The Scottish thistle is said to be the oldest national flower on record, the legend of how this proud and regal plant became a national emblem goes back many hundreds of years, to the time when Scotland was being rampaged by the vicious Vikings.
From 795 Scotland was under assault by wave upon wave of vicious Vikings. It was a frightening time to live in, Scotland was vulnerable to attack it’s delicate civilisation built by generations of Christian monks.
For hundreds of years much of Scotland was part of the Kingdom of Norway. Even after Norway became christianised the attacks continued. Not until 1266 were the Western Isles returned to Scottish rule.
By 1263 however, Norway seems to have had little interest in their former territory, that was until King Alexander III proposed to buy back the Western Isles and Kintyre from the Norse King Haakon IV. The thought of relieving King Alexander of some of his riches and territories appears to have re-kindled Norse interest in Scotland.
Late in the summer of 1263 King Haakon of Norway, now intent on conquering the Scots, set off with a sizeable fleet of longships for the Scottish coast. Gales and fierce storms forced some of the ships onto the beach at Largs in Ayrshire, and a Norwegian force was landed. Legend has it that at some point during the invasion the Norsemen tried to surprise the sleeping Scottish Clansmen. In order to move more stealthily under the cover of darkness the Norsemen removed their footwear. But as they crept barefoot they came across an area of ground covered in thistles and one of Haakon’s men unfortunately stood on one and shrieked out in pain, thus alerting the Clansmen to the advancing Norsemen.
His shout warned the Scots who defeated the Norsemen at the Battle of Largs, thus saving Scotland from invasion. The important role that the thistle had played was recognised and so was chosen as Scotland’s national emblem.
Haakon died returning to Norway, a treaty returned the Hebrides to Scottish rule, and a marriage contract wedded Scotland and Norway.
Another version of this legend attributes the legendary King Achius with the appropriation of the thistle. This King is said to have founded the Order of the Thistle in the ninth century, limiting the number of Knights to 13, including himself. Unfortunately, this story is yet to be proved, but there definitely is an Order of the Knights of the Thistle which commenced – or was refounded – by James VII in 1687. The Order has had a chequered history but today is firmly anchored in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh.
The Knights have the motto ‘Nemo me impune lacessit’, which translates as ‘No one assails me with impunity’, but is more commonly read as ‘Wha daur meddle wi’ me’. This motto is also used by Scotland as a nation and, thinking of the spiny prickles of the thistle, could hardly be bettered.