Nova Scotia has the proud distinction of being the only province of Canada and the first colony of Great Britain to possess, through Royal Charter, a flag of its own, a flag that originated in 1621. This is often proclaimed in various government publications, tourist literature, etc. – sometimes with a 1625 date – and it is generally accepted as a fact. In the field of vexillology, however, this “fact” is questionable.

Vexillology, the study of flags, is a hobby of Dr. Robert Raeside, Wolfville, head of the geology department at Acadia University. Recently Dr. Raeside addressed the Kentville Gyro on his hobby; during his presentation, Raeside remarked that the Nova Scotia flag had never been adopted officially. In effect, Dr. Raeside said (even though he didn’t use these exact words) there is no official Nova Scotia flag.

Intrigued by his comment, I asked Dr. Raeside to elaborate. A few days later the strange story of the Nova Scotia “flag” arrived via e-mail. It’s a complicated tale of which a whittled down version follows.

“The story started in 1621 when the area including what is now Nova Scotia was given by grant to Sir William Alexander by King James V1 of Scotland. Mention is made of a flag at that time, but no description of it was made.

“By the 17th century the concept of a national flag was not well developed, and, of course, the province didn’t yet exist. More important was the grant of arms, which happened for New Scotland in 1625 by decree of King Charles 1… The arms were granted by the chief herald of Scotland. No flag is known from that time – the first use of a flag for Nova Scotia (of the modern design) was as a presentation to the Halifax Cricket Club in 1858.

“In 1868 a strange twist happened.” Dr. Raeside continued. Along with other British colonies, Nova Scotia was granted a coat of arms by the College of Arms in London. Dr. Raeside called this the thistles and salmon shield and it commemorates the Scottish settlers and the wealth of the waters. “From 1868 to the early 20th century the flag used for Nova Scotia was usually a blue ensign with the thistles and salmon shield in the fly.”

Nova Scotia now had two official sets of arms, “one set by the Scottish herald and practically forgotten, one by the English herald.” When in 1916 one James Stewart published a paper pointing this out, support for the ancient arms grew. In 1928 the Nova Scotia government asked the College of Arms to set aside the 1868 arms in favour of the 1625 arms. “This happened,” Raeside writes, “and Nova Scotia could now adopt its own flag – but it never did.”

Summing up the situation, Dr. Raeside said that “the flag that flies today is derived from the arms that were presented in 1625, but because it was only the arms that were confirmed when the thistles and salmon arms were abandoned, the flag has never actually been adopted officially.

“We can look back to the text of the 1625 decree, that the arms were ‘to be borne for the said Province of Nova Scotia upon Seals Shields Banner or otherwise according to the Laws of Arms.’ From that it is not too big a step to add ‘flags’ to ‘banners’ and say that Nova Scotia’s flag is 375 years old, even though it is the only provincial or territory flag that has never actually been proclaimed.”

But, adds Dr. Raeside, we shouldn’t let this omission worry us. “The Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom, has never been formally adopted as a national flag either!”

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