The native yew is surrounded by history and folklore. The Ancient Greeks dedicated it to Hecate, goddess of the underworld. Known as the 'tree of death', some cultures thought it was abundant in hell. It is also associated with Bacchus, god of wine and Artemis, goddess of hunting, who dipped her arrows in yew poison. Highland clansman were said to have drawn on its magical powers to threaten enemies. All this may account for its presence in so many Scottish churchyards. The wood was used to make English longbows, knife handles and furniture. Today the highly toxic sap is the source of the drug Taxol used to treat cancer.
English Longbow made of yew
Image credit: Hitchhiker89 at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Yew is Clan Seton's plant badge. The signature of one Alexander Seton connects the yew with what is perhaps the most important document held in the National Records of Scotland - the Declaration of Arbroath (1320) during the reign of Robert I 'The Bruce' (1316-1390).
The 5th Lord Seton, George Seton (c. 1527-1558) was a staunch catholic and former Provost of Edinburgh. A firm supporter of Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587), his daughter was one of the four Marys sent to France with the young Queen in 1548. Mary Seton (1549-1615) returned with the Royal party in 1561 and remained with the Queen until her execution. She retired to a French nunnery.
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
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).
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Sea Pink (Thrift)
Armeria maritima (Bees Ruby), family Plumbaginaceae
Thrift is native to the coastal regions of Britain and northern Europe. Prior to 1700 the roots were sliced, boiled in milk and used to treat tuberculosis in Orkney; elsewhere it was used for obesity. More recently it appeared on the Old English threepence pre-decimal coin.
Threepence piece, 1943
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Sea pinks, or 'thrift' are the origin of the word 'thrifty' because of their appearance on threepence coins. As people collected the coins and saved them to spend, they were said to be 'thrifty'.
It is the plant badge of the Clan Hunter which dates back to the 11th century. The clan seat has been held at Hunterston Castle for over eight hundred years. Throughout that time various members of the clan have played a prominent part in the public and military life of the nation and the commonwealth.
Having always had extensive farmlands they have long been closely associated with the environment. In recent years they have campaigned against inappropriate development and industrialisation.
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).
"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.
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Sorbus aucuparia (Sheerwater Seedling), family Rosaceae
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.
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White Rose of Scotland (Scots Rose, Burnet Rose)
Rosa spinosissima (Syn. Rosa pimpinellifolia), family Rosaceae
Throughout Britain, Europe and Asia it is found on coastal sand dunes and limestone heath. Next to the thistle, Rosa spinosissima is probably our most emblematic native plant. It has been used as a Scottish emblem since Charles Edward Stuart or 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' (1720-1788) and may have been the source of the Jacobite white cockade.
Flag of Prince Charles Edward Stuart
MrPenguin20, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
"The rose of all the world is not for me.
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland.
That smells sharp and sweet - and breaks the heart."
This tough reliable rose is the parent of many good garden hybrids which have a strong fragrance. One particularly old variety with double purple-lilac flowers named 'Mary Queen of Scots' is said to have been brought to Scotland by Mary Stuart (1542-1587) from France in 1561.
The Ancient Romans strewed roses over their dead and graves. This resulted in Hecate, Goddess of the underworld, being depicted wearing a rose garland. In early Christianity roses had a mystical quality and were central to ceremonies surrounding birth, marriage and death. In the Islamic world rose water was used to purify the mosque.
Roses also have a long history as an emblem and are regularly seen in heraldry. For example the white rose is the plant badge of the Clan Keith which dates back to the time Malcolm II (died 1034) and the Battle of Barrie in 1010. David I (c.1080-1153) granted the family lands in Lothian in 1150. Later Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) granted the hereditary Marischal Earldom to Sir Robert Keith after the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
George Keith, the 4th Earl Marischal (c.1553-1623) founded Marischal college in Aberdeen and negotiated the marriage of James VI to Anne of Denmark. However Earldom and much of the land was lost following the clans support of the Jacobite cause.
The plant is associated with tartan - the small black hips grown each autumn produce juice which provides a peachy dye if used on its own, and a beautiful purple shade when mixed with alum.
The red rose is the plant badge of the Clan Erskine, who originate from land on the south bank of the river Clyde which was originally held by Henry de Erskine in the reign of Alexander II (1198-1249).
Famous members of the Clan include Ebenezer Erskine (1680-1754) a minister who founded the Secession Church and Robert Erskine (1677-1718) who became Chief Physician to Peter the Great, Tsar of all the Russias. He also founded the first physic garden in St Petersburg in 1714.
Minister Ebenezer Erskine (1680-1754), a contemporary portrait
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Thomas Alexander Erskine 6th Earl of Kellie (1732-1781) was affectionately known as 'Fiddler Tam' for his prowess as a musician and a composer. His surviving symphonies and other works show an impressive range of styles and depth of expression. As his work is being rediscovered many consider it to be on a par with that of Haydn. 'Fiddler Tam' was also a bon viveur and a founder of the infamous Edinburgh drinking group known as the Capillaire Club which met on Sunday! Unusually he was also simultaneously Grand Master of both the Scottish and the English Freemasons.
