The Sutherland flag was announced by the “Northern Times” on January 26th 2018, following a competition to devise a county flag, established by the local community in conjunction with the Flag Institute. The winning design was added to the registry a week later; it features a swooping eagle, seen face on, against a vertical bicoloured red and yellow background, with the eagle counterchanged yellow and red. The pattern is intended to symbolise the county’s geography with both Atlantic Ocean and North Sea coasts. At the hoist are three red stars or mullets. These, plus the red and yellow colour combination, are taken from the arms borne by Hugh de Moray Earl of Sutherland
The arms are described and illustrated in the 1910 publication “The Heraldry of the Murrays”, with a reference to their use by the fifth earl, William
They are also found on the seal used by the eighth holder of that title as described below
and were subsequently incorporated into the arms awarded to the former Sutherland County Council and Sutherland District Council
The three stars also featured on the 1786 town seal of Dornoch
and can be found on a stained glass window in Dornoch Cathedral, dedicated to Saint Gilbert
In April 2017, just over a year after its neighbour Caithness registered its own county flag and following encouragement from interested parties such as the Association of British Counties, county residents met to initiate the county flag competition for Sutherland. Details of the competition were released in September 2017, school pupils and young people across the county were expected to play a major role
The gathering where the competition was formulated
took place at the former Sutherland District Council chamber, above the public library in Dornoch and comprised the county’s Lord Lieutenant Dr Monica Main
, five of her deputy Lord Lieutenants; Major General Patrick Marriott; Lieutenant Colonel Colin Gilmour; Sheila Stewart; Kim Tulloch; and David Grant plus Graeme Smart from Kinlochbervie High School, Frances Gunn, Tongue, community volunteer development officer and Garry Cameron, ward manager for East Sutherland and Edderton. The group was given a presentation by the Flag Institute’s Community Vexillologist, Philip Tibbetts, seen at the centre of the group in the above photo, who told the meeting,
“A flag brings pride to communities and has real benefits. It has become incredibly popular in Caithness in a short space of time.”
describing how the Caithness flag was now flying at several public buildings and how it now features on items such as car stickers, lapel pins, bunting and T-shirts and appears on the kits of local sports teams. He guided the meeting through the process of officially registering a flag with the Court of the Lord Lyon which was expected to take from six to nine months to complete. The Lord Lieutenant then formed a steering group comprising representatives of various local groups to oversee and progress the scheme. Deputy Lord Lieutenant Patrick Marriott said the flag “would be a unifier”, while his colleague David Grant commented: “Hopefully it will engage a lot of people across Sutherland.”
The competition took place across September and October 2017, with judging taking place on Monday October 30th at Drummuie. Three hundred and twenty-eight entries were received, from as far afield as New Zealand, Japan and Sweden with many featuring the county’s wildlife. A Selection Panel, chose several of the designs for presentation to a Judging Panel, comprising the Lord Lyon, Philip Tibbetts of the Flag Institute and members of local schools, council and the Lord Lieutenancy’s team, the Sutherland Flag Steering Group, who decided the winning entry from amongst the designs selected.
Pictured above are, back row from left: Councillor Jim McGillivray, vice Lord Lieutenant Colin Gilmour, Lord Lieutenant Dr Monica Main, vexillologist Philip Tibbetts, Kieran Day, Kinlochbervie High School, Deputy Lieutenant Frances Gunn. Front row, from left: Syke Macdonald, Golspie High School, Lord Lyon Dr Joseph Morrow, Carmen Heddie and Erin Mackintosh, both Farr High School, Deputy lieutenants Patrick Marriott and Graeme Smart, head teacher at Kinlochbervie High School
Secretary of the selection panel, Colin Gilmour
, said there had been a “phenomenal” 328 entries, reflecting the wide interest shown in the project throughout Sutherland and particularly from the county’s schools.
