National Records of Scotland

Preserving the past, Recording the present, Informing the future


Lily (Madonna)

Lilium candidum, family Liliaceae
June to July

The Madonna lily occurs naturally from the eastern Mediterranean to Asia and it has been in cultivation since ancient times, when it was eaten and used medicinally. Throughout history it has been surrounded by a myriad of mythology, religious symbolism and cultural beliefs.

The Ancient Egyptians dedicated it to Isis, the goddess of motherhood and a fertile earth. It was through her marriage to the god Osiris, that it was first connected with death and the underworld. To the Greeks it was 'the flower of all flowers' and to the Romans it was 'Jupiter's Rose'. One Greek myth links it to events between Juno, Jupiter, Zeus and Hercules, which is said to have resulted in the formation of the Milky Way and the lily. Another links it to Aphrodite the goddess of fertility, it is thought this reflects the phallus like pistil at the centre of the flower. Ultimately it was seen to represent purity, innocence, chastity and elegance. In the 5th century it became associated with Christianity and by the Middle Ages it was closely associated with the Virgin Mary in particular. Also dedicated to St Anthony patron saint of marriage, it was regularly placed in bridal wreaths, sometimes being mixed with ears of corn to represent a blessed and fertile marriage.

Its natural life cycle as a bulb is to emerge, flower and then die; as such it was associated with transience of life on earth, the soul and ultimately death. This resulted in it being planted in graveyards, especially in memory of children. To many it was a messenger of the Grim Reaper.

Due to its natural beauty and symbolism it was depicted in early art especially friezes, ceramics, stone carvings and coins. It later regularly appeared in renaissance Christian art especially.

It is also an important heraldic symbol, and was used as recently as 1996 in a Coat of Arms granted to the City of Dundee.

Very popular as a cut flower today it is clearly at the heart of our culture, yet few will understand the meaning our ancestors placed upon it.

Archivist Garden Item Image: 
Madonna Lily. Image credit: peganum, Flickr. CC license
Dundee, Coat of Arms

Lesser Periwinkle

Vinca minor, family Apocynaceae
all year

Now naturalised in parts of Britain the lesser periwinkle is thought to have been introduced from Europe prior to 1600. It is pollinated by long-tongued bees and bee flies. Traditionally it has been planted in gardens as a symbol of good fortune and a happy marriage.

Herbalists used it as a tonic, a laxative and as a gargle; it was also prepared into ointment for skin conditions. Recently it has been important in providing the drug Vincamine, used in treating brain disorders.

On the authority of the Court of the Lord Lyon, periwinkle 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 Clan Hannay, originally from south west Scotland.

Perhaps the most famous Clan member was James Hannay (died 1661), the Dean of St Giles in Edinburgh. Reputedly, it was during one of his sermons on the 23 July 1637 that he became the target of a stool flung by one Jenny Geddes (c1600-c1660), a market trader, who was outraged at his use of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer for the first time in Scotland. The incident turned into a full scale riot which brought out the town guard and was depicted in a contemporary print.

Illustration of Jenny Geddes throwing the stool at Minister Hannay.

Illustration of Jenny Geddes throwing the stool at Minister Hannay. From 'Witnesses for the Truth in the Church of Scotland' by W.P. Kennedy, 1843. 
Public domain, taken from

Archivist Garden Item Image: 
Lesser Periwinkle. Image credit: hedera.baltica, Flickr. CC license
Cluster of Lesser Periwinkles. Image credit: beautifulcataya, Flickr. CC license


Lonicera periclymenum, family Caprifoliaceae
July to September

The honeysuckle or woodbine is one of our most celebrated native plants. Famed for its colourful and sweetly scented flowers it has been grown in Scottish gardens since before 1600. It occurs naturally from Britain to Europe and Russia.

The Ancient Greek herbalist Dioscorides and the English herbalist John Gerard (1545-1612) both speak of its medicinal properties, reporting that it was good for the digestion. An ointment prepared from the flowers was also thought to remove freckles! In Scotland it was considered to ward off evil, especially around May Day, when it was woven into a wreath, placed on the front door and in the rafters of byres. The berries are usually considered poisonous, but have been used to make a type of wine, and to treat asthma and bronchitis.

Many Scottish poets have extolled its qualities, including Charles Spence (1779-1869) the 'Bard of Gowrie' or the 'Poet of the Carse'. A stonemason and sculptor, Spence was also a gifted, self-taught poet who deserves acclaim. Born in the parish of Kinfauns he spent most of his life near Rait. He built the Free Church of Errol and was involved in Kinnaird Castle's restoration. Some of his sculptures can still be seen in the grounds of Fingask.

His poetry was often humorous and gentle. An anthology of his work From the Braes of the Carse was published posthumously, containing many of his beautiful love poems including The Treasure of Love which refers to the honeysuckle.

Turn ye, Jessie, hither turn, / Treat my love no more with scorn;
In this honeysuckle grove / Let us sit and sing of love.
Let the rich make wealth their theme, / And their titled honours claim,
I nor wealth nor titles bring, / But I love, and love I sing.

