Why A Thistle?
Google “Scottish thistle” for a nanosecond and you’ll find some very diverse explanations for Scotland’s unlikely choice of the thistle as its national “flower.”
Several sites refer to a night landing by King Haken of Norway in 1263. His men trying to surprise the sleeping Scots took off their shoes, walked straight into a bunch of thistles, and gave themselves away with their Norwegian ouches. The Scots ran them off in what many historians have called a "fierce" battle even a rout, say some and others have called a “mild skirmish.” The thankful Scots developed a deep appreciation for their thorny little weed and, as they say, the rest is history. As you wander through these websites, you can spot all kinds of inconsistencies and versions of this story some not even involving the Norse or the Battle of Largs.
A digitized book by Google A Handy-Book of Curiosities by William S. Walsh published in 1893, gives an equally interesting reason for the humble thistle’s status as national flower. According to this version, Queen Scotia, after a battle victory, sat down to rest in a nest of thistles with the predictable and painful result. Because of the discomfort it caused, she realized that in her mind the thistle would always be associated with that victorious battle. She placed it her helmet and again as they say, the rest is history.
According to Walsh, the first time the thistle is mentioned as the national flower is in William Dunbar’s lengthy poem, The Thistle and Rose, published in 1503. One website claims James III issued coins struck with the image of a thistle as early as 1470.
So who knows which story is the real reason for the lowly thistle’s lofty position in Scotland or how soon in Scotland’s history it gains such unlikely prominence? We sure don’t. We also don’t know much about the reasons behind the sculpture on The Pencil (below), and we’re hoping some of our more learned Scottish aficionado readers can enlighten us.
As you can see from its inscription above the memorial's door on the close-up below, this structure was erected to commemorate the 1263 Battle of Largs, a battle that forever changed the history of Scotland by ending Viking raiding in this area. Though it appears ancient, The Pencil (called this for obvious reasons but not, apparently, by its designer, J.S. Kay from Newton Stewart), was actually completed in 1912.
When Bruce shot these photos of The Pencil in 2004, we never noticed that the beast in the sculpture to the lower right of the door obviously sports a thistle.
In fact, we never paid much attention to the sculptures at all. Now that we are, we wonder, “What in the world are they?" Do they have any connection to a thistle-as-Scottish-national-flower story? Was the designer, J.S. Kay, using Scottish shorthand to remind his viewers of another ancient thistle story that they knew and we don't?
Why do we care? Simple. Our stats tell us that the vast majority of visitors to our site use “thistle” as part of their search term. Clearly, today’s Scottish aficionados are just as enamored of the thistle as those Scottish clansmen who owed their lives to the thistle in 1263 (if that version of the story is the true one). Always wanting to create artwork that Scots-lovers will find it easy to love, we feel the more we know about thistles and, in particular, about this monument, the better. (Besides, our thistle painting inventory is very low, and Bruce might paint this sculpture of a ??? and thistle if we knew a little more about it.)
So how about it? Do you know anything about this well-known monument at Largs, Scotland and its interesting sculptures that you can share with us?
©2008 (posted 7/28/08)
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