He continued, “The selection panel was very impressed with the imaginative thought put into each design, with a wide variety of configurations depicting the varying Sutherland landscape, wildlife and life across the county.” Salmon proved the most popular fish, whilst deer, otter, eagles, wild cats and Highland cattle and sheep featured in many illustrations. Mullet stars, used in heraldry to depict any star shaped charge with rays, featured strongly. There were a few Viking helmets, including one with blood dripping from it, and also a train being pulled by a team of horses, with the comment that the horses were included to demonstrate just how often the trains break down in Sutherland!”
The selection panel
spent a day looking at all the entries and reportedly chose three, which were amalgamated to make up the final design. Upon its announcement Colin Gilmour commented,
“I think it is eye-catching, which is what you want. A lot of these flags you would not know one from the other. This will stand out at a distance.”
He advised that an eagle had featured on a considerable number of the entries and noted that,
“The eagle was chosen as a unifying feature of the flag – the west (of Sutherland) now has
a fair population of white-tailed sea eagles and the east
has golden eagles in good numbers.”
A distribution reflected in the bicoloured form of the eagle. “It was felt that the bird’s swooping pose, albeit perhaps unique on a flag, was considered bold and easy to identify from a distance”
The Lyon Court, has now issued a warrant for the design. Vice Lord Lieutenant Gilmour stated that,
“Following the official flag launch, any business, organisation or individual will be entitled to purchase and fly the flag. It could be used by hotels and B and Bs on their websites or leaflets, flags, sign posting and perhaps on key-rings, badges and even sports strips.”
Shortly after being revealed the flag was raised at the Owl House B and B, at Inveran
Upon its announcement the newly announced flag received a degree of criticism , which fell into five broad areas of concern;
- the selection process;
- the absence of a Scottish Wild Cat charge;
- the inclusion of an eagle charge and its particular depiction;
- the colours of red and yellow and their “orientation”;
- the inclusion of “stars”.
Unlike previous competitions, the process in Sutherland included no “popular” element. Generally, such competitions had involved a judging panel which selected several finalists that were put to a public vote. Following a fanfare of publicity and general encouragement of participation in the process, the public’s opinion was never sought in deciding the winner. The high number of entries received, a few of which are shown below
allowed for plenty of choice, to select perhaps six varying designs, which could have then been put to a public vote. Given sufficient choice and the opportunity for the Sutherland public to have had a say in the matter, there would have been less cause for complaint about the final selection from aggrieved residents. That said, the process had been described and publicised for nearly a year without any comment or criticism from any party.
Whilst there is certainly evidence of a Scottish Wild Cat being used to represent the county,
including its deployment as a crest in the arms of the aforementioned earldom,
where one is depicted grasping the shield of three gold stars on a red field, Colin Gilmour of the flag steering committee clarified the committee’s reasoning for not opting for one on the county flag,
“ “The Land of the Cat” is properly Caithness, not Sutherland. The original land of the Cat or ‘Cait’ (from about 800 AD) centred on Caithness and just included a small part of south-east Sutherland. The confusion comes from the Gaelic name for Sutherland, which is ‘Cataibh’, which does indeed mean ‘cat land’, but it originated when south-east Sutherland and Caithness all fell under the one Pictish region. Unity of the county, especially including the west and north, was considered the key factor by the selection committee, so selecting an emblem that was historically limited to only a very small part of Sutherland (the south-east) and another adjacent county, might reasonably be considered to have been unrepresentative of the county as a whole.
With regard to criticism of the choice of an eagle on the flag, Colin Gilmour further advised that,
“The eagle featured prominently on a considerable number of the entries, indeed much more so than the wildcat. Its current prominence in many parts of Sutherland was selected as a unifying factor across the county. Since the overwhelming factor in the design was ‘unity’, this is provided by the eagle.”
Arguably a plain gold eagle against a red field might have been sufficient and made the design less “busy” but use of a bicoloured field and counterchanged eagle illustration ( red part on yellow and yellow part on red) reflects both species of raptor present in the county, the red being a sea eagle, the yellow, a golden eagle as detailed above. Combining the two also emphasised the sought for “unifying” factor.
