Thistles can be found everywhere in Scotland – not only in parks and the countryside. Any sightseer on a Tour of Glasgow City is bound to see one. This emblem crops up on the strip of the international rugby team and football clubs, local and major organisations and even on the uniforms of police officers. It’s also the symbol that greets people arriving to the airports. So when did it become a national emblem?
There are different legends about its symbolic origins, but here is the most famous.
Norwegian control over the Hebrides and the Isle of Man was established in 1098, when Edgar, King of Scotland signed the islands over to King Magnus III of Norway, setting the boundary between Scots and Norwegian claims in the west.
Since the 1240s the Scottish king, Alexander II, tried to purchase the islands from King Haakon IV of Norway. For almost a decade these attempts were unsuccessful, and his son Alexander III sent Haakon a request saying that if the king of Norway did not sell them the Islands they would take them by force.
Haakon, in his turn, gathered a massive fleet and set out in summer 1263 to defend the Isles. Haakon stopped at the Isle of
Arran where negotiations were started. Alexander III delayed the negotiations until the autumn storms in order not to let the enemy win before the winter. And in October 1263, several Norwegian vessels were driven aground on the Ayrshire coast, near the present-day town of Largs.
The Norsemen tried to surprise the sleeping Scots; in order to move more quietly in the darkness they took off their footwear. But as they crept barefoot one of Haakon's men suddenly trod on a spiky thistle and cried out in pain! The slumbering Scottish warriors immediately woke up. The Scottish forces launched a surprise attack. Although the battle ended indecisively, the following morning King Haakon and his men sailed back to Orkney for the winter, where he died.
The important role that the thistle had played was recognised and was subsequently chosen as Scotland's national emblem. In the motto "Nemo me impune lacessit" (Latin: No-one harasses me with impunity), "me" was therefore originally the thistle itself, but now refers to the Scottish regiments who have adopted it.
As a royal symbol the thistle was used on a silver coin for the first time during the rule of James III in 1470.
Speaking of kings, the highest honour in Scotland, the Order of the Thistle, was founded in 1540 by the Scottish King James V who, after being honoured with the Order of the Garter from his uncle (King Henry VIII of England) and with the Golden Fleece (from the Emperor of France), wanted one of his own. Thus he created the royal title of Order of the Thistle for himself and twelve of his knights.
The typical badge worn by knights is a cross surmounted by a star of four silver points, and over this a green circle bordered and lettered with gold, containing the Scottish motto – in the centre lies the thistle. From the Order of the Thistle the motto was adopted by the Stuart dynasty of Scotland from the reign of James VI when it appeared on the reverse side of silver coins minted in 1578 and 1580.
The thistle is also inspired one of the finest and influential poems in the Scottish literature; Hugh MacDiarmid's ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’ – an epic poem that touches on everything from the state of the nation and the mysteries of the universe to the wondrous joy that is whisky.
By the way, did you know that there are more than one type of thistle? The Spear or Musk Thistle, the Melancholy Thistle or Our Lady's Thistle, the Cotton or Milk Thistle - no one knows for sure which is the true symbol of Scotland.
Come on one of our Glasgow Tours and we will find out together!