THE thistle belongs to the later summer, when the whites and blues are already beginning to pass into the reds and purples. It is well on for the end of June before I notice the children - a little browner, a little more freckled, with evident signs of mending on their pinnies - under the lime tree getting at the cheeses. Tearing off the outer wrapping, they expose the white cushion, on which the purple-robed flowers sit in such dainty state; and this they consume, with the relish of epicures of nature.
What skilled botanists of a practical sort these children are! It is wonderful how they know what to eat, when it should be sought for, and where to find it - lessons which, as we grow up and lose our freshness, we forget more and more. On the early morning of another day, they start the hare from her form, and the lark from her nest, in their search for the earth nuts. They know under what plant to find them, and how far they are down in the ground. See them cross to the burn-side, where they can make a salad out of the sorrel growing on the bank.
Nor is their skill by any means confined to the plant kingdom. On one of the thistle heads a "foggie" - distinguished among the bees by his browner shades and the suppression of the black and yellow bands - is hanging. It is plain that he is in the helpless plight of one who has partaken too freely of the heady juices. No haste is made. No precautions are taken for the capture. He is not likely to fly away.
With pinnie-protected fingers the thistle head is severed from the stem. One takes off the purple from the cheese, while another, in a rude and blam-able but effective way (which will occur to those whose blessed privilege it has been to spend their childhood in the country), extracts the honey.
Thus they, whose mothers can afford little more than bare necessities at home, find a table of dainties, inexhaustible in its variety, spread for them in the wilderness.
All the way cheeses grow under their purple flowers, with foggies here and there in addition. And the gourmands sit down to feast under each second lime tree. Not every thistle they come to suits their purpose. That prickly small-headed specimen in the ditch is of no use; that pale-flowered fellow among the oats still less so. In that strip of wood to the right grows the melancholy thistle, tall, unbranchecl, prickless. But these youngsters are not melancholy - at least not to-day, - and do not turn aside to see.
They pause before the great cotton thistle, growing in front of the farm window, with much the aspect of a small company of Liliputians staring at Gulliver. But it is not to admire, only to wonder what edible use it could be turned to.
Was it John Leech who once depicted some London street boys, small by reason of age and hard living, contemplating a six-foot sentinel in his box? And when the object of so much attention was flattering himself that he had made an impression on their youthful minds, one said to the other, "What a jolly jack-in-the-green he'd make!" Had these children given audible expression to their thoughts, they would have said, "What jolly cheeses it would make!"
The thistle, which is thus only a cheese-bearer to the undeveloped patriotism of these children, is the symbol of Scotland par excellence. It is supposed to bristle all over with the national spirit. The prickles, which the little fingers crush with their pinnies, illustrate, if they did not suggest, the proud motto, "Nemo me impune lacessit."
Altogether, there is a softness about it which belies its warlike aspect, and convicts it as a bit of a braggart. Its pulpy stem, albeit four or five inches in diameter, barely succeeds in holding it upright. A cut with a thin walking stick would double it up, and level its pride with the ground.
Nevertheless, he is a buirdly chiel, and there is much in his look to warn the timid - who do not know him so well as these children do - from trifling. No would-be Scotsman of foreign extraction, north for a fortnight's holiday, is satisfied till he has a tin effigy pinned to his newly-acquired Glengarry bonnet. Possibly, he owes part of his respect for the reality to the fact that he has made its acquaintance while masquerading in his bran-new kilt.
All this presupposes that the thistle is so peculiarly Scots as to lend a certain appropriateness to its adoption; and, moreover, that there is only one thistle, or at least one with some unquestionable predominance over the rest. Neither of these propositions is wholly true.
Scotland is a hilly country, and the thistle does not take so kindly to climbing as it ought to do, if it were to the manner born. It is when he has donned the kilt, as I have already noticed, that the foreigner affects the thistle ; which is a mistake, either in costume, or natural history, or both. If he were better acquainted with the modern Highlands than he seems to be, he would probably know that the two things he is least likely to see there are thistles and kilts. Indeed there are very few prickly plants among the hills, which may be one reason why kilts used to be worn.
In describing a Scot of the proper sort, Sir Walter says -
Right up Ben Ledi could he pass, And not a sob his toil confess.
