This is the chapter entitled, Nova Scotia, from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.




No one can deny the absolute legality and validity
of the ancient and true arms of Nova Scotia,
and they are not only the oldest but the grandest of all
the arms borne by the British Dominions beyond the Seas.
John A. Stewart (1916)


Like Nova Scotia's arms, its flag is grand and old. The question of whether it is the grandest of the flags flown by the provinces is best left to individuals; certainly Quebec's flag is its equal in elegant simplicity of design and compelling symbolism. Well, is Nova Scotia's flag the oldest flag in the country? Judging by a legion of newspaper articles, books, and tourist brochures, the issue has long been settled to the satisfaction of the Bluenoses. For others, however, there is a fascinating story to be told of the only flag used by a province to have developed a significant mythology.


Curriculum Vexilli

Reading the literature on the flag of Nova Scotia is like reading a multiple choice test: the flag is variously claimed to date from 1621, 1625, and 1929. And, to this already long list, we add the choices of 1858, and "none of the above." Faced with such a diverse choice of dates, the true believer is wont to choose the earliest; the sceptic, on the other hand, is prompted to question them all. No other province has a flag whose genesis is bathed in as much confusion; but then, no other province has a flag which has been used for so long.


The story starts, as do all stories of Nova Scotia, in 1621. That is the year in which the land between New England and Newfoundland received its name and was granted to Sir William Alexander. A typical claim that the flag dates from 1621 is that found in the Canadian Symbols Kit:

The flag was first authorized by the Charter of New Scotland granted to Sir William Alexander by King James VI of Scotland (James I of England) in 1621. Nova Scotia was the first British colony to have its own flag by royal charter.2

Yet the only mention of flags in the charter does not create a flag of Nova Scotia. Rather, it makes it clear that the appropriate course for Sir William is to use the existing flags of the realm: the king gave him the privilege "of navigating through any seas under our ensigns and flags."3 Even without reading the Charter, the vacuity of the assertion that Nova Scotia's flag was authorized in 1621 should have been evident from the fact that the Charter predates the grant of arms, upon which the flag is based.


It was about 1625-the original records have been lost-that Nova Scotia received a grant of arms. The elegant shield is a combination of two ancient symbols of Scotland: Saint Andrew's cross (with the colours reversed) and the Royal Arms. The earliest extant copy of the grant, made about 1810, makes no mention of the use of the arms upon banners.4 On this basis, it also might be tempting to dismiss the grant of 1625 as providing no authority for a flag. Indeed, when claims are made on its behalf, they are often carefully circumspect, asserting only that the flag

derives from those ancient Arms granted in 1625 by King Charles I5

Such claims are indeed reasonable, and, if anything, overly cautious. Clearly, the flag is based upon the 1625 arms, but, beyond that, even if it were not stated explicitly, any grant of arms implicitly allows for the creation of a banner of those arms. Does this mean that the flag of Nova Scotia really does date from 1625? No it does not; there is a big difference between a banner of arms and a provincial flag. The first was (implicitly) authorized by the grant of arms; the second was not.

The armorial banner, like the arms themselves represent authority, not citizenship. It would have been appropriate for a lieutenant governor to have used the province's armorial banner to symbolize his authority (and, indeed, in the fifties, the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia did just that), but it would be inappropriate for an ordinary person to do so. Inappropriate, that is, in the absence its use being granted to the public by the government. The presumption in assuming that the banner of arms is automatically the provincial flag is equivalent to assuming that Canada's armorial banner (alias, the Standard of Canada) is automatically the National Flag. Yet they are very different in design, history and purpose: the Standard of Canada is a banner of authority; the National Flag is a banner of the populace.

All provinces are armigerous, but no other has adopted the odd point of view that the instruments of authority such as their armorial banners (not to mention their lieutenant governor's flags and their Great Seals) were capriciously available to the public. If they were to adopt this attitude, then Newfoundland would have had a flag since 1637 and Ontario since 1868, and the resulting provincial flags would be very different from those which these provinces now call their own. Yet, although a province's armorial banner is not, by reason of the grant of arms, available to the public, it may become so if explicitly converted into the provincial flag. Certainly, three provinces, B.C., N.B., and P.E.I., explicitly chose to make their armorial banners available to the public by creating provincial flags through legislation.

