Thursday, December 09, 2010

Thistle: a symbol of ‘Scottishness’

If people think about thistles, they have purple flowers with sharp needles in mind; for the Scots, the thistle has actually a greater signification, being their national emblem. Why did the Scots choose this plant to represent their nation? Even though thistles are part of the Scottish landscape, the origin of this choice is to be found in a legend: In the thirteenth century, Danes tried to invade Scotland by night. While Scottish warriors were sleeping, Vikings invaders sneaked up on them bare-footed to soften the sound of their approach. Fortunately for the Scots, one of the Danes trod on a thistle and screamed in pain. The Scottish warriors thus alerted, defeated the invaders. This is obviously no historical evidence but it is deeply rooted in Scottish belief. From that time onwards, the plant was adopted as the symbol of Scotland and has become more and more important in the culture. Its first historically proven use dates back to 1470; it was then engraved on silver coins. Later it was incorporated into the Royal Arms of Scotland. Having gained an increasing popularity in the culture, the thistle was chosen to name an ancient order: The Order of the Thistle. The latter represents the highest honour in Scotland and seems to have been created in 1687 by James VII to reward Scottish peers supporting the King's political and religious ideas. The order still exists today and has Queen Elizabeth II as its head.

What about the present uses of the thistle as an icon? Nowadays, the thistle is mainly used to promote 'Scottishness': Scots are proud of their nationality and culture and they use the thistle to give credit to their products. That is why it appears in many Scottish logos, symbols and even on the UK currency. Hotels, inns, firms, books, sports clubs are but a few examples where the thistle appears. The most notable use remains in the song 'Flower of Scotland'. Written in 1967 by Roy Williamson, it was and still is sung before sport events and especially before every rugby match played by the Scottish team, the emblem of which being obviously the Thistle.

One motto we should keep in mind while thinking about Scotland is “No-one provokes me with impunity”. This motto is engraved on the Order of the Thistle’s badge, surrounding a thistle. The combination of both those symbol on the badge of such a noble order perfectly embodies the Scottish mentality.

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