Flowers of Scotland – where will we see your likes in glens?

From Scots bluebells to bog myrtle, bell heather to the iconic thistle, the flowers of Scotland thrive – enjoying the rainfall more than the visitors do. Look out for the mountain flowers as well: things like dwarf cornel, moss campion and the lime-loving mountain avens (or Dryas octopetala if you wish to be formal.)

Here’s my take on some of the flowers of Scotland. This is just a small selection I’ve enjoyed – high up on the mountains, down by the sea, along the lush country lanes that you can find even in Scotland.

I’ve tried where possible to relate these plant pictures to a place, as it may help you decide which part of Scotland you want to visit.

By the way, if you found your way here looking for Flower of Scotland song lyrics, then click there.

Bluebells, Crieff, Perthshire
Bluebells – but not Scots bluebells – near Trowan, west of Crieff, Perthshire

There’s plenty here on that iconic Scottish plant, heather, before I look at some other typical Scottish flowers.

Botanically speaking, we’re probably not as rich and spectacular as, say, the Alps.

But there’s still good stuff to enjoy out there, with the Angus Glens (Glen Clova) and the Ben Lawers range in particular noted as especially species-rich.

And I may return to this topic as I have just begun to look through ancient scary dusty boxes of 35mm transparencies with some labelled ‘flowers’!

(Gosh, how I wish how I’d indexed them better…..)

Bluebells And Scots Bluebells – The Difference

Scots bluebells, famous among the flowers of Scotland
Scots bluebells.
Scots bluebells on old airfield
Here are some more Scots bluebells. These exceptionally large and lush examples are – somewhat poignantly – growing on what was the main runway of the wartime aerodrome of RAF Dallachy Strike Wing The old control tower is in the background.

You know the difference between a bluebell and a Scots bluebell, simply one of our best known flowers?

Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) usually grow in woodland in great swathes. 

‘Scots bluebells’ are harebells (in English) – pictured here – and are really Campanula rotundifolia.

(Stop me if I get too technical.)

Harebells are common on heathland and verges. I can’t really say if they are common in the middle of runways of abandoned wartime airfields, but that’s where I photographed the ones in the picture here. 

Finally, Scots bluebells are later in the season than the spring-flowering ‘ordinary’ (though lovely’ bluebells.

That Purple Scottish Flower – It’s Heather!

There are two main types of heather – Calluna  or common heather (sometimes referred to as ‘ling’) and Erica (sometimes called ‘bell heather’).

And there are two species of Erica, bell heather (E. cinerea) and cross-leaved heath (E. tetralix).  Cross-leaved heath has all its flowers at the top of the stem. They are all basically shades of purple and mauve.

Paper is good but…See the latest handheld GPS devices with bundled mapping from Ordnance Survey.

Bell heather with lizard, another favourite among the flower of Scotland
Bell heather – a famous member of the flowers of Scotland

Pictured here is bell heather, though I’ve been peering at the original for a while just to make sure it wasn’t cross-leaved heath! 

Anyway, yes, I know, I know: there’s a wee lizard there as well.

It’s on top of a marker post on the Ullapool Hill walk. It’s the furthest north I’ve ever seen a common lizard in Scotland.

Wait, this is supposed to be about the flowers of Scotland. 

And, wait again, the Ullapool Hill walk has made it on to the top ten walks in Scotland page.

Anyway, our common purple heather is just that – widespread in all kinds of situations – it’s a pretty tough customer, coping with the poor acid Highland soils. 

One of Scotland’s top botanical sites – see our video here

The Heritage Of Heather

Heather was used as bedding and thus links its domestic use and its herbal or medicinal role.

The old herbalists knew that ‘they who lie down at night faint and weary’ on a heather bed, ‘rise in the morning active and lively’ – because of its restorative properties.

Herbalists also prescribed it – and still do – for its anti-rheumatic properties and its specific use in the treatment of urinary infections.

Heather naturally gives rise to ‘sports’ or mutants. The origins of white heather – as opposed to the usual mauve hues – were explained in folk-myth as the places where the tears of Malvina, daughter of the Celtic bard Ossian, fell after she had learned of the death of her lover in battle.

Today, many of the cultivars to be found in garden centres both in Scotland and beyond were developed from chance finds in the wild or from ‘sports’ noticed on other cultivars already growing in gardens.

Just a moment – can you believe your luck? – we also have a whole page dedicated to where to see heather.