Nova Scotia has never actually authorized a provincial flag, preferring to pretend that a grant of arms creates a flag available to the public. Although government literature states that "its use today is determined by the Lieutenant-Governor-in-Council" and that it is "now flown on Provincial Buildings, and on public and private flagstaffs through the province", the Lieutenant-Governor-in-Council has never explicitly authorized its use by private citizens.6

The situation is in many ways comparable to that of the Union Flag in Great Britain. As was noted earlier, the "United Kingdom differs from most other countries in that she has no official national flag. The Union Flag is a royal flag used by the sovereign and the services and representatives of the sovereign."7 In like manner, it could be claimed that Nova Scotia differs from other provinces in that she has no official flag. As was done in Britain, the public seems to have just usurped the flag while the authorities, whose flag it was, pretended everything was in order.8 Further, in both Great Britain and Nova Scotia, the public usurpation of their flags is largely a product of the twentieth century, and in each case a tradition was then invented to give it the respectability afforded by a feigned patina of antiquity.


Nova Scotia's invented flag tradition is exemplified by government literature which claims that

For nearly two centuries it was flown at the masthead of Nova Scotian ships and in the days of wooden sailing vessels was seen in all parts of the world.9

To what extent was the flag, as one author claims hyperbolically, "proudly borne by many of our famous ships prior to Confederation"?10 The evidence, or lack of it, suggests: not at all. It is difficult to guess what data might have been pressed into service to buttress this post facto wish fulfillment, but a plausible source is to be found in the old signal cum house flags of the Halifax merchants.

Near the end of the eighteenth century, a system of private signals was developed which warned a port to the approach of a ship. Upon sighting a known merchantman, a lookout stationed at the outer harbour would hoist its owner's special distinguishing flag. The owner, and the town, thus alerted, could prepare for the ship's arrival. A wide variety of simple designs was used, the criterion being that they could be distinguished one from another at that port; that they might overlap with the signals at another port, was apparently not of concern initially. Signal charts for different ports show the same signals were used for different merchants. At first a ship only flew its signal upon approaching the harbour, but by the end of the Napoleonic Wars most merchantmen were flying it continuously at the main mast: the house flag was born.11

Signal charts for Halifax in 1839 show that among the nearly four dozen different signals, there is one with a blue saltire on a white field used by the merchant James Fairbanks. This is not the flag of Nova Scotia, for it lacks the inescutcheon of the Scottish Royal Arms. But, the true believer might argue, Fairbanks was clearly making a patriotic reference to the armorial banner. Actually, such saltires were, and remain a common motif for house flags around the world. Indeed, eighteenth and nineteenth century charts for St. John's show a number of variants on this theme: one even bears a red diamond inescutcheon on the blue saltire. Presumably that merchant, James Murray, was not subversively signaling his preference for Nova Scotia over Newfoundland. Murray's preferences aside, claims for Nova Scotia's flag which are based on such house flags speak to twentieth century invention rather than nineteenth century tradition.

There appears to be no evidence that the flag of Nova Scotia was flown by any, let alone many, of the province's ships prior to Confederation. Indeed, in 1988, three curators of Nova Scotia's maritime museums racked their collective minds and records and could find no evidence of its use in this manner.12 However, even if historians of today may have missed something, it is doubtful that the observers of the time did, so it is of interest that less than a decade before Confederation, a local newspaper recorded what it confidently asserted was the first use of the flag of Nova Scotia, but that use was on land.


