The Scottish thistle

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  • A butterfly sitting on a thistle
    A butterfly sitting on a thistle
  • A tiled mosaic of the lion rampant and two thistles on the floor of the entrance hall to Alloway Kirk, near Ayr
    A tiled mosaic on the floor of the entrance hall to Alloway Kirk
  • The top of an Edinburgh Crystal goblet etched with a thistle motif
    The top of an Edinburgh Crystal goblet etched with a thistle motif
  • A close up of several purple thistle heads

Alongside tartan, the thistle is perhaps the most identifiable symbols of all things Scottish, but how did a beautiful but common weed become the national symbol of such a proud race of people?

The thistle may only be a humble weed, but it is the emblem of the Scottish nation. The prickly-leaved, pink or purple-flowered ‘Scotch’ thistle is, along with tartan, perhaps the most identifiable symbol of all things Scottish. But how did the thistle earn its place in the heart of the Scots?

In truth, no-one knows, but legend has it that a sleeping party of Scots warriors were saved from ambush by an invading Norse army when one of the attackers trod on a thistle with his bare feet. His cries raised the alarm, the roused Scots duly defeated the invaders, and the thistle was adopted as the symbol of Scotland. Unfortunately, there is no historical evidence for this, but Scots, like other nations, love a good story.

There is also some confusion as to which species of thistle can claim the title of the national symbol. The spear thistle, stemless thistle, cotton thistle, Our Lady's thistle, musk thistle and melancholy thistle, have all been suggested as possible candidates.

A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle by Hugh MacDiarmid, published in 1926, is one of the most famous works by a Scottish poet. The long and winding poem, in which MacDiarmid contemplates the state of the nation, varies in tone between mysterious, lyrical, serious and comic. It is essential reading for a visit to Scotland.

Keep your eyes peeled and you will see the thistle emblem cropping up all over Scotland, from the international rugby team’s strip, businesses and organisations to the emblems of police constabularies and football teams.

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