The thistle is an emblem of Scotland - inextricably linked with this nation in the minds of the world. Since it first appeared on silver coins in 1470, it's been used to promote the Scottish “brand” across a host of products, services and organisations - from tea towels to oilfields, shopping centres to football teams. It's everywhere. However for a Scot, our national flower goes beyond corporate imagery and might be seen to reflect the psyche of the Scottish people and the love they have for their country.
It's reputed that the thistle was adopted as a national emblem because of the role it played in defending Scotland from Norse invasion in 1263. Intent on sneaking up on the sleeping Scots, the barefoot Vikings were thwarted when they stood on a patch of thistles and their shrieks alerted the snoozing clansmen. The “Guardian Thistle”was seen as the protector of Scotland. You might argue that it symbolises the patriotic nature of the Scots and their readiness to defend their country, both literally and metaphorically. Remember the motto of the Most Ancient Order of the Thistle, “Nemo me impune accessit” or “Wha daurs meddle wi me” - or come and have a go if you think you're hard enough!
Exactly which of the many species of thistle is represented in the emblems remains contentious, but it's probably more of a stylised version - the fierce, prickly leaves and bulbous purple flower-heads being common to this family of plants. Another characteristic is the production of tufts of feathery, branched hairs which act as parachutes and carry the seeds long distances from the parent plant. Symbolic of the Scottish Diaspora?
“The thistle is a strong and invasive plant. Many consider it to be a weed. It’s a worthy symbol of people who have spread their cultures around the world and have consistently shown that they are a strong and hardy people.” (Keeping, S. 2009).
There can be little doubt as to the affection in which the thistle is held in the hearts of Scots - captured in Robert Burn’s poem “Epistle to Mrs Scott” where he describes how he spares this symbol of a nation from the gardener’s shears.
“The Rough burr thistle, spreading wide
Amang the bearded bear -
I turned my weeder-clips aside,
An’ spar’d the symbol dear!
No nation, no station,
My envy e’er could raise;
A Scot still, but blot still,
I knew nae higher praise