Some 233 years after the grant of arms, and 109 years after the settlement of Halifax, the first use of the flag is recorded, and not as a symbol of provincial authority as the 1625 grant implicitly allows, but as a celebratory offering to a cricket club. As the Acadian Recorder of June 12, 1858 tells it,

The Mayor, on behalf of Dr. Cogswell, also presented them [the cricket club] with a flag, embodying in visible shape for the first time in our history, the arms of the Province. The flag consisted of a blue cross of St. Andrew on a white field, charged in the centre with an inescocheon [sic] of the Royal Arms of Scotland.

Interest in the flag had arisen from within the Nova Scotia Philanthropic Society, of which Dr. Cogswell was a member. If, prior to Confederation, there had indeed been a history of the flag being "proudly borne by many of our famous ships" surely this local group, with its clear interest in the subject, would have been aware of it. But, their claim is categorical: in 1858 it appeared "for the first time in our history." The group continued to promote the flag: in 1860 Dr. Cogswell presented one to the Provincial Secretary.13 Since that time there appears to have been sporadic by gradually increasing use of the banner as a provincial flag.14

So, if implying the flag dates to 1625 is just silly, is it appropriate to claim that the flag of Nova Scotia dates from its first use in 1858? This certainly makes more sense than 1625, but if this same standard of first informal use were to be applied elsewhere, British Columbia could claim to have had its flag since 1911, about the time its armorial banner was first used. However, by common acknowledgment B.C. has only had a flag since 1960 when the armorial banner was authorized as a provincial flag by the legislature. Unfortunately, the government of Nova Scotia has carefully avoided any such authorization: better to maintain the pretence of having the oldest flag, than to risk having the youngest.


Only a decade after the public began to use the flag, a bizarre thing happened which probably slowed the public acceptance of the flag, but certainly altered the way it often was to be justified: Nova Scotia was granted arms. Notwithstanding the fact that Nova Scotia already had arms, on May 26, 1868, the College of Arms in London gave it a shield bearing three thistles and a salmon. While the principal blame for this heraldic incompetence must rest with the Heralds, it remains that Nova Scotian delegates, who were in London in April 1868 to discuss such matters, raised no objection to this armorial bigamy.15 It is this London version of the Nova Scotia arms which appears on national flag badges before 1922.

The apparent supplantation of the old arms by the new, seems to have caused little consternation in Nova Scotia for a long time. The fact that the new arms prompted a change in the legislative Seal of the province occasioned some foot dragging for a while, but in 1879 even the Seal had been converted to the new form. However, the older arms did continue to be employed occasionally: in 1888 they were added to the newly erected Halifax City Hall, and during the First World War they were borne on the cap badges of Nova Scotia's 25th Battalion.16

The 1868 grant of arms said that they were to be borne on "Banners, Flags, or otherwise, according to the laws of Arms," but the province apparently ignored this explicit provision. There seems to be no evidence that the thistle-and-fish arms were ever used on a flag of the province, either in the form of an armorial banner or as a badge on an ensign. Rather, what little use was made of a flag for the province seems have been confined to the armorial banner of 1625. In (year?), anti-Confederationists flew it at half mast on Dominion Day;17 in 1873, it appeared on the mainmast of a ship;18 in 1901, it marked the visit of the Duke of York to Halifax.

Then, in 1916, a Scotsman named John A. Stewart published a scholarly polemic which protested the continued use of the superfluous 1868 arms and made a plea on behalf of the 1625 arms. The essay aroused considerable interest within the historical societies of Nova Scotia and sparked a movement to rescind the later arms. The celebrations surrounding the tercentenary of Nova Scotia in 1921 and the republication of the essay as an illustrated booklet for the same occasion fueled the movement.19

In response to the mounting pressure, on March 7, 1928, the government of Nova Scotia made a formal request for the arms granted in 1868 to "be set aside and annulled in favour of the Armorial Achievement granted in 1625."20 As the two coats of arms arose from two different heraldic authorities, it was left for the Scottish and English heralds to settle how this was to be accomplished. The result was a royal warrant, dated January 19, 1929, which canceled the arms of 1868 and "confirmed" the arms of 1625. This warrant made explicit what the 1625 grant had left implicit: it stated that the ams were "to be borne for the said Province of Nova Scotia upon Seals Shields Banners or otherwise according to the Laws of Arms."

