More than two hundred different types of thistle are in existence but likely none aside from the cotton thistle are more endearing to the Scottish culture. The Scottish thistle, as to which the cotton thistle is often referred, holds significant meaning in the history of Scotland and lives within Scottish folklore.
Centuries before it was used as a royal symbol of Scotland, the thistle played an integral part in warning Clansmen of invaders.
In the late summer of 1263, King Haakon of Norway (1204-1263) set sail with a fleet of longships heading for Scotland. This was in response to a dispute between Scotland and Norway over the Hebrides off the western coast of the Scottish mainland. Much of Scotland was under Norwegian rule for many centuries prior and while interest in the territories waned over time, there was a growing renewed interest by Norway.
As the story goes, storms forced a subset of the fleet to land at Largs in Ayrshire bringing some of the Norwegian force ashore.
At nightfall, its said that the invading Norsemen attempted a sneak attack upon some sleeping Scottish Clansman. These clansman could have been the Stewarts, Cunninghams, Hamiltons or Boyds as these four were predominately associated with Ayrshire while numerous other clans including Wallace and Bruce were also associated with the area. To maintain the element of surprise, its said that the Norsemen removed their footwear to quietly approach for a surprise attack.
As the barefoot Norsemen approached, they entered an area covered in thistles and one of them cried out in pain. The Scots awoke and put an end to the invasion. Had it not been for the Scottish thistle, this story may have had a different ending. It’s said that because of the importance in preventing this attack, it was adopted as the national emblem of Scotland.
A little over two hundred years later in 1470, the thistle was adopted as a royal symbol of Scotland and was used on silver coins under the rule of King James III (1451-1488).
In the 16th century, the Order of the Thistle was founded by King James V (1512-1542) for himself and twelve knights. The Order was later revived by King James VII (Scotland) and known as King James II (England and Ireland) (1633-1701). These dual titles were a result of his inheritance of the thrones of England, Ireland and Scotland from his elder bother Charles II. In 1687 as a recognition to peers of Scotland who supported him, King James VII reestablished the Order, consisting of himself and eight knights. Over time, this particular version of the Order became relatively inactive until 1703 when it was resurrected by Queen Anne (1665-1714). As with the monarchs before her, she replicated the version of King James V with twelve knights. This structure remained intact until 1827 when the knights were expanded to sixteen under King George IV (1762-1830). There were “Extra Knights” who were admitted membership to the Order as well, comprising of other foreign monarchs and members of their houses.
The selection process of membership was historically performed by the Sovereign of the Order but the changing political climate in the early 18th century began to take input from the Government. By 1946, the selection process was modified by King George VI (1895-1952) and the membership was awarded as a personal gift from the Sovereign of the Order. Membership for women, aside from the ruling Queen, was prohibited until Queen Elizabeth II allowed their membership on a regular basis.
Mrs. Marion Fraser (1932-2016) was the first woman to be admitted as a Lady of the Order.