What's On: The Saltire Festival 2015

Feature | 22 Oct 2015

We’ve all, at least once, looked up at the sky on a clear blue day and, seeing two criss-crossing vapour trails, called out, “here that looks like our flag, guys, seriously.” (Or, failing that, snapped it for Instagram, #scotland #nofilter.) Legend has it pretty much the same thing happened in the early 9th century, except probably without the whole Instagram thing, when the united Picts and Scots were battling an army of Angles. The sight of a bloody great Saint Andrew’s cross in the heavens spurred them to kick some proto-English arse, and so historic was the defeat that they made that portentous saltire the national flag, so the story goes.

In the days leading up to this year’s St. Andrew’s Day (Mon 30 Nov, calendar fans), East Lothian – as part of Scotland’s 2015 Winter Festivals programme – is again celebrating all things heritage (including the aforementioned legend) with their sixth annual Saltire Festival (23-29 Nov). Boasting a bigger programme than ever before, plus an exciting focus on food and drink (it is the Year of Food and Drink, after all), that last week in November is one to keep clear, especially as a final autumnal bastion against the encroaching winter months.

The Saltire cultural programme

Being the definitive St. Andrew’s Day festival in the Home of the Flag, there’s a healthy offering of informative events for the culturally curious. The Saltire Lecture (Dunbar Town House Museum, Thu 26 Nov) explores the history of the flag and Scotland’s patron saint, while Scotland on Film (The Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Thu 26 Nov) offers a series of contemporary Scotland-shot movies including Proclaimers-musical-turned-motion-picture Sunshine on Leith. For a more hands-on perspective on the past, Scotland Through the Ages (Sat 28-Sun 29 Nov) is a family BDO with activities and workshops based around the nation’s colourful history.

This festival also coincides with Book Week Scotland, and the region is offering its own share of literary highlights. These include (but are not limited to): endurance cyclist and TV personality Mark Beaumont talking about his world-trotting, record-breaking exploits at Musselburgh's Brunton Theatre; crime scribes Eva Dolan, Arne Dahl, and Stuart Neville uniting for an Urban Noir Showcase at St. Mary's Parish Church in Haddington; 'Vera Stanhope' detective series mastermind Ann Cleeves discussing her latest work The Moth Catcher at Port Seton Community Centre. Read the full programme and book tickets here, or for rest of Scotland events calendar head here.

Festival of food

All this culture making you hungry? We promised a focus on food; there’s a veritable cornucopia of gastronomical goings-on this festival. We recommend The Saltire Wine and Dine (Fri 27 Nov) at North Berwick’s Macdonald Marine Hotel, a five course meal with wine pairings from seasoned sommelier Johnny Walker), or The Saltire Epicurean Encounter (Sat 28 Nov), a gourmet’s dream of locally and internationally sourced food, spirits and beer. There’s also a Saltire Haddington’s Farmers’ Market (Sat 28 Nov) if you’re of the mind to seek out your own speciality produce, or just bask in the sights and smells of good quality local food and live cooking demos.

Get active

Mind you, this festival lark isn't all sitting around soaking up culture: you can try your hand at something a little more active. A range of physical diversions await at Foxlake Adventures (just outside Dunbar) as part of the annual John Muir Winter Carnival (Sat 28 Nov), including paddle boarding, rowing, archery, running – even CrossFit. Or you can sit around and watch your pals do it while you snack on local food! For athleticism of (quite a literal) different breed, head down to Musselburgh's own famous racecourse for The Saltire Raceday (Fri 27 Nov) to watch those majestic animals thunder round the track through the crisp autumn air. There are are even generous fish & chips deals available (because who doesn’t love hot chips on a cold day?), making it the perfect Friday lunchtime treat.

Of course, a festival wouldn’t be complete without some quality live entertainment. The final day packs a one-two hit: first up, pop by St. Mary's Parish Church in Haddington for The Saltire Concert (Sun 29 Nov), an afternoon showcase of local classical talent. Edinburgh Police Choir bring their choral take on modern pop hits, while Elspeth Smellie, singer and clarsach virtuoso extraordinaire (that's a Celtic harp, to save you Asking Jeeves), dazzles with her trademark blend of traditional and modern folk.


Secondly, and to bring the week's festivities to a close with a bang, East Lothian proudly presents The Saltire Laughs and Lyrics (Sun 29 Nov), a final bacchanalia of comedy, music, fireworks and, of course, food and drink, at the stately Maitlandfield House Hotel in Haddington. The music line-up is to be announced but the titular 'laughs' will come courtesy of such fine comedic acts as Phil Kay, Janey Godley, Bruce Fummey, plus plenty more besides, headlined by shouty Canadian expat Tom Stade. All in all, it’ll be a fine way to round off a belter of a week.