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Controversy continues over Orkney's flag

Orkney FlagThe debate over an approved design for an Orkney community flag continued this week, with a claim that, historically, Orkney is entitled to use the red-and-yellow Scandinavian cross.

The controversy began back in 2001, when Scotland’s heraldic authority, the Lord Lyon King of Arms, decreed that Orkney’s “unofficial” flag could not be sanctioned. The reason? The design was too similar to a number of coat-of-arms, in particular the old arms of the Kingdom of Ulster.

But the debate has been resurrected after the subject was raised by the OIC's policy and resources committee.

Although the red "St Magnus Cross" on a yellow background is widely used across the county, the Lord Lyon King of Arms' ruling led councillors to request a community consultation to try and come up with a design for an offical replacement flag.

But Mr Robert Foden, of Cromwell Road, Kirkwall, has challenged this and aims to set the record straight concerning Orkney’s popular, but unofficial, flag.

Mr Foden told The Orcadian that the flag had not been “created” in 1994, as is often said, but has actually been around since the 14th century.

It was originally, he said, the flag of the former Kalmar Union – a union of Norway, Sweden and Denmark from 1397 until 1512.

At the time, because Orkney was still a part of Norway, our bishop, John Colschestre, also known as John Pak, travelled to Sweden as the sole Norwegian representative at the coronation of Erik of Pomerania – the event formally marking the start of the union.

And it was here, suggests Mr Foden, that the bishop may have been the first person from Orkney to see the new flag of the Kalmar Union. This flag was “a red Latin cross on a yellow ground” which, says Mr Foden, “would have flown in Orkney – at least until the isles were handed over to Scotland in 1468.”

He went on: “In 1512, the Kalmar Union ended. The Union flag fell into disuse, as the union for which it had been created existed no longer.

“However, there was one part of the Union which could still claim on that flag, as it was the only flag to which they were entitled – namely Orkney and Shetland. The islands were just an economic part of Scotland as they were still in pawn. If anyone is entitled to fly that flag still, it is Orkney.”

But what about the Lord Lyon’s refusal to sanction the design?

“There is no need to apply to the Lord Lyon for permission to use it as it lies outwith his jurisdiction,” said Mr Foden. “First, he was only appointed to his position in 1592, by which time the flag had been in existence for about 200 years.

“The second is that he is appointed to supervise coat-of-arms and heraldry of Scotland – and this flag is not Scottish.”

He concludes: “It is, in fact, difficult to understand what all the fuss is about. The flag has a very respectable pedigree. We are entitled to this flag. In fact, one can state unequivocably that Orkney and Shetland are the only parts of Europe now entitled to use this flag, and since Shetland have since developed their own, there is no reason why we cannot use this one solely for Orkney.”

But not all the historians agree – which is just one of the flies in the ointment.

According to one source: “As well as there being no surviving flag, there is no pictorial evidence attesting to the Union flag from the time of the Kalmar Union.”

A spokesman for the Nordic Council, the official body representing Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Finland, Aland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, also said the Kalmar Union flag had been “lost in a historic haze”.

He said: “At the time of use it was probably not a national symbol in the same way we normally consider flags to be. Generally flags were represented a specific person or army unit and had, as such, both a decorative and identifying purpose.

“It was not until the 1500s flags were used as national symbols. It is therefore difficult to say which use the yellow cloth with the red cross actually had – sources are scarce with information to its actual use.”

But a number of accounts point to heraldic evidence for a red union cross.

This relates primarily to two letters written by the king Erik in 1430, in which he instructs the priests of Vadstena and Kalmar to wear the banner of the union on their robes – a red cross on a yellow field.

So if we accept this, can the flag still be used?

It seems Orkney may still be too late. The Kalmar Union design appears to have already been used in Scandinavia, at least twice in recent years.

The Norden Flag, as it is referred to, is also unofficial and seems to have been introduced at the end of the 1970s in an attempt to strengthen links between the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

Details are scant, but dating from at least 1979, the flag’s design was also chosen based on the Erik of Pomerania letters mentioned above.

Another account tells us that the flag was hoisted in 1985 to celebrate the 900th anniversary celebrations of the Swedish city of Helsinborg.

But the Nordic Council spokesman was not so sure.

He said: “To my knowledge, the flag has not been used in any official way since the middle ages, and certainly not as a symbol for Nordic co-operation.”

So although it certainly appears that the “Orkney Flag” could have a connection to the Kalmar Union, this link may have led to the design being used some time before its introduction (or reintroduction, depending on your viewpoint) to Orkney.

Which leaves us with a new question.

Does Orkney have any more right to the design over the users, if there are any, of the Norden flag?

Only one thing appears certain. The debate looks set to continue.

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