Its origins lost in the mists of history, today it is the
highest royal honour
The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle is the highest honour that can be awarded to Scottish men and women for exemplary service to their country. Given that the thistle is Scotland’s national emblem and that reference to 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 which tell when and how the thistle became Scotland’s badge.
The most popular goes back to 1263 when King Alexander III was defending the country from marauding Vikings led by King Haakon IV of Norway. The story goes that one night the Norsemen tried to surprise the sleeping Scots, who were encamped 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 and one of them unfortunately stood on one and shrieked out in pain. His cries alerted the Scots, who quickly assembled and went on to defeat the Norsemen at the Battle of Largs, thus saving Scotland from invasion.
The important role that the thistle had played was quickly recognised and it soon became the national emblem – being used on silver coins as ear 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 think that it was founded in 809 by Achaius, King of Scots, while another story maintains that it came into being in the 15th century when King James III altered royal symbolism in Scotland and had the Scottish Arms surrounded by a collar of thistles. 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. By the 17th century we are on firmer ground for on May 29th, 1687 King James VII (II of England and Ireland) issued letters patent ‘reviving and restoring the Order of the Thistle to its full glory, lustre and magnificency’.
Rewarding the great and good
When King James went into exile the Order fell into temporary disuse but was revived by his daughter Queen Anne. Her Hanoverian cousins and successors kept it going by awarding it to the loyal Scottish nobility, but it was left to the redoubtable Sir Walter Scott to rekindle the enthusiasm by suggesting that King George IV wear the Insignia during his famous visit to Edinburgh in 1822. It was such a success that the number of Knights was increased from twelve to sixteen. Since official records began in 1687, only 237 Knights and Ladies have been created. Originally they were drawn almost entirely from the higher echelons of 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 still restricted to 16 Knights and Ladies. From time to time, however, members of the British Royal Family and foreign monarchs, called ‘Extra Knights’, may be included. Appointments, which are for life, are the personal gift of the Sovereign and are bestowed on the Feast of St Andrew, its Patron Saint. Recent Knights have included King Olav V of Norway – a descendent of King Haakon; Sir Donald Cameron of Lochiel, 25th Chief of the Clan Cameron and Lord Lieutenant of Inverness-shire (Lochiel’s forebear, also Donald Cameron, saved the city of Glasgow from being ravished by the Jacobite Army in 1745, which is why to this day the bells of the Tolbooth are rung for his descendants); Lord Maclean of Duart and Morvern, affectionately known as ‘Chips’, Chief of the Clan Maclean, Lord Chamberlain to Her Majesty The Queen, Chief Scout of the Commonwealth and Lord Lieutenant of Argyll; also 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 during the Order’s services and other ceremonial occasions are truly 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. In its centre is a green circle bearing the motto ‘Nemo me impune lacessit’ (No one provokes me with impunity – or, in Old Scots, ‘Wha daur meddle wi’ me’.) 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 reknowned 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.
The order on show
When practicable, and when there is to be the installation of a new Knight, a service of the Order is held in St Giles’ Cathedral during the week that Her Majesty is in annual residence at the Palace of Holyrood House. Last year’s recipients were Sir Garth Morrison, East Lothian Lord Lieutenant and for many years the UK’s Chief Scout, and senior retired judge Lord Cullen of Whitekirk, who led the public inquiries into the Piper Alpha and Dunblane tragedies.
A new display celebrating the Order of the Thistle is now open at The Queen’s Gallery. Visitors will see an example of the robes and insignia worn by Thistle Knights and Ladies. The display, which runs until 31 October 2008, also includes historic insignia, such as the diamond-set badge and star given as a present to King George V by the people of Scotland on his marriage to Princess Mary of Teck.