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The Tale of the Scottish Thistle

4 min read

More than two hundred different types of thistle are in existence, and Scotland is home to not just one, but several varieties, some native and others exotic, and no one is quite sure which is the true symbol of Scotland.
Is it the Spear or Musk Thistle? Or maybe it’s the poetic-sounding Melancholy Thistle or, again, Our Lady’s Thistle? And what about the popular Cotton Thistle? Well, your guess is as good as ours.
Yes, England has the rose, Wales the daffodil, Ireland the shamrock and Scotland…the thistle.
Second only to traditional tartan, nothing says “Scotland” like this humble, prickly weed.
But how did it become the proud emblem of an entire nation?

In truth, no one knows for certain how the purple-flowered thistle rose to such lofty significance, but centuries before it was used as a royal symbol of Scotland, the thistle played an integral part in warning Clansmen of invaders.
For example, in the late summer of 1263, King Haakon of Norway (1204-1263) set sail with a fleet of longships heading for Scotland.
This was in response to a dispute between Scotland and Norway over the Hebrides off the western coast of the Scottish mainland. Much of Scotland was under Norwegian rule for many centuries and, while interest in the territories waned over time, there was a growing renewed interest by Norway itself.
As the story goes, storms forced a subset of the fleet to land at Largs in Ayrshire bringing some of the Norwegian force ashore.
At nightfall, its said that the invading Norsemen attempted a sneak attack upon some sleeping Scottish Clansmen. These clansmen could have been the Stewarts, Cunninghams, Hamiltons or Boyds as these four were predominately associated with Ayrshire, despite numerous other clans including Wallace and Bruce were also associated with the area. In any case, to maintain the element of surprise, its said that the Norsemen removed their footwear to quietly approach for a surprise attack.
As the barefoot Norsemen approached, they entered an area covered in thistles and one of them cried out in pain.
The Scots awoke and put an end to the invasion.
Had it not been for the Scottish thistle, this story may have had a different ending and, not by chance, It’s said that because of the importance in preventing this attack it was adopted as the national emblem of Scotland.
Of course, there is not a shred of evidence to support this account, but it certainly makes a good story.

A little over two hundred years later in 1470, the thistle was officially adopted as a royal symbol of Scotland and was used on silver coins under the rule of King James III (1451-1488).
In the 16th century, the Order of the Thistle was founded by King James V (1512-1542) for himself and twelve faithful knights.
The Order was later revived by King James VII (Scotland) and known as King James II, England and Ireland, (1633-1701). These dual titles were a result of his inheritance of the thrones of England, Ireland and Scotland from his elder bother Charles II.
In 1687 as a recognition to peers of Scotland who supported him, King James VII reestablished the Order, consisting of himself and eight knights. Over time, this particular version of the Order became relatively inactive until 1703 when it was resurrected by Queen Anne (1665-1714). As with the monarchs before her, she replicated the version of King James V with twelve knights, a structure that remained intact until 1827 when the knights were expanded to sixteen under King George IV (1762-1830). There were “Extra Knights” who were admitted membership to the Order as well, comprising of other foreign monarchs and members of their houses.
The selection process of membership was historically performed by the Sovereign of the Order but the changing political climate in the early 18th century began to take input from the Government.
Recently, by 1946, the selection process was modified by King George VI (1895-1952) and the membership was awarded as a personal gift from the Sovereign of the Order. Membership for women, aside from the ruling Queen, was prohibited until Queen Elizabeth II allowed their membership on a regular basis.
Mrs. Marion Fraser (1932-2016) was the first woman to be admitted as a Lady of the Order.

Thistles aren’t just found in gardens, parks and in the countryside. Keep your eyes peeled and you will see the insignia emblem cropping up all over Scotland, from the strip of the international rugby team and football clubs, to local businesses and major organisations and corporations, to even the uniforms of police officers.

Forget a red rose ode to romantic love!
The thistle is responsible for one of the finest and influential poems in the Scottish literary cannon, Hugh MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, an epic, stream-of-consciousness poem that touches on everything from the state of the nation and the mysteries of the universe to the wondrous joy that is whisky. In short, an essential reading for anyone planning a trip to Scotland.

Images from web – Google Research

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