National Records of Scotland

Preserving the past, Recording the present, Informing the future

Famous Scots

Rose (Canary Bird)

Rosa Xanthina spontanea
April to June

This rose is native to the hills of central China and is also known as the Manchu rose (Rosa Manchu) and it appears to have been introduced to the UK after 1945. It is a spreading, medium sized shrub which is also a good climber. The single, bright yellow flowers have a light musky scent. The flower has distinctive large stamen, and the bright yellow petals fade to a cream at the furthest point. 

It has been included in the garden to represent the famous Scottish surgeon and reformer Dr Elsie Inglis (1864 –1916). Inglis was actually born in India, however she grew up and was educated in Edinburgh. Her contribution to the needs of women’s health in Scotland, especially in the field of maternity medicine paved the way for modern practices. Her contribution through the foundation of the Scottish Suffragette Federation to the improvement of conditions within the First World War military hospitals in Serbia cannot be underestimated. In a reflection of her international outreach she is recognised in the garden with a yellow rose, the symbol of the suffrage movement in the United States of America.

Archivist Garden Item Image: 
Canary Bird Rose. Image credit: NRS own. CC license
Canary Bird Rose. Image credit: T.Kiya, Flickr. CC license

African Blue Lily

Agapanthus africanus, family Alliaceae
August to September

Francis Masson, a famous plant collector, was born in Aberdeen in 1741 and began working life as a garden boy. Travelling to London in the 1760’s he took up a gardener post at Kew under the direction of Joseph Banks.

Banks appointed Masson as the first plant collector to go out from Kew as part of Captain Cook's second great voyage of exploration in 1772. Sailing to Cape Town, South Africa, Masson commenced a series of expeditions over two years, through some of the world's most rugged terrain. The Cape's rich flora must have seemed like paradise. He introduced many exotics from here, including Cape heaths and proteas. Returning to Kew he was crowned in glory and his reputation as an introducer of new, exciting plants was sealed.

In 1778 he collected in Madeira, the Canary Isles, the Azores and West Indies. He was imprisoned by a French expeditionary force on Grenada in 1779, returning to England after release. He revisited South Africa between 1786 and 1795, sending large numbers of plants, seeds and bulbs home, including arum lilies, agapanthus, amaryllis, pelargoniums, crassulas, stapelias and mesembryanthemums, gladioli, gardenias and Strelitzia reginae, the bird of paradise flower.

In 1797 he sailed to North America but was captured by French pirates before being transferred to a German ship, eventually landing in New York. He then collected in the Great Lakes and Canada for seven years, sending back many new species including the beautiful Trillium grandiflorum. He died in Montreal in 1805. His greatest legacy is perhaps that he was the first of over 120 famous Scottish plant collectors to explore worldwide during the next 150 years.


Archivist Garden Item Image: 
African Blue Lily. Image credit: vernn.hyde, Flickr. CC license
Trillium grandiflorum, Image credit: acryptozoo, Flicker. CC license

Wild Flag Iris

Iris pseudacorus, family Iridaceae
April-October (Form), April-May (Flowers)

The wild flag iris was a traditional natural dye used for both tartan and tweed. The roots were harvested and processed with bog iron or copperas as a mordant to make either black or dark blue dyes; they were also made into ink. The leaves were also made into dyes for tartans and tweed providing a bright green dye when mixed with alum as mordant.

The roots were also used medicinally in many parts of the Highlands. In his 'History of Scottish Medicine', (1932) John D Comrie speaks of their use as a laxative by Gaels in the Middle Ages. The author Martin Martin (c. 1660-1719) from Bealach in Skye, in his famous work 'A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland Circa 1695', first published in 1793, writes of iris roots being dried and ground into a powder for use as snuff to treat headaches and colds. Martin's book was used by Boswell and Johnson during their famous tour of the Western Isles in 1773 and is still in print today.

In Greek mythology Iris was the messenger of the gods, she is also said to have brought the souls of women to the land of Eternal Peace. This could be why they were often planted near graves.

Fleur de lis vitrail chapelle, Royale Versailles

Fleur de lis vitrail chapelle, Royale Versailles
Jebulon, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The plant is the origin of an important heraldic symbol, the fleur-de-lis, the use of which dates back into antiquity. Around 1060 it was adopted by the French Kings as a heraldic symbol.  It has featured in the Royal Arms of Scotland, since the time of James I of Scotland (1394-1437).

Archivist Garden Item Image: 
Wild Flag Iris. Image credit: Bernard Spragg. NZ, Flickr. Public Domain
Wild Flag Iris. Image credit: Philip Goddard, Flickr. CC license

Violet (Sweet)

Viola odorata, family Violaceae
March to May

This scented and seductive violet is linked to Aphrodite the goddess of love. Traditionally it was presented to the bride or bridegroom on the day of their wedding, the flowers were often dried and kept as a memento, hence they are occasionally found in family bibles.