It is this provision for the arms to be borne on banners, and the assertion that the older arms had been restored (as if they had temporarily ceased to be valid) which prompts some authors to claim that the authority for the flag of Nova Scotia "rests in the royal warrant of 19 January 1929."21 Yet, the 1929 warrant did not say it was restoring the older arms, rather it was confirming them. The arms of 1625, which had never been annulled, had remained in effect throughout and are the authority upon which Nova Scotia's armorial banner rests. In the 1929 warrant, the College of Arms in London was just putting a pretty face on what was fundamentally an attempt to limit any further damage from their blunder of 1868.


The authority for the armorial banner of Nova Scotia rests squarely with the grant of arms in 1625, but an armorial banner is not a provincial flag. The provincial flag of Nova Scotia has never been authorized, but relies on a tradition dating back to its first informal use in 1858. But neither 1858 nor any of the other frequently mentioned dates serves to establish the birth of a flag which formally does not exist. It seems that from the multiple-choice list of competing dates, the best answer is "none of the above."

It is firmly to be hoped that the government of Nova Scotia will one day pass the necessary legislation to officially give to the public that which it has coveted for so long.


The Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia

Before the authorization of a special flag badge for the Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia on July 17, 1870, he probably flew the plain Union Flag at his residence. As the Union Flag with badge was originally intended for use when the Lieutenant-Governor was aboard ship, it is not clear how long it was before this special flag began to replace the plain Union Flag on land. That first badge, wherever it appeared, would have borne the thistles-and-fish arms of 1868.

Following the discomfiture of the the 1868 arms in 1929, the old arms would have been placed upon the Union Flag, however there was not consistent use of this flag. While in the 1950s the Lieutenant-Governor used a small version of this flag on his car, he flew the armorial banner of Nova Scotia at Government House.22

While other provinces have converted to the new pattern which places the provincial arms on a plain blue field, Nova Scotia has chosen to retain the older pattern which places them on the Union Flag.


Cape Breton Island

About 1964, Seward Maclean of Sydney designed a flag for the island. Clearly patterned after the flag of Nova Scotia, it uses a gold saltire on a blue field. On badge at the centre of the saltire is a map of Cape Breton Island in green. The flag, although never official, seems to have worn well, as over a quarter century later it is still being purchased and used.



It does not seem to be the practice for universities in Nova Scotia to fly their own flags. An exception is the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, which marked its centennial in 1987 by sowing and flying a flag.



Halifax has had its present flag since 1964 when the city's symbol, a golden kingfisher, was placed on a blue field. It is a state flag, rather than a civil flag: although it can be used on civic buildings, including school buildings, it is not available for use by corporations or individuals. It is rumored that there was a previous Halifax city flag dating back as far as 1860, but only fragments of it remain and nothing has been determined regarding its history. Sydney was granted arms in 1972 and shortly afterwards placed them on a white diagonal band of an otherwise blue flag. Dartmouth, has since 1986, placed its shield upon a white semicircle at the hoist of its flag, while the sea is depicted by blue and yellow wavy lines on the fly.


This is the chapter entitled, Nova Scotia, from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.



1. John A. Stewart, The Arms of Nova Scotia (Glasgow: The Saint Andrew Society, 1921), p. 34. The essay appear first in 1916.

2. "Nova Scotia"Canadian Symbols Kit (Ottawa: Secretary of State, 1986). The assertion did not originate with Sec State; it goes well back in the annals of the subject. Nova Scotia's Department of Solicitor General is slightly more circumspect when it asserts only that the "authority for the flag of Nova Scotia originates in the Charter... of 1621" (personal communication, Aug 16, 1988). Well, yes, it does in the same sense as claiming that the authority for the National Flag of Canada originated in the B.N.A. act of 1867; but this is not very helpful.

