Thistly icon

When I was aged 18 years old, not that very long ago, I spent a year in Paris where I learnt French at the Alliance Française (with a wonderfully imperious teacher called Madame Giani) and lived and worked in a church called Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet, rendered Saint Nicholas of the Thistlefield in English, chardon being thistle. This name did not derive from any hagiographical legend involving miraculous occurrences with thistles, somewhat sadly, but referred to the area having once been populated with thistles before Paris’s urban sprawl devoured it. Today, still the feast of St Andrew as I write this, is an apposite date on which to contemplate the thistle, for just as St Andrew is the patron saint and protector of Scotland so is the thistle its national symbol.

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The thistle is a curious choice as a national symbol for it is not particularly beautiful and it not only grows wild but is also often deemed to be a weed. There is a charming legend about its selection as the Scots’ emblem which relates that, at the Battle of Largs in 1263, the Norse invaders planned a surprise nocturnal attack on the camp of the Scots, while the latter were asleep. The Norsemen were barefoot to aid in their covert and sneaky strategy when one unfortunate soldier stepped on a thistle and cried out in pain, his shrieks awakening the Scots who successfully repulsed and defeated the Norse troops. The King of the Scots at this battle and who subsequently adopted the plant for his nation, Alexander III, met a less romantic end in 1286: he accidentally rode his horse over a cliff in the fog, breaking his neck.

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The thistle is ubiquitous in Scotland and may be found everywhere, from sporting-club logos to items of jewellery. My maternal grandmother, who was half Scottish, had a gorgeous silver brooch in the form of a thistle with an amethyst for the flower. Scotland’s highest honour is the Order of the Thistle, and the photograph above shows the Duke of Cambridge being installed as an officer in the Order this summer, pictured with his aunt, the Princess Royal. The thistle also possesses religious iconography; along with many other plants with spines, it stands for Christ’s crucifixion, with the beautiful flower being an allegory for the salvation obtained by His pains and death.

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Albrecht Dürer painted himself in 1493, aged 22 years old, holding some thistles in his hands (above; currently in the Louvre). Art historians believe this to be an engagement pose with the thistles symbolizing marital fidelity. This is most likely because of the same reason for which they are associated with longevity in China, namely that they retain their shape even if dried out, the recognizable and unique form that they have.

Personally, I am very fond of the thistle. Part of this is subjective, for I was brought up in the north of England only 12 miles from the border with Scotland, and I have loved my many explorations of this beautiful nation, particularly the Hebrides. Yet there are also more solid factors underpinning my penchant for this prickly plant. Firstly, the green and purple combination is a very visually stunning one. Secondly, and more importantly, is the classification of the thistle as a weed. As every botanist knows, what separates a plant from a weed is the 3 Ps: plant, place, perception. It is deemed to be a weed because it grows where it is unwanted, among cultivated plants. And what a rich metaphor that is. This plant is the very symbol of independence, having developed thorns to protect itself yet displaying a unique-shaped deep purple flower, and, most of all, resisting human efforts to control and domesticate it. After all, how many weeds function as royal, national, artistic, and religious symbols?

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The curves of today’s cufflinks very much evoke the thistle to me. This pair has a shadowbox-style construction and is made out of sterling silver, which has produced a very interesting matted oxidization over seven or eight decades giving a varied grey hue. They hail from Mexico and bear the maker’s mark of “C. MOLINA”, a silversmith who worked in Guadalajara and whose other cufflinks involve similarly elaborate patterns. Much of this artist’s work was produced during the 1930s and 1940s and the martyrdom symbolism of the thistle might not therefore be a random choice, for Catholics faced heavy persecution and there were thousands of deaths at the hands of the Mexican authorities during this period. Once again, this humble weed rears its subversive head.

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