Heather in bloom in Glen Derry
Heather in Glen Derry, Aberdeenshire, in full bloom. Note the purple hill in the middle distance and the higher bare tops of the Cairngorms beyond – where the exposure means that even heather won’t grow.

The Scottish Thistle

Amongst the flowers of Scotland, what could be more Scottish than the thistle? (Actually, quite a lot of iconic stuff but let’s move on…) 

The traditional tale of how the thistle came to be a Scottish symbol is, frankly, a bit far-fetched.

Apparently, far back in the Scotch mists of time, a raiding party of Vikings landed at night to pillage a village. They went undetected until one of the barefoot Norsemen stood on a particularly sharp thistle.

The resulting Viking bad language awoke the village who armed themselves and drove off the Norsemen. Yeah, right.

Wha daur meddle wi me?

King James VII founded the Most Ancient Order of the Thistle in 1687. Their motto was Nemo me immune lacessit, translated into Scots as ‘Wha daur meddle wi me?

(Or, into English: ‘No-one assails me with impunity’, which, to be honest, I find positively wimpy by comparison.)

The Order had a generally spiky-looking thistle as an emblem. And that’s the problem with thistles. No-one is quite sure which one is meant to be a Scottish thistle.

Dark green fritillary on thistle.
Dark green fritillary on thistle.

There are a lot of different types, including spear thistle, the pernicious creeping thistle, the (damp loving) marsh thistle and the melancholy thistle.

That’s the thistle you see in upland pasture and on the banks of streams (or burns, in Scots).

And there’s also the Partick, Buckie and the Inverness Caley Thistle for those so inclined.

(Rein in the Scottish jokes, will ya? -Ed.)

In this photograph, matters have been made more complicated by the fact there is a fritillary butterfly sitting on the thistle.

So we not only have a hard to identify thistle, but a not too easy butterfly as well. Thank you, helpful folk from the East Scotland Branch of Butterfly Conservation for identifying this Scottish butterfly as a dark green fritillary.

Follow that link to find out more about their important conservation work in Scotland. My fritillary was photographed at Roseisle, near Burghead in Moray. Funny we started off with flowers and we’ve had reptiles and now butterflies.

Some Common Alpine Flowers

Let’s go up high again to find some special flowers of Scotland, firstly with mountain avens (Dryas octopetala – pictured here).

If you see this plant, you’re on limestone. It won’t grow on the acid peaty soils that are so common in Scotland.

You can find mountain avens by the roadside on a certain spot on the over-visited Isle of Skye, and by the sea at Durness in the far north – in fact, anywhere that a thin band of limestone emerges in the north-west of Scotland. But mostly it’s high in the mountains.

Apparently the cup formed by the petals follows the sun like a kind of tracking dish. That way it warms up the, uhmm, middle bit to attract pollinating insects. Aren’t plants clever? The leaves, like miniature oak leaves, are another identifying feature.

It’s just occurred to me that you don’t have to be in Scotland to see mountain avens. We visited The Burren in Ireland and those weird limestone pavements shelter this lovely plant as well.

Mountain avens
Mountain avens
Moss campion
Moss campion

Scattered across the wild uplands of Scotland, moss campion’s pink starry flowers (pictured here) usually grow out of a soft green cushion of moss-like foliage.

These were photographed amongst the granites of the Cairngorms, but it’s pretty widespread and brightens up many an otherwise dull plateau (to be honest!). It’s a plant I especially associate with a long day’s hillwalk.

Also pictured here is another northern speciality – dwarf cornel (Cornus suesica). This one was also photographed in the Cairngorms.

It’s a blanket-bog specialist, preferring poor acid soil  – the exact opposite of the lime-loving mountain avens above. 

Another acid-lover is the alpine azalea, a bright splash of pinky-red amongst the scoured rocks of the Cairngorm plateau again.

Dwarf cornel
Dwarf cornel
Alpine or trailing azalea
Alpine or trailing azalea

One of the other good places for seeing Arctic-alpine plants, the specialists among the flowers of Scotland, is the top end of Glen Clova, one of the Angus Glens. If you’re going to explore there, then it’s worth looking at the Glen Clova Hotel for accommodation. Lovely setting in the big hills.

My Favourite Scottish Plant – Bog Myrtle

Bog myrtle
Bog myrtle.

Bog myrtle, sometimes called sweet gale – well, it’s a nicer name – is my favourite (and favorite) Scottish plant.

Not only do the leaves, when crushed, give off a citrusy scent that, to me, simply, says ‘Oh good, I must be somewhere special in the Highlands’, but legend has it that the scent also repels midges.

