The Thistle – A Symbol of All Things Scottish

How Did This Spiky Weed Become A Symbol of Scotland?

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Scottish Thistle

The thistle is the emblem of Scotland and alongside the tartan, it is perhaps one of the most recognizable symbol of all things Scottish.

But why is it, one asks, should such a humble and thorny weed become a national symbol of a nation of people as proud as the Scots? As no one really  knows the truth, it then remains for tales and legends to fill in the gap about this absolutely prickly and razor sharp weed and its climb to national status.

The Thistle Emblem Legend

The legend tells of how an invading band of Vikings (presumed to be the men of King  Håkon of Norway) tried to attack a party of Scottish warriors under cover of darkness. To avoid noise the king ordered his band of Vikings to remove their footwear. Unfortunately, one of the attackers stood on the prickly thistle and shrieked in pain. The clansmen were alerted of the attack and Vikings were duly defeated by the Scots.

In gratitude of this victory, the plant became known as the Guardian Thistle and was then adopted as the national symbol of Scotland.

There’s no historical evidence to back up the tale, however the story was probably based on an event in history in which King Håkon of Norway sent his ships to Scotland to settle a dispute over territory.  Until the late 1200s, much of the western seaboard of Scotland and the Hebrides were under the distant control of Norway.  For almost a decade, the Scottish King, Alexander II, tried to negotiate for control of the territory and even offered to buy the islands back from King  Håkon.  When his son Alexander III came to power in 1262, he gathered support from majority of the clansmen and threatened to take the islands by force if King Håkon did not agree to sell them.  King Håkon responded by sending a fleet of longbows into the Firth of Clyde.   Due to bad weather, King Håkon lost this Scottish-Norwegian war known as the Battle of Largs.

The Thistle As A Scottish Symbol

Regardless of its true origin, the thistle has been an important Scottish symbol for more than 500 years. The earliest recorded use of the thistle was perhaps its use on silver coins issued in 1470 during the reign of James III.  From the early 16th century, it was incorporated into the Royal Arms of Scotland.

In 1687, Scotland’s premier Order of Chivalry, the Order of the Thistle, was established .  The members of this most ancient and noble order wear a collar chain whose links are made of golden thistles. The Knights and Ladies of the Thistle also wear a breast star which bears the thistle emblem and a motto which is regularly associated with it, Nemo Me Impune Lacessit‘no-one provokes me with impunity’.

If anyone has a better legend to tell, please share.

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