How the Thistle Became the National Flower of Scotland

Many Pennsylvanians are of Scottish descent. Me, for example. Perhaps that’s why every August I wait for the thistles to bloom. Considered an invasive species here in the US, the thistle not only is a favorite treat of the American goldfinch, but has a heroic origin story I just love to tell.

During the 13th century, King Haakon of Norway sent soldiers to invade Scotland. Landing on the shores of Largs, the Vikings postponed their advance until night, hoping to surprise the sleeping Scots by creeping up under cover of darkness. To increase their stealth, the invaders began their approach barefoot–and that proved to be their undoing.

What the Vikings didn’t know was that the Scottish countryside was dotted with thistles. When a soldier’s foot came down on hard on one of the spiky stems, his cries of pain awakened the clansmen, who rallied to defense and saved the day.

In recognition of the thistle’s service to King and country, the common plant was elevated in status to National Flower of Scotland. Its purple blossom and prickly leaves have appeared on Scottish coins as early as the 1400’s, and the nation’s highest honor is appointment to the Order of the Thistle.

When I visited Scotland during 2000, the thistle image was on display everywhere from architecture to clothing. A few years ago, I commissioned a gifted textile artist to create this hand-quilted wall hanging, which has a place of honor in my living room.

My third great grandfather, Angus MacDonald, would be proud.

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Wife. Sister. Mother. Daughter. Writer. Crafter. Bohemian. Make me laugh and I’m yours.

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