Well, possibly. But I put a sprig in my hat anyway. 

This is the fully grown plant. As its name suggests, it likes wet areas and so is widespread in the Highlands.

It loses its leaves for winter, then little catkins appear in spring to give a reddish tinge to its native boggy habitat.

Oxtyropis halleri
Oxytropis halleri ‘the purple oxytropis’ as we called it, pictured mid-1970s on the north coast. Very scarce and not a plant that can cope with competition, especially from stupidly parked campervans, so I hope it’s still there.
Botanical Locations In The North-West Highlands

The Angus Glens and (even more famously) Ben Lawers in Perthshire have already been mentioned.

There are also good botanical sites on several parts of the north coast – with Scots primrose just one speciality. 

(It’s pictured on the page about good natural habitats in Scotland.)

Mind you, on the subject of rare plants on that same page on natural Scotland you’ll find a picture of the extremely scarce Norwegian mugwort. I can think of no better reason for you to race over there immediately.  ‘Coughs hopefully’.

The limestone outcrops in the Assynt area (Inchnadamph), north of Ullapool, are also good. And where there are fine flowers, there is usually fine scenery too. Check out some pictures of Scotland’s glorious landscapes. Or follow this link if you want to know what flowers were used to dye tartan.

Also, if you are enthusiastic about flowers and gardening too, then check out my gardening in Scotland pages.

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Maybe you are here not because of botanical interest but because you are looking for the song that has become Scotland’s unofficial national anthem?

The words are below. ‘Flower of Scotland’ was written by the late Roy Williamson of the hugely successful folk duo ‘The Corries’.

It has evolved a lot since it was first broadcast on the BBC in 1967/8 – in black and white with Ruthven Barracks – I’m pretty sure – as a backdrop.

Flower of Scotland – original version.

Oh Flower of Scotland
When will we see
Your likes again,
That fought and died for,
Your wee bit Hill and Glen,
And stood against him
Proud Edward’s Army,
And sent him homeward,
Tae think again.

The hills are bare now,
And Autumn leaves
lie thick and still,
O’er land that is lost now,
Which those so dearly held,
That stood against him,
Proud Edward’s Army,
And sent him homeward,
Tae think again.

Those days are past now,
And in the past
they must remain,
But we can still rise now,
And be the nation again,
That stood against him,
Proud Edward’s Army,
And sent him homeward,
Tae think again.

(I remember as a boy recording this same broadcast with a wee tape recorder held in front of the tv! See: I told you I’d get nostalgic.)

As the years went on, it certainly evolved, not just as a concert piece by the Corries themselves, but in a range of other settings, many of them sporting occasions.

Scotland’s national rugby and also football teams adopted it as an anthem, likewise it was sung at at least two Commonwealth Games when the Scots won medals. In fact, it’s pretty much ubiquitous.

All right, the words tend a little towards an anti-England sentiment – proud Edward’s army etc being sent home (after the Battle of Bannockburn) ‘to think again’.

At least with England’s national anthem they don’t sing that extraordinary verse that goes:

“Lord, grant that Marshal Wade /  May by thy mighty aid / Victory bring.

May he sedition hush and like a torrent rush, / Rebellious Scots to crush / God save the King.”

And in actual fact, to be clear, this verse was only popular in early versions of the song, which was published in 1745 in ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’ and became a popular ditty around the theatres in London, England.

1745, of course, is the year of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion and attempt to secure the throne. Clearly, those ‘rebellious Scots’ were on everybody’s mind at the time (though only briefly).

Back at ‘Flower of Scotland’, verse two refers to ‘land that is lost now’ – possibly a reference to the Highland Clearances, ie the native people replaced by new waves.

The final verse with its ‘rise now and be the nation again’ is unashamedly patriotic in tone – all the more extraordinary as it was written at a time when a Scottish Parliament, let alone Independence, seemed a very distant prospect.

As for the tune, listen to Williamson’s original setting and you’ll see it’s carried along at a steady pace. Sometimes, these days, it can be a bit of a dirge when sung too slowly.

And there is one other little issue with it – that note on ‘think’ as in ‘tae think again’. It’s a flattened 7th (is it not?) and seems to be a bit of a problem for the bagpipe scale, though we old folkies are comfortable enough with it on the instruments we play.

Anyway, when there are thousands of fans belting it out at, say, a rugby international at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, they can usually drown out the pipers.

More on Scottish music here.