National Records of Scotland

Preserving the past, Recording the present, Informing the future


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

White Rose of Scotland (Scots Rose, Burnet Rose)

Rosa spinosissima (Syn. Rosa pimpinellifolia), family Rosaceae
May to October

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

Flag of Prince Charles Edward Stuart
MrPenguin20, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Burnet Rose has become a symbol of Scotland, celebrated in song and poetry. Under the pen name Hugh MacDiarmid, Christopher Murray Grieve (1892-1978) wrote these poignant words from 'The Little White Rose':-

"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.

Archivist Garden Item Image: 
Scots or Burnet Rose. Image credit: Lawrence Wright, Flickr. CC license
Scots or Burnet Rose. Image credit: Lawrence Wright, Flickr. CC license

Ling (White Heather)

Calluna vulgaris (Kinlochruel), family Ericaceae
June to September

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.

This brew was celebrated by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) in his poem:

Heather Ale
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.

Archivist Garden Item Image: 
Ling or white heather. Image credit: Fiona Paton, Flickr. CC license
Heathers. Image credit: katrien berckmoes, 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

Common Foxglove

Digitalis purpurea (Excelsior Hybrids), family Scrophulariaceae
May to July

Native to Britain and western Europe foxgloves are one of the most common and easily recognised wild flowers. Distinct and attractive, they have been cultivated or allowed to naturalise in our gardens for centuries. In the past they had several vernacular names which associated them with fairies: fairy caps, fairies thimbles or fairies glove. More sinisterly they were also once called witches gloves or dead men's bells.

Foxgloves have been used in folk medicine for centuries, but it was not until 1785 and the work of the English physician Dr William Withering (1741-1799), that their action on the heart was understood. This led to an extract of the plant being used to treat heart disease; as a result they were grown commercially for drug companies right up until World War Two.

The plant has also been a source of inspiration to many Scottish poets, authors, song writers and musicians. Marion Angus (1865-1946), now recognised as an important figure in Scottish literature, wrote of them. Born in Sunderland, Marion moved with her parents to Arbroath aged 11, where she attended secondary school. Despite being unable to continue her education, she was well educated and widely read. After her father's death the family moved to Cults, Aberdeen where she produced some of her finest work. Later in life she lived in the Scottish Borders and on the west coast before returning to the north-east.

Angus once said: "I would fain give voice to the Scotland's great adventure of the soul. I never shall;"

How wrong she was. A recent resurgence of interest in her work has resulted in her being described as one of the greatest lyrical poets of the 20th century. With works like 'Singing Water' from 'Sun and Candle Light' (1927) it is easy to see why she and her work should be better known.

Foxgloves and Snow

Sweet Secret - I shall never know,
Though seas run dry, and suns turn cold,
How many purple foxgloves grow
This summer by the ruined fold.

Somehow she captures the mystery and majesty of this simple plant, so often seen adjacent to ancient ruined buildings and signs of habitation where its purple bells hang like a living lament. Perhaps this is why it has been taken overseas by immigrants, to be planted as a memory of home.

Archivist Garden Item Image: 
Foxglove. Image Credit: NRS own. 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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