Flowers of Scotland

Looking for 'Flower of Scotland' song lyrics?
Click the link. Nostalgic video too!

Here’s my take on just some of the flowers of Scotland. This is just a small selection I’ve enjoyed – high 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 flowers pictures to a place, as it may help you decide which part of Scotland you want to visit. There's plenty here on that iconic Scottish plant, heather, before I look at some other typical Scottish flowers.

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

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

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 flowery topic as I haven’t even begun to look through these ancient scary boxes of 35mm transparencies labelled ‘flowers’! (Gosh, how I wish how I’d indexed them better…..)

Scots bluebells

Scots bluebells

Bluebells and Scots Bluebells - the differences

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, in Moray. More on this Strike Wing and its memorial on a blog piece found by clicking the picture.

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, in Moray. More on this Strike Wing and its memorial on a blog piece found by clicking the picture.

You know the difference between a bluebell and a Scots bluebell – a famous Scottish blue flower, simply one of the best known of the flowers of Scotland? 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.) They’re 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. 

They’re on the site header as well unless I went and changed it and didn't alter this sentence.

Heather - A Scottish icon

Let’s get to the really characteristic flowers of Scotland now. There are two main types of heather Calluna  or common heather and Erica (sometimes called ‘bell heather’). And there are two species of Erica, the bell heather (E. cinerea), mentioned already, and cross-leaved heath (E. tetralix).  Cross-leaved heath as all its flowers at the top of the stem.

bell heather. - a famous member of the flowers of scotland

bell heather. - a famous member of the flowers of scotland

(Pictured after the bluebells) This 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 flowers in Scotland, not reptiles. And, wait - I do believe the Ullapool Hill walk has made it on to the top ten walks in Scotland page. (Dang these distracting links to other pages.)

Common heather, also called 'ling', used to be a useful plant to the Highlanders of old – they made rope out of the stems. It was used as a broom, as bedding, between the stone walls for insulation,  as a source of dye for cloth - and was even made into ale. The Picts (they say) had the original recipe but they inconveniently disappeared and took the recipe with them.

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

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The heritage of heather

Heather's use as bedding (mentioned above) is a link between its domestic 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 has another property with both a mythical and a modern link. It naturally gives rise to 'sports' or mutants. The origins of white heather 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.

Heather is still playing a role in the Highland economy, not just in its wild form sheltering a variety of wildlife. Heather honey is still produced from hives taken out to blossoming moors in summer. A post-war shortage of timbers spawned a short-lived industry which made floor tiles from compressed heather stems. Though commercially unsuccessful, the bonding techniques evolved into a heather-gem jewellery range. Heather flavours everything, it seems, from a Highland liqueur to a range of cosmetics. 

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.

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

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, of all the flowers of Scotland, 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.

scottish thistle and dark green fritillary

scottish thistle and dark green fritillary

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. Among the flowers of Scotland, no-one is quite sure which one is meant to be a Scottish 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 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 worse 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.

mountain avens

mountain avens

Some common alpine flowers of Scotland

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 it by the roadside on a certain spot on 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. And, it is said that the cup formed by the petals follow the sun like a kind of tracking dish – to warm up the, uhmm, middle bit to attract pollinating insects. Aren’t the flowers of Scotland clever? The leaves, like miniature oak leaves, are another identifying feature.

moss campion

moss campion

dwarf cornel

dwarf cornel

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). 

Though far from exclusively Scottish, gorse, sometimes called whins in Scotland, brightens up the Lowland landscapes throughout the country. In this picture, the foreground thicket of this tough shrub is on the edge of woodland west of Elgin in Moray, looking east. On a hot day, gorse smells of coconut!

Looking east over the gorse by Monaughty (Monachty) Wood near Elgin, Moray

Looking east over the gorse by Monaughty (Monachty) Wood near Elgin, Moray

Here’s 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 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, probably. 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. Bog myrtle (or sweet gale) is getting a lot of attention at the moment from natural beauty product producers. I think I know which name they'll choose for branding or marketing purposes.

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. (This link takes you my picture of Scots primrose on the Natural Scotland page.) 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 the beautiful scenery pictures page.  Or follow this link if you want to know what flowers were used to dye tartan.

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.

(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 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.

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.

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 (or the ‘official’ one, depending on your viewpoint) 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, 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 colonial reference, ie the native people replaced by new waves - while the final version with its ‘rise now and be the nation again’ is unashamedly patriotic in tone - though 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. 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.

I now have the feeling I shouldn’t have mentioned this. Anyway, there are thousands of fans belting it out at, say, a rugby international at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, with any luck they’ll drown out the pipers.

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