The plant also has a dark side as it is dedicated to Persephone or Proserpina who in classical mythology was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter who whilst picking flowers in the meadow including violets and daffodils was carried off by Hades to the underworld, where she became his Queen Consort. Later she would be released to return to the earth briefly for a few months each year.

The Scottish poet and novelist James Hogg (1770-1835) clearly enjoyed the native flora and fauna. For instance, in his work 'The Forest Minstrel' (1810) he often writes about his love of specific plants including the sweet violet which grows in the Scottish Borders.

How Foolish are Mankind
Far dearer to me is the humble ewe-gowan,
The sweet native violet, or the bud of the broom,
Than the fine fostered flowers in the garden a growing,
Though sweet be their savour and bonnie their bloom.
Far dearer to me is the thrush or the linnet,
than the fine bird from a far foreign tree.

Archivist Garden Item Image: 
Sweet Violet. Image credit: Patrick Standish, Flickr. CC license
Sweet Violet. Image credit: Friends of Radley Lakes, Flickr. CC license

Violet (Common Dog)

Viola riviniana, family Violaceae
April to October

'Beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them'.

The words of David Hume (1711-1776) the Scottish philosopher and historian born in Edinburgh.

The natural world was a constant source of inspiration to Hume providing the basis for much of his thinking and arguments. Although Hume resided in Edinburgh he regularly spent long periods of time at the family home, Nine Wells near Chirnside in Berwickshire, where he enjoyed walking in the garden and the surrounding natural woodlands which were dotted with this tiny spring flowering native violet which would have been familiar to him

Violets are surrounded in mythology and popular belief, in some parts of Britain they are seen as the flowers of the dead and it was thought that to pick them with dew drops on would result in the death of a loved one. They are also associated with love. Other beliefs associate them with openness and innocence.

Archivist Garden Item Image: 
Dog violet. Image credit: bugcatcherbun, Flicker. Public Domain
Dog violet. Image credit: Atle Grimsby, Flicker. CC license

Snake's Head Fritillary

Fritillaria meleagris, family Liliaceae
April to May

Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) is probably the most popular Scottish architect, designer and water colourist of the last century. Today his distinctive and radical designs are available in all forms from household items to furniture and jewellery. Many of his buildings are still in use today such as The Willow Tea Room, Glasgow, and the Scotland Street School. Whilst others such as The Hill House, Helensburgh are in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.

Fritillaria by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Fritillaria by Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mackintosh was an accomplished botanical artist and his watercolour illustration of the Snake's Head Fritillary (1915) is perhaps the best known example of his work in this area. Many others can be seen at the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow. Although listed by John Gerard (1545-1612) in 1597, it was not recorded in the wild in Britain until 1796.

Native to parts of Britain but not Scotland, it can only be seen in specialised gardens and collections here in the north. One of the most famous locations to see it growing naturally and in bloom is in the meadows to the front of Magdalen College, Oxford.

Archivist Garden Item Image: 
Snake's Head Fritillary. Image credit: Tony Hisgett, Flickr. CC license
Snake's Head Fritillary. Image credit: Kevan, Flickr. CC license

Scotch Thistle

Onopordum acanthium, family Asteraceae/Compositae
all year

The plant we know as the Scotch thistle, Onopordum acanthium, is not native. It was most likely introduced from Europe pre-16th century and has now naturalised in many areas. Chosen by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) as the emblem for George IV's visit to Scotland in 1822, it has been accepted as a national emblem. The most likely candidate for the true Scotch thistle is the native spear thistle - Cirsium vulgare - abundant in Scotland and very similar to the depictions on early Scottish coins.

The plant has many heraldic connections and is associated with the Order of the Thistle which in the 17th century adopted the wonderful motto, Nemo me impune lacessit (nobody attacks me with impunity) no doubt in reference to the spines.

This ancient order may date to Emperor Charlemagne in the 9th century or, as some suggest, Scotland's James III (1488-1513).

Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587) had the thistle's image incorporated into the Great Seal of Scotland, making it a national symbol for longevity.

Hugh MacDiarmid: Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (illustration for ‘The Radio Times’), 1954, by Edward Gage 
© Immediate Media (reproduced with permission), first published in the Radio Times

Perhaps the most famous poem about this plant is by Hugh MacDiarmid. Christopher Murray Grieve (1892-1978) who in his masterpiece 'A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle' (1926) writes the following wonderful lines:

"Rootit on gressless peaks, whar its erect / And jaggy leaves, austerely cauld and dumb / Haud the slow scaly serpent in respect / The Gothic thistle, whar the insects hum"

The following words from the same work are engraved on MacDiarmid's gravestone in Langholm:

"I ha'nae hauf-way hoose, bu aye be whaur / Extremes meet - it is the only way I ken
To dodge the curst conceit o' bein' richt / Tha Dams the vast majority o' men."

Another famous Scot who wrote about its merits was James Scott Skinner (1843-1927) 'the Strathspey King', a traditional fiddler. Born in Banchory, Skinner performed extensively in Britain and America, composing over 600 tunes. Time permitting, he was also a keen gardener. After witnessing his gardener friend Dee Morrison's magnificent thistle display he declared: 'I will compose a tune with the title Dee Morrison's Seven Thistles'. The march is still played on radio and at ceilidhs.

