During the reign of Alexander III (1249-1286) the thistle was adopted as Scotland’s floral emblem because, according to the stories of the day, it helped the Scots in time of invasion.
Thistle Legend and Floral Emblem of Scotland
In the Middle Ages, the Norsemen and Scots fought over possession of the lands north of England. The Norsemen led by King Haakon landed at the present-day site of Largs (Ayrshire, on the Firth of Clyde) in the darkness of night. In their effort to approach the Scots’ encampment, they removed their footwear.
As they crept barefooted, one of the men stepped on a thistle later described as a spiny defender, and let out a horrible cry. The alerted Scots were able to drive the Norse invaders back to the sea after a brief skirmish.
There is another version of the legend. According to some, it was the Danes who invaded during the night, near Perth. In that location there is a basaltic rock ridge which forms a natural ford across the River Tay. In commemoration of the event, the ridge became known as “The Thistle Brig”.
Whichever place it occurred (perhaps both), from that period, “The Guardian Thistle” has been the national flower of Scotland.
Important Scottish Symbol in House of Stuart
Scottish antiquarians are not in total agreement about the identity of the true Scottish Thistle. However, the species also known as Cotton Thistle is generally accepted as the one on the House of Stuart badge.
The thistle was first used as a royal symbol on silver coins issued by James III of the house of Stuart in 1470. In the inventory taken following the death of James in 1488, a hanging piece embroidered with ‘thrissils’ is described. The thorny plant’s significance is demonstrated in William Dunbar’s The Thrissill and the Rose. The poetic allegory was written to celebrate the wedding of James IV and Princess Margaret of England in 1503.
Order of the Thistle
A sixpence with a thistle was minted from 1538-1542 during the reign of James V. The Order of the Thistle was instituted by James V in 1540 for himself and 12 knights. It was a deliberate allusion to Jesus and his 12 apostles.
The Order was revived by James VII of Scotland (II of England) in 1687 with eight Knights. Period coinage displays the thistle surrounded by the motto, Nemo me impune lacessit (no one attacks me with impunity).
No further appointments were made until the reign of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs.