The Thistle – Why is it that such a proud people as the Scots should choose a humble weed as its national symbol? In truth, no-one knows!

The thistle legend
But why is it that such a proud people as the Scots should choose a humble weed as its national symbol? In truth, no-one knows. There is a legend which relates how a sleeping party of Scots warriors were almost set upon by an invading band of Vikings and were only saved when one of the attackers trod on a wild thistle with his bare feet. His cries raised the alarm and the roused Scots duly defeated the Danes. In gratitude, the plant became known as the Guardian Thistle and was adopted as the symbol of Scotland.

Sadly, there is no historical evidence to back up the tale and in fact, there’s even confusion as to the type of thistle that we see represented everywhere. There are many species of thistle and the spear thistle, stemless thistle, cotton thistle, Our Lady’s thistle, musk thistle and melancholy thistle have all been suggested as possible candidates.

The thistle as symbol
Whatever its origins, the thistle has been an important Scottish symbol for more than 500 years. Perhaps its first recognisable use was on silver coins issued in 1470 during the reign of James III and from the early 16th century, it was incorporated into the Royal Arms of Scotland. Scotland’s premier Order of Chivalry, established in 1687, is The Most Ancient and Noble Order of the Thistle and its members wear a collar chain whose links are made of golden thistles. The Knights and Ladies of the Thistle also wear a breast star which bears the thistle emblem and a motto which is regularly associated with it, Nemo Me Impune Lacessit – ‘no-one provokes me with impunity’.

The Bagpipes

Early history
In fact, the earliest recorded reference to bagpipes is on a Hittite slab from Asia Minor which has been dated to 1000 BC while by the 1st century AD, bagpipes existed in many countries from India to Spain and from France to Egypt. It’s also clear that bagpipes were popular throughout the rest of the British isles prior to their documented appearance north of the border. When, and how, they did first appear in Scotland is a hotly contested topic with competing theories claiming they were either a Roman import or that the instrument came from Ireland.

Components and styles of pipe
In whichever country it developed, the basic bagpipe comprised the same elements: a bag with a chanter (on which the melody was played) and one or more drones (pipes which play a continuous note). Some examples were mouth-blown while others used a bellows attachment to supply the air to the bag. The bag provided a sustained tone while the musician took a breath and allowed several tones to be played at once. The original Scottish pipes probably had, at the most, a single drone. The second drone was added to the pipes in the mid to late 1500s while the third, or great drone, came into use early in the 1700s.

While different styles of pipe emerged in Scotland, it is the Highland bagpipe or the piob-mhor ‘the Great Pipe’, which has emerged as our national instrument. These are blown by mouth and the bags were traditionally made from the skin of a sheep, although nowadays leather, rubber or other synthetic materials are used. The pipes themselves were originally made of bone or ivory, but hardwood is the modern choice. The melody is played on a reeded chanter leading down from the bag while the three drone pipes sit on the piper’s shoulder and provide a constant, steady sound as a background to the melody.

Music styles
There are essentially two types of music played on the Highland pipes: the march, strathspey and reel variety, which were composed for military or social events, and the piobaireachd (pronounced pee-broch) which is the ‘symphony music’ of the pipes. This classical music is an art form which can compare to the music of any other country and most of it was composed 100 years before the piano and without written notation.

So while they did not invent bagpipes, Scots can fairly claim to have made them their own through keeping them alive as part of their musical tradition and by making them one of the outstanding parts of their culture.



The Kilt – A familiar fixture on true Scotsmen at sporting events, weddings and other occasions, delve into the history of Scotland’s national item of dress.

The original kilt
The feileadh mor was a longer untailored garment, around five metres in length, which was gathered and then belted at the waist to provide cover for both the upper and lower body. From the waist down, the feileadh mor resembled a modern kilt while the remaining material above the waist was draped over the shoulder and pinned there. This upper portion could be arranged in a variety of ways around the shoulders according to the demands of weather, temperature or freedom of movement required. At the end of day, the belt could be unbuckled to transform the feileadh mor into a warm covering for the night. The Gaelic plaid actually means ‘blanket’.

The kilt evolves
The feileadh mor was simplified by disposing of its top half, leaving the belt and the skirt below. The resulting creation became known as the feileadh beg, or ‘little kilt’. This was reputedly at the behest of an Englishman running an ironworks at Invergarry who felt his kilted employees needed a greater freedom of movement to do their work. Whatever the impetus for change was, the kilt now became a tailored garment with sewn-in pleats, making it neater and far more easy to put on and wear. The upper half of the big kilt evolved into the separate plaid (or sash) which is now worn at more formal events.

