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The Flower of Scotland

Scottish thistle with Eilean Donan Castle in the background

Usually, when a flower is chosen by a nation or state as the official botanical representative of that land, one would expect it to be particularly beautiful, or at least so prolific as to be immediately associated with the place. Certainly, some legend or ancient symbolism would also be a perfectly good reason for a certain flower to play the part. Even so, some choices are more surprising than others. However unusual, the national flower of Scotland represents its people in a way few other flowers manage to do. So just what is the national flower of Scotland? The humble, prickly purple thistle!

Purple thistle with spiny leaves

How on earth did this flower, deemed a weed and nuisance by many, become the national flower of Scotland? One legend credits this prickly bloom with alerting a sleeping band of Scots to approaching Norse invaders. While trying to sneak up on the Scots under cover of darkness, the invaders removed their shoes in order to keep their approach silent. Suddenly, one of the enemies creeping towards the Scots  stepped on a spiny thistle and let out a yell! The Scots awoke, and vanquished their enemy, all thanks to the thorny bloom. Being legend, this story has no proof, but it certainly gives new meaning to the phrase “Don’t tread on me”!

Tall thistles in front of the windows of a brick building

Thistles are found worldwide, so which variety is found in Scotland? Actually, Scotland is home to several varieties of thistle, and none are claimed as the “official” thistle of Scotland, though there seems to be some consensus that the Cotton Thistle is in fact the one. Growing 5-8 ft tall, and boasting some of the wickedest thorns of all, the Cotton Thistle (Onopordum acanthium) is certainly an imposing specimen!

Cluster of spiny thistles in front of green hills

The thistle has been used as a national emblem in Scotland since at least the 15th century, appearing on coins during the reign of King James III, and eventually becoming part of Scotland’s Coat of Arms. It even enjoys the honor of being associated with the highest order of Scottish chivalry, the Order of the Thistle.

Drawing of a purple thistle

Unsurprisingly, this emblem of Scotland has been honored in both song and verse. Most well known is the unofficial national anthem of Scotland, “Flower of Scotland”, which recalls the victory of the Scots, let by Robert the Bruce, over the English, led by Kind Edward II, at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Hugh MacDiarmid wrote a poem, published in 1926, titled “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle”, and at 2,685 lines is probably the most epic work concerning this humble plant.

Tall thistles silhouetted by the setting sun

Today, the purple thistle is as ubiquitous in Scotland as the shamrock is in Ireland. It can be found on jewelry and tea towels, clothing and all manner of trinkets. Its prickliness and hardiness perfectly captures the history and nature of the people it represents. And what may be considered an ugly, invasive weed by many has become a thing of beauty to the nation and people of Scotland, proving the beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder.

Line drawing of Scottish thistle, a design exclusive to Mountain Thyme

Here at Mountain Thyme, we would be remiss if we did not include the thistle among our designs! Click here to see all our products featuring Scotland's national flower!