Orkney’s flag was registered on April 10th 2007. As with its neighbour Shetland the form of flag, an offset cross, reflects the archipelago’s Scandinavian heritage. The flag was the winning design in a competition held by the local council. This followed the refusal of Scotland’s highest heraldic authority, the Lord Lyon, to register the popular red cross on yellow flag
known as the Saint Magnus flag. This previous flag appeared in the 1990s, and was named for St Magnus – Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney from 1108 to 1117, although there was no historical connection between him and the design. The flag was however, identical with that attributed historically to the Kalmar Union, a mediaeval union of several Scandinavian kingdoms, although there are no surviving flags, or pictures showing its appearance so the design is based on textual evidence. The flag of Saint Magnus was also noted for portraying the colours of the Scottish Royal Banner
in the form of a Scandinavian cross, thus combining both cultural elements that defined the island territory. In 2001 the Lord Lyon King of Arms, decreed that this unofficial Orkney flag could not be sanctioned because it was too similar to existing arms, in particular the old arms of the Kingdom of Ulster, shown here as an armorial banner
The island chain remained without an approved flag for several years until 2007 when its council moved to hold a competition to select a design that would meet with official approval. Islanders submitted around 100 designs to the competition from which a list of twelve was selected by a panel including councillors and the council’s Chief Executive. Following initial consultation with the Lord Lyon a further five designs
were drawn from these and put to an island-wide vote. The winning design, which gained 53% of the votes, was created by Duncan Tullock, an Orkney postman from Birsay. The new flag retained the red and yellow colours of the original flag and the link therefore, to the red and yellow Scottish and Norwegian
Royal Standards with blue for the sea that surrounds the island group
and for Scotland, it being the main colour of the Scottish flag
The designer of the flag reported on how he had borrowed his daughters’ crayons to sketch out the original design! Having been pre-approved by the Lord Lyon to make it onto the short-list the flag received letters patent from his office making it the official flag of Orkney and it was duly registered by the Flag Institute.
An interesting consideration was raised however by Orkney citizen Mr Robert Foden, of Kirkwall. He challenged the ruling of the Lord Lyon against the recognition of the Saint Magnus flag and further questioned the right of the Lord Lyon to adjudicate on the matter at all. In consultation with the local newspaper, The Orcadian, Mr Foden asserted that far from being created in 1994 as had often been stated, the flag, as the symbol of the Kalmar Union had in fact been in existence since the 14th century. When the union had been formed Orkney was still a part of Norway. Mr Foden contended that the Kalmar Union or “Norden” flag “would have flown in Orkney – at least until the isles were handed over to Scotland in 1468.” The Union broke apart in 1512 and its flag fell into disuse but Orkney and Shetland at this time were under Scottish rule only as part of a deal in lieu of a wedding dowry to the Scottish king and could still fly the flag as it was the only one to which they were entitled. With Shetland having selected a flag of its own Orkney was consequently the last entity entitled to fly the red on yellow cross of the Kalmar Union.
Mr Fodden further averred that the Lord Lyon’s office was created only in 1592 by which time the Norden flag had been in existence for about 200 years and that his remit is “…to supervise coats-of-arms and heraldry of Scotland – and this flag is not Scottish.” Therefore the so-called Flag of Saint Magnus was beyond the scope of his office.
Ultimately however the Orkney Islands Council opted to secure the sanction of the modern heraldic authority and proceeded with the flag competition in February and March 2007. It has since encouraged the wider community to fly the flag, especially on the feast day of Saint Magnus, April 16.
The flag is seen here raised over the Stromness Town House
, here at Kirkwall Town Hall
and is regularly flown all over the county
Below, centre, the flag flies on Orkney Day, April 16th.
The Orkney flag is much wielded by county sports teams and has been adapted as a kit!