Scotland’s noble thistle
THE MOST Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle is the highest honour that can be awarded to Scottish men and women for service to their country.
Given that the thistle is Scotland’s national emblem and its prickliness is enshrined in her motto, ‘Wha daur meddle wi’ me’, it is not surprising that it is commemorated in our oldest order of chivalry.
There are several different legends about how the thistle became Scotland’s badge. The most popular goes back to 1263 when King Alexander III, whose father died on Kerrera, was defending the country from marauding Vikings. The story goes that one night the Norsemen tried to surprise the sleeping Scots near Largs in North Ayrshire.
In order to move more stealthily under cover of darkness, the leaders removed their footwear. But as they crept barefoot they came across an area of ground covered in thistles. One of them stood on a thistle and shrieked out in pain. His cries alerted the Scots who got together and defeated the Norsemen at the Battle of Largs, which saved Scotland from invasion.
The important role that the thistle had played was quickly recognised and soon became the national emblem and was used on silver coins as early as 1470 and remaining on some Scottish bank notes to this day.
No-one knows exactly when the Order of the Thistle was established. Some historians think that it was founded in 809 by Achaius, King of Scots. Others say that King James V, who received important Roman, French and English honours, established the Order of the Thistle in 1540 because he was embarrassed that he had no personal honour to bestow in return. As it is recorded that he later conferred membership of the ‘Order of the Burr or Thissil’ on King Francis I of France, his claim has some merit.
When King James went into exile the Order fell into temporary disuse but was revived by his daughter Queen Anne. Her Hanovarian cousins and successors kept it going by awarding it to the loyal Scottish nobility, but it was left to Sir Walter Scott to rekindle the enthusiasm by suggesting that King George IV wear the Insignia during his famous visit to Edinburgh in 1822.
Since official records began in 1687, only 237 Knights and Ladies have been created. Originally they were drawn from the peerage until the dawning of the Scottish Enlightenment when they began to be joined and replaced by outstanding Scottish thinkers, lawyers, statesmen, politicians and scientists - a trend that continues today.
Her Majesty The Queen is Sovereign of the Order which is restricted to 16 Knights and Ladies. Appointments, which are for life, are the personal gift of the Sovereign and are bestowed on the Feast of St Andrew, its patron saint.
Knighthoods have been given to Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, former Secretary General of NATO and the UK’s Minister of Defence; Sir Donald Cameron of Lochiel, 25th Chief of the Clan Cameron and Lord Lieutenant of Inverness-shire; Lord Maclean of Duart and Morvern, Chief of the Clan Maclean, Lord Chamberlain to Her Majesty The Queen, and Sir Fitzroy Maclean of Dunconnel - diplomat, soldier, adventurer and politician and author of Eastern Approaches, allegedly the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond.
The robes and insignia worn by the Sovereign and Knights are spectacular. The mantle is of green velvet, lined with white taffeta and tied with large green and gold tassels. The magnificent star of the Order, emblazoned on the left shoulder, consists of a silver St Andrew’s saltire, with clusters of rays between the arms. The broad hat, worn by the Sovereign and the Knights and Ladies, is made of black velvet with a plume of soft, white egret feathers. Suspended from the neck is a gold collar, called the ‘St Andrew’, illustrating, in gold enamel, St Andrew wearing a green gown and purple coat, holding a white saltire. When a Knight or a Lady dies the badge and star are returned personally to the Sovereign by the nearest relative of the deceased.
When King James VII revived the Order of the Thistle in 1687 he had part of the Abbey Church at the Palace of Holyrood House converted into a Chapel for the Order. The following year, however, James was forced to flee the country and the chapel was destroyed by an Edinburgh mob furious with him for his allegiance to the Roman Catholic faith. The Order was left without a permanent chapel until 1911 when one was added to St Giles’ Cathedral by the renowned Scottish architect Sir Robert Lorimer. Although small, the interior of the Thistle Chapel is exquisitely decorated with carved and painted fittings of extraordinary detail including angels playing bagpipes.
Along its sides are the Knights’ stalls which are capped by richly carved canopies with the shields and crests of each member rising above. The richest effect of all, however, is reserved for the Sovereign’s stall at the west end of the chapel - a colourful tribute to remarkable Scottish workmanship.
Her Majesty The Queen wearing the robes of the Order of the Thistle.