The Aberdeenshire poet George P Dunbar wrote of it also in his Doric poem 'Granny's Gairden'.

Granny's Gairden
The honeysuckle clim't the wa', / An' aye at early morn
A guff o' sweetness creepit in / Tae tell o' day new-born;

It is the plant badge of Clan Maitland, one of Scotland's oldest Clans. Originally from Normandy, David I granted them land in Northumberland (then part of Scotland).

Through marriage they acquired further estates throughout Lauderdale in the Scottish Borders. Since the 1400's members of the family have regularly held high office in both Scotland and England, they have also served in the military and diplomatic services as well as the legal profession.

The family seat is Thirlestane Castle near Lauder, one of the finest houses in the land with decorative ceilings and a wonderful collection of art and antiquities.

Thirlestane Castle. Creative commons via Wiki Commons

Thirlestane Castle, Lauder, Scottish Borders
(Martin Thirkettle / Thirlestane Castle, Lauder, Scottish Borders). Creative commons via Wiki Commons

Archivist Garden Item Image: 
Honeysuckle. Image credit: Jessica Evershed, NRS. CC license
Honeysuckle. Image credit: Cindy Gustafson, Flickr. Public domain


Corylus avellana (Contorta), family Betulaceae
April - October

The hazel is native to Britain, Europe and Asia. The durable timber has many uses ranging from hurdles, wattle and daub to walking sticks, bean poles and even divining rods. It has been considered sacred in many cultures since ancient times being seen as a gift from the gods.

In the Celtic world it is sacred to the sea god Manannan. It was also associated with fairies and considered to ward off evil. St Patrick is reputed to have driven the snakes out of Ireland with a hazel wand. It was also seen as a tree of knowledge, the salmon of knowledge in the Irish Fenian Cycle having eaten nine hazelnuts before passing knowledge onto humanity. This is perhaps why many thought that wisdom was imparted from it through the edible nuts, which make excellent eating. In Scotland they were also processed into milk in the autumn to feed new born babies in the belief that it would provide them with good luck and fine health. The nuts are also associated with fertility and marriage, being given out at weddings in the hope that the couple would be blessed with numerous children.

Hazel is the plant badge of the Clan Colquhoun which dates back to the 13th century and a grant of land near Dunbartonshire. Famous members of the Clan include Patrick Colquhoun (1745-1820), a former provost of Glasgow and tobacco merchant, who later became a reformer and statistician. He founded the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce (the oldest of its kind in Britain) and the Thames River Police.

More recently the Scottish painter, printmaker and set designer Robert Colquhoun (1914-1962) became one of the leading artists of his generation after studying at the Glasgow School of Art and later throughout Europe.

Robert Colquhoun (1914-1962), Artist, Self Portrait. Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Robert Colquhoun (1914-1962), Artist, Self Portrait. 
Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Reproduced with the permission of Bridgeman Images. 

The twisted ornamental form growing in the garden is affectionately known as 'Harry Lauder's Walking Stick' in deference to the well-known comic singer, born in Portobello in Edinburgh, Sir Harry Lauder (1870-1950). Lauder regularly appeared on-stage with a gnarled old twisted staff whilst singing his famous song 'Roamin in the Gloamin'.

Archivist Garden Item Image: 
Hazel catkins. Image credit: swallowedtail, Flickr. Public domain
Hazel nuts. Image credit: whatsthatpicture, Flickr. CC license

Hairy Thyme

Thymus polytrichus, family Labiatae/Laminaceae
April to August

Thyme, like many other scented plants, is steeped in mythology. In ancient Greece and Rome it was seen as a symbol of strength, power, courage and sacrifice, it was even embroidered on the togas of the generals. During the crusades it was given to knights about to go into battle to give them strength.

Perhaps because of this thyme is the plant badge of the Clan Armstrong, which originates from around Liddlesdale in Roxburghshire. Renowned for their strength, by 1528 the clan was said to have been able to put 3,000 horsemen in the field. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the clan had a turbulent relationship with the Scottish Kings, particularly James V (1512-1542) who as a result of a ruse captured and hung some 50 members of the clan, including the famous border reiver Johnny Armstrong (died 1529) of Gilnockie near Langholm. His last words were reputed to be "I am but a fool to seek grace at a graceless face, but had I known you would have taken me this day, I would have lived in the Borders despite King Harry and you both." This defiance is commemorated in the famous Border ballad:

Johnny Armstrong
Farewell! my bonny Gilnock Hall
Where on Esk side thou standest stout
Gif I had lived but seven yeirs mair
I wad a gilt thee round about
John Murdered was at Carlinrigg
And all his gallant companie;
But Scotland's heart was ne'er sae wae
To see sae mony brave men die.

Due to its antiseptic qualities and connections with birth thyme has since the time of Dioscorides (c50 AD) been thought of as a woman's herb - it was even placed under the bed of those about to give birth. Like many other sweetly scented plants it was thought to contain the souls of the dead.

