Or, you could also do something more creative, and it will either not work at all, or not only will it be 100% of a serviceable design, but it might push the design into something completely unexpected, something a little bit magic.”
In 2018, for example, the Isle of Tiree unveiled its flag that featured a gold and green “sun of barley” in place of any traditional motifs. In the same year, the county of Sutherland twisted tradition to acknowledge the region’s Viking-rich heritage on their flag. It features a Scandinavian-style cross, overlaid by a Saltire and an eight-pointed star at its centre.
“Enduring for years to come”
These are all points the community on the Isle of Skye will be taking in, as they continue the search to find their own flag.
“[We’re expecting designers to] draw on the past as well as the present,” says Keith MacKenzie, director of the West Highland Free Press, the newspaper that initiated the Skye flag campaign.
“There will be traditional aspects to it, but it also has to mark out Skye and the elements of our island that are distinctive and unique,” he says, adding the isle is looking for something that will “endure for many years to come”.
This requirement is echoed by Tibbetts, who notes timelessness as one of the key principles of modern flag design. “This medium of design has literally been around for centuries, but if you look at a coat of arms that was created in the 14th or 15th century, most largely still look useable today.
“The key really is to design something that wouldn’t have looked out of place 500 years ago, and that won’t look out of place in 500 years’ time.”
Taking into consideration how graphic designs might be interpreted in the decades and centuries to come is a hefty mission, but the search for a timeless flag is a worthwhile one, according to Tibbetts. “One of the biggest benefits for these regional flags is that communities know they won’t have to rebrand themselves in ten years.
“If the flag is done right, the core of a community’s brand will probably never have to change again.”