History and Legends of the Thistle
If you have ever been to Scotland it is hard to miss the profusion of spunky purple-headed flowers known as the thistle. Considered a nuisance by farmers, this tough little bloom has been revered throughout history. The first flower to ever have the distinction of becoming a symbol for an entire nation, Scotland,it is also credited with winning the day for the Scots during an ancient battle.
In earlier times Scotland was a land of many battles, but only one where a little purple flower saved the day. It was 1263 when King Haakon’s fleet of battle hardened Norsemen was blown off course and landed on the shores of Largs in Ayrshire. To their delight there was a sleeping Scottish army nearby. Not suspecting an attack, the Scottish were doomed to suffer an ambush. The Norsemen removed their boots in preparation for sneaking up on the slumbering soldiers. Fortunately, a field of thorny thistle flowers surrounded the Scottish. One Norse soldier, stepping on a thorn, yelled out in pain. This scream woke the Scottish men, who jumped into action and slaughtered the invading Norsemen. No wonder the thistle is part of Scotland’s coat of arms!
Afterwards, the thistle was given high honor by becoming the national flower. It first appeared on silver coined minted in 1474. It’s image is part of the regalia for the The Most Ancient and Noble Order of the Thistle, an ancient chivalric order in Scotland founded by King James VII/II. Even the unofficial national anthem of Scotland sings the praises of this tough little bloom, “Flower of Scotland” can be heard playing on bagpipes all over this proud nation.
The history and legend connected to the thistle doesn’t end with Scotland. Thistles have been significant symbols from pagan to early Christian times. In early Christian beliefs, the Virgin Mary is associated with thistles. The travelling mother of Jesus was overcome with thirst when she came across a cow. Plucking the broad leaf of a thistle and folding it to use as a cup enabled her to quench her thirst on the cow’s milk. Thereafter, the Virgin Mary declared that flower as her own.
Here are some other cultural thistle symbols:
- Celtic cultures believe the thistle symbolizes devotion, bravery, determination, and strength.
- In the Basque region of France, the thistle represents protection and is hung on front doors.
- In Romania the thistle is a good luck charm.
- Many pagan cultures believe the thistle has magical properties. It is believed to repel thieves, ward off evil, and is a tool for purification.
- The purification and protection powers of the thistle were once considered so strong it was used as a remedy for the plague!