Archivist Garden Item Image: 
Hairy Thyme. Image credit: Hugh Knott, Flickr. CC license.

Hard Fern

Blechnum spicant, family Blechnaceae
all year

In Gaelic culture ferns were thought to have protective powers especially from witches. Several native species were previously used medicinally for a wide number of ailments including, lumbago, worms, coughs and skin disorders. It was also used as shampoo.

Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), was important for bedding, green manure and a source of soda for the manufacture of glass and soap. The native Osmunda regalis, once used as a love charm, requires really moist conditions and today it can still be found throughout the western seaboard of Britain despite being plundered by Victorian collectors. Like many other ferns it is now protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The name Osmunda is said to be derived from the legend of Osmund, a Loch Fyne ferry man, who hid his family on an island covered with the tall foliage of this ornamental during a Viking raid. These two species being unsuitable for a small garden, ferns are represented by the architectural Blechum spicant.

Ferns are the plant badge of the Clan Chisholm who originated from the Scottish Borders and later established themselves in the highlands during the mid-1300's. They were strong supporters of the Jacobite cause but like so many clans, family members also fought on the government side, thus pitching father against son in some cases.

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Hard Fern. Image credit:, Flickr. Public domain


Buxus sempervirens, family Buxaceae
all year

Native to south east England and Europe, Boxwood has been used in gardens for hedges and topiary for centuries. In ancient Greece it was dedicated to Hades or Pluto the god of the underworld, and to Venus or Aphrodite the goddess of love. It was associated with Cybele the mother goddess, a symbol of fertility and regeneration.

The Christian faith later adopted this belief and the plant became associated with the resurrection and as such was central to ceremonies surrounding Palm Sunday. In some cultures it symbolises eternal life and is used in rituals surrounding burial including floral wreaths. This is perhaps why the foliage and the wood were once thought to protect people and property from evil.

The plant has been used extensively in heraldry, featuring in the arms of families such as Davidson, MacBean, MacDun, MacGilvary, Macintosh, MacQueen, MacPherson and Shaw. It is also the plant badge of the ancient Clan MacBain, today commemorated by a memorial park on the shores of Loch Ness.

The wood is durable and has been turned into small domestic items such as bobbins and chess pieces, musical instruments and rulers; it was also used for inlaying furniture. The leaves and the timber were the source of medicinal oil used to treat epilepsy.

Archivist Garden Item Image: 
Boxwood. Image credit: Seth-Goldstein, Flickr. CC license
Boxwood border. Image credit: Mike Dirhalidis, Flickr. CC license


Scilla non-scripta, family Hyacinthaceae/Liliaceae
April to May

Native to Britain the bluebell features heavily in the music and culture of Scotland. Many poets, authors and musicians including Robert Burns, James Hogg and Lady Carolina Nairne have celebrated it's qualities and contribution to our landscape.

The most recent of these is the Scottish classical composer Ian Ellis Hamilton (1922-2000). His work, 'Wild Garden', consists of five pieces for the clarinet and the piano. You cannot help but wonder if this, one of his last works was inspired by the bluebell woods of the West of Scotland. Sadly it is unlikely if we will ever know, but what a fantastic celebration this piece of music is about our living heritage.

Like the thistle and rowan, bluebells are so evocative of our landscape they can rightly be seen as a plant of homecoming. Bluebells are also the plant badge of the Clan Grierson.

Archivist Garden Item Image: 
Bluebell. Image credit: Shelley & Dave, Flickr. CC license
Bluebells in woodland, Image credit: Eljay Flickr. CC license

Bell Heather

Erica cinerea (C.D. Eason) and Erica cinerea (Hookstone White), family Ericaceae
June to September

Native to Britain and many parts of Western Europe, bell heather has had various domestic uses including bedding, thatch, tanning and even brewing. It is also the source of a purple ochre dye which was produced from the flowering tips.

Today having been written about in verse and song for centuries, the plant is deeply embedded in our culture and as such is perhaps the plant which means homecoming more than most. It was even dried and transported overseas as a symbol of home. Sprigs of white heather in particular were thought to bring good fortune and prosperity. At weddings it was given away as favours and still is today. Linked with romance, who could forget the words to the famous folk song, 'Will You Go Lassie, Go' written by Northern Irish Folk singer, William McPeake, and recorded in 1957.

Will ye go, lassie, go,
And we'll all go together
To pick wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather,
Will ye go, lassie, go.

It is also the plant badge of the Clan MacDougall which dates back to 1164 when they formed a seat near Dunstaffnage in Argyll. Duncan MacDougall founded the priory at Ardchattan near Oban in 1230. The Clan has a rich history central to both the political and social life of Scotland, from the time when they supported King John Balliol (1249-1313) in his claim to the throne against King Robert the Bruce of Annandale (1274-1329), to their role in both the 1715 and 1745 rebellions.

Archivist Garden Item Image: 
Bell heather. Image credit: Will_wildlife, Flickr. CC license
Bell Heather. Image credit: amandabhslater, Flickr. CC license


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