When I first discovered that the thistle was a national emblem of Scotland, I thought ‘what a shame’.
It’s covered in sharp, pointy thorns as if to say ‘don’t come near me’. Given that it is still possible to go hiking in the Scottish Highlands in the peak of August and not see a soul, perhaps the thistle is not such an odd representative.
It stands staunch and robust in the wind, ready to poke the odd bypasser if they venture too far off the road.
The thistle has a place in the sagas. There is a legend that a group of Danish Vikings were once trying to sneak in on a sleeping party of Scotsmen, when one of the Vikings trod on a thistle and let go of an agonising scream that awoke the Scots. The Vikings lost that battle, so the pointy national emblem did serve national interest.
Not just a prickly face
The other day I saw the Cotton Thistle, or ‘Scottish Thistle’ as it is sometimes called, with fresh eyes on a walk to the Singing Sands, across the cliffs of Cleadale on the Isle of Eigg. The evening sun had broken through a threatening block of clouds, and its rays fell on a plethora of little, bright flowers on a tall stem with upward-pointing branches that were reaching out as if to take a peek over the edge of the cliffs. I turned around and noticed the purple dots all across the field behind me, playing off against white flowers on the bramble bushes and bright, green bracken in the background. A landscape of weeds and invasive species, but a really beautiful one in which the colours bounce perfectly off one another and more colours reveal themselves the more you look. Suddenly you see all shades of purple in the field, coming from Heather, Fox Gloves and straws that I wouldn’t know how to classify. I had a moment of appreciation and promised never to slag off the thistle again.
Never say never
An hour later, on the way back form the Singing Sands, I decided to climb a fence and cut across the pretty, colourful fields to get back to my base. The houses in Cleadale are dotted along the slopes overlooking the bay, and it looked like an easy inroad to make, aiming straight for my house on the slope. But when I got to the fence of the field, I found myself with a pack of long-haired, long-horned Highland cattle to my left, an impenetrable row of brambles in front of me and a field full of thistles to my right.
Needless to say, thistles are best enjoyed at a distance. But the cows were all looking at me, and the brambles would destroy my clothes. The best alternative was to wade through the thorny thistles that I had appreciated so much at a distance an hour earlier. Aiming for the spots of grass that didn’t have thistles on them, I quickly realised that the prickly plant wasn’t my only problem. The ground was boggy, and my hiking boots were giving in to the mud, making my socks wet and my mood soggy. I could hear a stream of water near me, indicating that there was far worse to come. I back-tracked, found a different route through the thistles and ran in to the same stream of water. Now both hungry and grumpy, I cursed the thorns on my fuchsia-flowered friends the thistles, and looked back towards the way I had come. It was far. It might get dark before I got back to the house. I back-tracked another couple of times, zig-zagging between prickly vegetation and boggy ground, the latter getting more and more spongy. I started wondering if this was what quicksand felt like. A shiver of panic went through me as I pondered the possibility of having to stay in the field over night, or possibly spending my last hour sinking in to a field in the Hebrides. I started looking around to see if there was anything to eat. Everything seemed to have thorns.
Suddenly, three humans appeared at the top of the cliff overlooking the bay. They were just distant silhouettes on the coastal path that I should have taken, but seeing them shook me out of my state of disaster anticipation and I started thinking practically. I had to go back, almost all the way, and then follow the track that walkers were supposed to follow. I didn’t care if it would get dark. It would eventually lead me home.
Like the Vikings before me, I gave up conquering the field and resign myself to being a respectful visitor on the designated path. Now I see why the thistle is a perfect national emblem.
Written and contributed by Kathrine Anker