3. "Translation of the Charter of Nova Scotia, 1621" The Transactions of the Royal Canadian Institute, XIV, Part 1 (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1922), p. 37-39.

4. Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland Vol 1, f. 485 (Edinburgh: Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms, 1805-1810). A more accessible source is an essay by John A. Stewart, The Royal and Ancient Arms of Nova Scotia published in 1916. Under the title, The Arms of Nova Scotia, (Glasgow: Saint Andrew Society, 1921) it has been reprinted many times since as booklet with the addition of some new material and illustrations. See p. 16-17.

5. Arms & Emblems: Nova Scotia. This is a small undated, 16 page brochure (printed on red paper) which has been distributed by the Government of N.S. since the mid 1980s.

6. In September 1986, Nova Scotia did finally decide to register its flag, along with other emblems, under Federal Trademark Legislation. This could be considered the first official statement by the province that its armorial banner would now be its provincial flag. Unfortunately, when the Trade Marks Journal published the material on February 4, 1987 (p. 38-39), neither a drawing nor a description of the flag was included, so it is an interesting point as to whether anything was actually accomplished.

7. E.M.C. Barraclough, and W.G. Crampton, Flags of the World (London: Frederick Warne, 1978), p. 22.

8. When the Department of the Solicitor General was asked why Nova Scotia had never chosen to authorize a provincial flag, the Charter was evoked: "According to ..., Solicitor, Department of Attorney General, this Charter is the legal authority for the flag of Nova Scotia and that any subsequent legislation would only serve to diminish the significance of its origin." (Personal communication, August 16, 1988). Modern responsibility is thus avoided by the invention of antique authority.

9. This statement with minor variations in wording has surfaced in many different places for many years. If probably originated shortly after the 1868 arms were rescinded in 1929. The present wording was lifted from a manuscript entitled, Nova Scotia Flag, supplied by the Office of the Clerk of the Executive Council, Halifax.

10. Harvey W. MacPhee, "The Flag of Nova Scotia" The Bulletin: Journal of the the Nova Scotia Teacher's Union 30, 2 (December 1953), p. 19.

11. Timothy Wilson, Flags at Sea (London: Her Majesty's Stationary Office, 1986), p. 37-38.

12. Personal communication on August 30, 1988, from Marven E. Moor, Curator, Maritime Museum of the Atlantic from 1984. The other two were Niels Jannasch, Director of the same museum from 1957 to 1984, and Eric Ruff, Curator of the Yarmouth County Museum.

13. These events and the quotation from the Acadian Record are transcribed in the Report of Public Archives of Nova Scotia (Halifax, 1942), p. 9.

14. We know of no study of the evolution in acceptance and usage of this powerful cultural symbol. This unfortunate lacuna should give pause to those who study the cultural history of Nova Scotia.

15. Conrad Swan, Canada: Symbols of Sovereignty (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1977), p. 123-124.

16. Duncan Fraser, "Arms of Nova Scotia: symbol of sovereignty" from the Nova Scotia insert of the Halifax Chronicle Herald (January 14, 1989).

17. Duncan Fraser, "Arms..."Halifax Chronicle Herald (January 14, 1989).

18. A painting in the Royal Ontario Museum shows the ship, Ryerson, waring a Canadian Red Ensign at the stern and a Nova Scotia flag from the mainmast. The Ryerson was built at Salmon River, Digby County, Nova Scotia in 1873.

19. John A. Stewart, Notes on the Arms of Nova Scotia (Glasgow: private, 1928), p. 5.

20. Copy of an Order of his Honour the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia in Council made the 7th day of March A.D. 1928.

21. Conrad Swan, Canada: Symbols of Sovereignty (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1977), p. 134.

22. The source is a letter to Mrs. Kathleen R. McKenzie, Secretary to the Lt. Governor of Saskatchewan, dated July 17, 1963 which provides information on the practices observed by the provinces in 1956.


This is the chapter entitled, Nova Scotia, from the book,
The Flags of Canada, by Alistair B. Fraser.
This work is copyrighted. All rights reserved.