Proscription and survival
Following the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746, the kilt and and other aspects of Highland dress were outlawed and its continued survival during these years was largely due to its adoption by Highland regiments serving with the British army. Highland regiments still wear the kilt on regular basis (although no longer into battle) but it is not an everyday article of dress in Scotland. Visitors are more likely to see kilt-wearers at formal celebrations such as weddings and at Highland Games or similar gatherings. And although the kilt is typically regarded as being Highland dress, more kilts are now worn in the Lowland cities than in the Highlands.

The kilt today
Modern kilts have up to eight metres of material which is thickly pleated at the back and sides, with the pleats stitched together only at the waistband. Fashion designers have also tried to update the kilt and make it appeal to a wider audience by using non-tartan designs such as camouflage and material such as leather.

Burns Supper –Champit tatties, bashed neeps and maybe a wee dram or two – find out the best way to celebrate Scotland’s national poet.

The Burns Supper is the annual celebration of the life and work of Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns. January in Scotland is a dark and cold month, traditionally perceived to be filled with post-Christmas gloom. So the chance to get together at its end with like-minded individuals to eat, drink and be entertained lifts the spirit in a way Burns himself would surely have approved of.

No-one is exactly certain when the first Burns Supper took place but it’s likely that it was held by one of the many Burns Clubs that sprang up across west and central Scotland in the wake of the poet’s untimely death in 1796 at the age of only 37. Nowadays, Burns Suppers have followed his popularity around the globe so that, on or around 25 January (Burns’s birthday), they can be found everywhere from Moscow to Manhattan, Newfoundland to New Zealand. They also come in all shapes and sizes, from formal affairs in grand surroundings to more intimate gatherings in local clubs and pubs. The only common link between them all – and the only one that really matters – is the desire to commemorate one of the greatest poets the English language has known.

The Saltire

History and legend
Tradition has it that during the ninth century, near the village of Athelstaneford in what is now East Lothian, a battle was fought which led to the adoption of the Saltire as Scotland’s national flag. A joint army of Picts and Scots under the High King of Alba, Angus mac Fergus, was invading Lothian which at that time was still Northumbrian territory. Angus’s force was surrounded by a larger army of Angles and Saxons and the prospect of defeat was very real. However, on the night before the battle, Angus dreamt that he saw a great cross in the sky and that in its name, he would triumph in the coming struggle. The following morning, as Angus faced the rising sun, he and his men were dazzled by a Saltire Cross in its rays and inspired by what they had witnessed, Angus’ army went on the defeat the Saxons. From this time on, St Andrew and his cross, the Saltire, increasingly became adopted as symbols of the emerging country of Scotland.

National symbol
Divinely inspired or not, records show the Saltire in regular use by the 14th century, although not always against a blue background. In fact, it wasn’t until the 16th century that the plain white saltire on a blue field became established. Throughout the 17th century, the Saltire continued to be used as a national symbol, particularly by the army and navy and even following its incorporation into the first Union flag in 1606 after the union of the crowns. After the Union of the Parliaments in 1707, however, the widespread use of the Saltire declined and it wasn’t until the later 20th century that there was a major resurgence in its use. It has now regained its status as the legally established national flag of Scotland, used by all Scottish teams in international competitions and widely flown on the flagstaffs of public buildings, sometimes alone and sometimes side by side with the Union Flag. The Saltire is also used by many bodies, both private and public, as a logo since its simplicity of design makes it ideally suited for use as a brand.

The official ‘Saltire Blue’
In 2003, Scotland’s politicians nailed their colours to the mast and specified the precise shade of blue to be used on the Saltire. Henceforth, the white St Andrew’s Cross should appear on an azure background known as Pantone 300 in the international colour coding system. The MSP’s recommendation, however, carries no power of enforement and it is likely that Saltires will continue to fly in a variety of shades.

The Saltire Memorial Information on the origins and history of the Scottish national flag
In 1997, a heritage centre was opened in a restored dovecot next to Athelstaneford Church, and visitors are now able to learn much more about Scotland’s flag and to enjoy a short audio visual dramatisation of its origins. The Centre is open from 10am till 5pm each day from April till September, and admission is free. The public are also encouraged to visit the Saltire Memorial which was erected in 1965. A Saltire is flown permanently at the Memorial, even during the hours of darkness when it is floodlit.