The office of Lord Lyon King of Arms whose court is in New Register House adjacent to the garden has previously been held by three Earls of the Clan Erskine including Sir Alexander Erskine of Cambo (1623-1727) who was imprisoned for his support of the Jacobite cause.
Rosa rubiginosa is also known as the Sweet Briar rose.
Rosa canina is native to Britain, Europe and parts of western Asia. The scented flowers are very variable in colour and have resulted in several cultivated hybrids. These include Rosa canina (Abbotswood) which was found in the garden of Irish engineer, Harry Ferguson, who founded the tractor company which made the famous 'Little Grey Fergie' which changed the face of Scottish agriculture forever.
Robert Burns (1759-1796) also makes over 60 references to it in his many songs and poems as it was clearly one of his favourite flowers.
Shrouded in mythology and strongly linked to the Christian faith, the dog rose is symbolic of purity, love and marriage. It was also linked to the prediction of death, as it was once thought that if you were ill and dreamt of roses you would die!
The bright red hips which are produced in the autumn were once used to make medicinal syrup; they were also thought to give protection from sorcery and witches. This is perhaps why it often features in medieval and gothic architecture and works of art, especially, the wood and stone carving found within ecclesiastical buildings.
On the authority of the Court of the Lord Lyon the rose is recorded in the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland and in the Matriculations of Arms of Chiefs as being the official plant badge of the Clans Borthwick, Erskine and Lennox.
Ivy is native to Europe and Russia and has been cultivated in our gardens for centuries. It has been steeped in mythology and cultural meaning since ancient times. Originally dedicated to Osiris the goddess of motherhood in Ancient Egypt, and then later to Dionysus or Bacchus the Greek and Roman Gods of wine, the latter perhaps because it was thought to prevent drunkenness.
Another myth states that it grew around the altar of Hymenaios, the Greek God of Marriage. As such ivy was often presented to the bride and groom as symbol of everlasting life, devotion, fidelity and loyalty. The Greeks also used it to make a crown for Liber, the God of Fertility, as well as poets and other muses. These ancient meanings were later adopted by the Christian faith, when it became a symbol of love, friendship, immortality and death. It is often seen carved on Christian tombs and was once placed on the graves of the dead on All Soul's Day.
Used to treat burns, including sunburn, in the past a medicinal ointment was made with the twigs or leaves with butter as a base. The leaves can also produce black dye, or dark greens and creamy yellows using various mordants.
By the Middle Ages these pagan meanings were deeply embedded in our cultural life, this was reflected in its use as a decoration at Christmas, a practice once banned by the Council of Churches due to its pagan roots. Carols such as 'The Holly and the Ivy' are thought to date from this time and may even be pre-Christian. Interestingly, by the Victorian era its use in this way was perfectly acceptable, perhaps a reflection of its place in the then accepted language of flowers. It is the plant badge of the Clan Gordon which dates back to 1150 and a first Grant of land near Kelso. Since then they have been central to the political and military life of Scotland and famed for their courage as well as the formation of the Gordon Highlanders. Two famous military heroes from the family include General Patrick Gordon of Auchleuchries (1635-1699), Commander of the Armies of Peter the Great of Russia and General Charles Gordon of Khartoum (1833-1835).
The family are also associated with the English poet Lord Byron - George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) the son of Scottish antecedents who was named after his grandfather on his mother's side, George Gordon of Gight Castle, Aberdeenshire.
An ivy covered Gight Castle
Creative Commons Peter Ward / Gight Castle / CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Today Ivy is still regularly seen in bridal bouquets, but few will understand its ancient uses and meanings.
Native to Britain, Europe and parts of North America no plant apart from the thistle is more associated with the romance of Scotland than heather. For generations it has featured in our literature, poetry, music and song. Yet few realise that many of the vast expanses of heather that dominate our landscape are the result of deforestation, sheep and the establishment of grouse moors.
Martin Martin (died 1719) a Gaelic factor from Skye famed for his book 'A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland' (1703) discussed the health-restoring qualities of ling when it was used as a mattress.
Osgood Mackenzie (1842-1922) the founder of the famous west coast subtropical garden at Inverwewe also talks about its use in domestic life in his book 'A Hundred Years in the Highlands' (1921) which also explains the establishment of the garden. Evidence exists that heather has been used in brewing in Scotland since 2000 BC and today it is still produced in Argyll and marketed as Fraoch the Gaelic word for the plant.
From the bonny bells of heather,
They brewed a drink lang syne
Was sweeter than honey
Was stronger than wine.
Bee keepers still take their bees to the heather in the flowering season as the honey produced is extremely sweet with a distinctive taste favoured by many around the world. The foliage and flowers were used to prepare a wide range of coloured dyes ranging from yellow through green to orange and brown. These dyes, and likely the colour of the plant itself have inspired many tartans .
It was also used medicinally. The dried stems are made into besoms and brushes; this was once an important cottage industry in many rural areas. The stems were also bundled and bonded to make floor tiles, similar to the process used to make jewellery today.
White heather is the plant badge of the Clan McPherson who have a clan seat on land granted by Robert the Bruce near Badenoch. The clan was a strong supporter of the crown during the Jacobite uprising.