Significantly, the last paragraph in this article
from a 1957 edition of the local newspaper, the Northern Times, which refers to the then county council’s arms
, describes the bird included in the design as “a raven or spread eagle of the Norse Jarldom”; the creature shown certainly more closely resembles an eagle than a raven.
A categorical local eagle reference is the “The Eagle” hotel in Dornoch,
constructed in the 1840s and named for the landing eagle crest of the clan Munro,
one branch of which was established in the Dornoch area.
It might be further considered that eagles are rare creatures in the British Isles, being the home of such magnificent birds is surely something of which to be proud, worthy of celebrating on a flag? However, it is true that the “orientation” appears not to make sense as the red portion representing the west, is on the right of the flag as observed and the gold part is at the left hand side of the flag, this colour scheme does not reflect the geographical distribution.
The specific illustration of the eagle was also criticised, with “budgie” references being made. An eagle seen swooping, head on,
raises its wings over its head in a “u”
or “v” shape
with the head positioned lower down between them, in this configuration the head occupies a more centralised position than that depicted on the registered design. Arguably a more “majestic” realisation, which better reflects this natural carriage, could have been effected. Accordingly, in response to criticisms of the depiction, two such examples have been created
The choice of red and yellow per se, was also subject to heavy criticism. This, however, seemingly exhibited ignorance of the heraldic history of the locality, as detailed above. Although a newly contrived flag is not obliged to follow the colour scheme of previous charges in the area, it is as legitimate a basis as any other option and having been around since about 1150 (!), these are regarded as the county’s historic colours. There was a great call for shades that reflect the county’s landscape, a specious argument however, as by this reckoning all flags would be green and blue to represent land and sea with perhaps some yellow for the beach! Flags do not uniformly feature colours that symbolise geography, some do but it’s not an obligatory practice. Certainly, Sutherland’s terrain does include heather, so an uncommon, purple, could have been an acceptable choice to include but not using purple or green, by itself, is not a valid reason to condemn the final design; whilst these were options, they were not mandatory.
Finally, use of the stars raised the ire of critics. As described, the stars derive from local heraldry, being present on the original mediaeval arms of the Earldom of Sutherland and subsequently incorporated into the arms awarded to local administrations. A few concerns were expressed that the gold stars on red represent George Leveson-Gower, 1st Duke of Sutherland, notorious for his role in the Highland Clearances undertaken between 1811 and 1820. In fact the stars were borne by the Earl of Sutherland, a title created about 1230 for William de Moravia, whose family has used the three gold mullets on a field of red as a coat of arms ever since. Armorial banners displaying the trio of stars are seen below, raised over
and waved from
Dunrobin Castle, the latter signalling to HMS Sutherland in fact! The Duke, of Sutherland, Leveson-Gower, bore his own, entirely different, starless coat of arms. Significantly, as asserted by Colin Gilmour “..the three yellow stars on a red background were on the shields carried by the “Sutherland contingent” in fights against the English at Bannockburn in 1314 (3rd Earl of Sutherland); Halidon Hill in 1333 (4th Earl of Sutherland); and probably at Neville Cross in 1346.” He further confirmed that the traditional red and yellow featured in a very large number of competition entries.
Again, the stars did not have, to be included in the final design but their inclusion has a valid and firm basis. Comments about the red and yellow, the eagle and the stars, being “Communist” reflect people’s greater familiarity with the icons of far flung regimes, than with their own locality. Because a design bears a superficial resemblance to something else is not a valid reason to condemn it, especially when that condemnation is made without regard to the actual relevant derivation of the elements being used.
Notably, both the gold stars on red and an eagle, are present on the arms of Golspie high school in the county
and the gold stars on red, feature on the arms of Dornoch Academy
so the emblems and combination are not without local precedent.
The new flag was due to be officially launched at an event later in 2018, to be attended by the Lord Lyon.