Archivist Garden Item Image: 
Thistle. Image credit: Paul Moody, Flickr. CC license
Thistle. Image credit: Andreas Rockstein, Flickr. CC license


Sorbus aucuparia (Sheerwater Seedling), family Rosaceae
April to October

The Rowan is at the heart of Scottish plant lore, associated with all areas of life and culture. It has several practical uses - dyes, food, medicine. Our elders believed a heavy berry crop in autumn foretold many births the following year. It was believed to protect against evil, the devil, witches, death and disease; hence it was often seen planted near the house. Even today in parts of west Scotland foresters and gardeners refuse to cut the plant down.

Many of the nation's famous poets and song writers have written about its qualities including Robert Burns. However perhaps the best remembered work is that of the Scottish song writer Lady Carolina Nairne (1766-1845), a Jacobite laird's daughter, born Gask, Perthshire.

The Rowan Tree
Oh! Rowan Tree Oh! Rowan Tree, thou'lt aye be dear to me
Intwin'd thou art wi mony ties o' hame and infancy.
Thy leaves were aye the firt o' spring, the flow'rs the simmers's pride;
There was nae sic a bonny tree, in a' the countryside.
Oh! Rowan Tree.

Renowned Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) wrote about it in his acrostic work 'Lullaby for Lucy' (1980), celebrating the birth of Lucy Rendall of Rackwick, the first baby born on the island for 32 years. This was set to music by English composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davis, who had adopted Orkney as his home.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, photograph by Gunnie Moberg. 
Courtesy of the Hoy Kirk Heritage Centre.

This was set to music by English composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davis, who had adopted Orkney as his home.

Lullaby for Lucy
Let all plants and creatures of the valley now / Unite
Calling a new / Young one to join the celebration.
Rowan and lamb and waters salt and sweet
Entreat the / New child to the brimming
Dance of the valley / A pledge and a promise.
Lonely they were long, the creatures of Rackwick, till
Lucy came among them, all brightness and light.

The fruits were mixed with madder to make traditional black and orange dyes for use in the manufacture of tartans and tweed. They were also made into jelly, a fermented punch and medicine for whooping cough. Also the plant badge of several clans including Clan Scrimgeour, Clan Wigan and Clan MacLachlan, it is no wonder with such strong cultural links that the seed was taken to other parts of the world by departing Scots who hoped to grow a reminder of home in foreign lands. Next to the thistle it is undoubtedly one of the best living emblems of homecoming.

Archivist Garden Item Image: 
Rowan berries. Image credit: Damian Entwistle, Flickr. CC license
Rowan Tree. Image credit: Tim Green, Flickr. CC license

Rose (Guelder)

Viburnum opulus (Compactum), family Adoxaceae
April to October

This plant is native to Britain, Europe and parts of Asia; it has been grown in our gardens since before 1600.

It is sometimes known as Cramp Bark as it was used in herbal medicines associated with childbirth. The fruit which is high in vitamin C, can be eaten fresh but it is very bitter; however it can be made into a sauce similar to cranberry and served with poultry. The twigs were used as cooking skewers. Its common name is derived from the Dutch Province of Gueldres, where it was first cultivated.

The Scottish artist and writer Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006) who often drew inspiration from nature, celebrated the plant in a work he created at Little Sparta in the Pentland Hills. A visit to the garden will reveal the following inscription on a tablet of stone at the entrance to Huff Lane within the area known as the English Park Land.

A Woodland Flute

Silver Birch, Hornbeam
Guelder Rose, Aspen, Plum

Archivist Garden Item Image: 
Guelder rose. Image credit: gailhampshire, Flickr. CC license
Autumn berries on Guelder rose. Image credit: Derek Parker, Flickr. CC license

Rose (Glenfiddich)

Rose (Glenfiddich), family Rosaceae
June to August

Rose 'Glenfiddich' was bred in 1976 by the internationally renowned Scottish rose breeders, Cockers of Aberdeen. Named after a Speyside single malt within the garden it celebrates the renowned Scottish violinist, composer and songwriter Neil Gow (1727-1807).

Born near Dunkeld, he was talented from an early age which is perhaps why he was sponsored by the Duke of Atholl. This allowed him to concentrate on his music and he wrote over a hundred significant and well-known fiddle tunes, to which we have danced and tapped our feet for generations. Commercially minded he went on to perform in London and Edinburgh and from 1784 onwards his tunes appeared as printed sheet music making them even better known. One of these 'Fare Well to Whisky' marks the feelings of the nation in 1799 when the making of whisky was prohibited due to a poor harvest that year. Legislators thought better to use the grain for food and for next year's seed rather than for the still.

Archivist Garden Item Image: 
Rose 'Glenfiddich;. Image credit: Leonora (Ellie) Enking, Flickr. CC license


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