A story about the thistle

As regards national flowers, England has the rose; Wales, the daffodil; Ireland, the shamrock; and Scotland - the thistle. Nothing represents Scotland as much as this humble, prickly plant. Only tartan is more Scottish. But how did it become the proud symbol of an entire nation?

 

In the 13th century there were violent disputes with the Kingdom of Norway over territorial claims (Scotland was once part of the Kingdom of Norway). So the Norwegian Vikings launched an invasion. Legend has it that on the night before the Battle of Largs on the west coast of Scotland (1263, when Alexander III of Scotland drove out King Hakon III of Norway, and the Norwegians withdrew from Scotland), the Norwegian warriors wanted to surprise the Scottish army. Under cover of darkness, they stealthily and insidiously crept up to the camp of sleeping Scottish warriors. Whether crawling or with their shoes off to be silent, they ended up in a meadow full of thistles. The shouts of pain from the Norwegians warned the Scots, exposing the secret attack. The Highlanders were then able to repel the attackers successfully. And so it came about that this little flower saved an entire country from the enemy. Later, the thistle was always understood as a national symbol, as it also stands for some typical Scottish attributes such as integrity, hardiness, bravery and devotion to their land.

 

There are several species of thistle. Some are local, others exotic. Here are some examples:

Milk thistle (silybum marianum)

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Seen by the River Tay at Dunkeld, Scotland

Common thistle (cirsium)

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Seen in the Glen Feshie valley in the Cairngorms National Park in the northern Highlands in Scotland

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Seen in Salzburg, Austria

Marsh thistle (cirsium palustre)

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Seen on the slopes of Ben More in Loch Lomond National Park, Scotland

Cotton thistle (onopordum), also known as Scotch thistle

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Seen in Salzburg, Austria

In the folk song „The Thistle” (Alexander MacLaggan, published around 1884), the plant is used as a metaphor for the pride and steadfastness of the Scots:

 

The Thistle.

[Alexander Maclaggan.- Set to music by Mr. Turnbull, Glasgow.]

 

⁠Hurrah for the thistle! the brave Scottish thistle,

⁠The evergreen thistle of Scotland for me!

⁠A fig for the flowers in your lady-built bowers —

⁠The strong bearded, weel guarded thistle for me! 

 

'Tis the flower the proud eagle greets in its flight,

When he shadows the stars with the wings of his might;

'Tis the flower that laughs at the storm as it blows,

For the stronger the tempest the greener it grows!

⁠Hurrah for the thistle, &c.

 

Round the love-lighted hames o' our ain native land —

On the bonnetted brow, on the hilt of the brand — 

On the face o' the shield, 'mid the shouts of the free,

May the thistle be seen where the thistle should be!

⁠Hurrah for the thistle, &c.

 

Hale hearts  we ha'e yet to bleed in its cause;

Bold harps we ha'e yet to sound its applause;

How then can it fade, when sic chiels an' sic cheer, 

And sae mony braw sprouts o' the thistle are here ?

⁠Then hurrah for the thistle! the brave Scottish thistle,

⁠The evergreen thistle of Scotland for me!

⁠A fig for the flowers in your lady-built bowers.

⁠The strong bearded, weel guarded thistle for me!

 

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The thistle, along with the Latin motto, „Nemo me impune lacessisit“ (English, „No one provokes me with impunity“; Scots, “Wha daur meddle wi‘ me“ – „who dares to meddle with me“) has been an important symbol on Scottish coats of arms for more than 500 years. As well as being part of the Royal Coat of Arms of Scotland, the thistle and motto are used by many Scottish army regiments in their military crest. In Scotland, „The Order of the Thistle“ is the highest honour that the Monarch can bestow on an individual. „The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle“ is the oldest documented order of chivalry in the United Kingdom, founded in 1687 by James III, and is an order of knighthood awarded to men or women who have made an extraordinary contribution to the life of Scotland. The Monarch, (Her Majesty the Queen) alone appoints members to the Order, traditionally on St Andrews Day. Admission to the order confers personal nobility with the predicate “Sir” and “Lady” (the order became open for women in 1987).  Its equivalent in England is „The Order of the Garter“.

 

These are some of the many reasons we chose the thistle in our logo - not just because of the colours...

Text and photos: Katrin Edelmann