So far from being able to climb Ben Ledi, I question if the thistle reaches much above a thousand feet; that is scarcely the height of the whin or the broom. It has certainly no representative among Scots alpines, which are the true highlanders among plants. The nearest mountain relations are the blue sow-thistle and the saussurea: neither of which, despite the name of the former, is a thistle. It belongs to the plain, to the watercourse, and - be it whispered in the ear - to the rubbish heap. Even there it is very much of a weed.
Moreover, there are many kinds in Scotland, all possible or actual rivals. There is the pale-flowered field thistle, which indicates poor land or bad farming, or both, and usurps the ground rightly belonging to oats. Indeed it impoverishes much more space than it seems to cover, since it creeps in all directions under the ground with those insidious stolons. I always suspect creeping plants. They come from hungry places, and have immense appetites. We shall meet them again, and generally with the same sinister meaning. Some of them have their place in nature, covering places where nothing else would grow, and doing work they alone are fitted for. Least of all countries could Scotland do without them. But this is not one of the useful kind.
Then there is that other, lighting up the ditch with the brilliant crimson of its flowers, whose haunts, as in this case, are in watery places, where, as a rule, it can do little harm. It is at once the fiercest-looking and the softest of the whole - a not uncommon combination.
The lance-leaved thistle of waste places - that cellar of the foggie, and larder of the children, giving meat to the one, and drink to the other - follows. And a round dozen more, not so generally known.
Three at least are claimants, each with its greater or less number of clansmen. One of them is the cotton thistle, before whose eight or ten feet, as it towers above the farm window, the dwarfed children stand. To the wanderer in out-of-the-way places it must be familiar as growing, during the late summer and into the autumn, in front of many of the cottages, far beyond the eaves of the thatch. I brought a seedling from such a place, which the first year grew to a sturdy plant. The second season it threw out great arms with many flowers, and shed seedlings enough to fill all the gardens in the neighbourhood. A stalwart Scot, it has much to say for itself in the matter of height. One looks curiously around for the thistle which would presume to dispute with it.
As if for contrast's sake, the second claimant is a dwarf. With no stem at all, it simply spreads a bristly rosette over the surface of the ground. This may be only a stunted form of one of the rest. If it be not, then I have not come across it in Scotland, although I often see a thistle - chiefly of the marsh sort - when half starved, very dwarf indeed.
Common sense entered the judgment-seat in the person of the late Professor Balfour. It stands to reason, that a thistle, chosen from the others as the national emblem, must be that which is known to the greatest number. The question thus reduces itself into which is the commonest; and there can be no doubt that to the lance-leaved thistle belongs the honour.
That depends on the position of the observer. To the crofter it might be the cotton thistle; to a son of the marshes, a marsh thistle; and to a farmer who was still more a patriot, if such there be, a field thistle.
There are suspicious indications, moreover, that this thistle has spread out from the neighbourhood of houses. It has no special habitat, no division of the land which owns it and gives it a name. It belongs not to the hills, nor to the woods, nor to the marshes, nor to the coast. It has possession of all sorts of recent heaps, and may at no distant date have been introduced. Very probably it is not our native thistle, in the ordinary sense of having been longest in possession. The marsh thistle leads a wilder and more independent life.
But common sense has something more to say than that. The man who first gave the plant its national significance may not have made such fine distinctions; probably he did not. Each prickly thing may have been to him a thistle, and all thistles alike. Botanists, besides being scarce, are not disposed to symbol-making, but rather to species-making. With all their virtues they lack imagination; and who knows how many species have been made since Scotland first uttered her prickly motto?
The inventor may even have called this a land of thistles, in tones of contempt. To whom some perfervid patriot, in a moment of forgetfulness, may have sharply rejoined, "Hands off, then!" Some probability is lent to this supposition by the undoubted fact that the first thing even a Scotsman does is to cut down everyone he meets, which is rather scurvy treatment of anything so sacred. Certainly, I never met anyone who would not be extremely glad to see the back of every thistle in the land.
Ninety-nine out of every hundred in the present day are not botanists. Must we deny to so large a majority the right to use the patriotic symbol until they have attended classes and determined to which species they refer?
Fiddlesticks! The point is in the prickle.
Imagine posing an Irishman with the question, Can you point out the special clover known as the shamrock? Or an Englishman, Which rose do you swear by?
Plainly, all this pother has been raised by species-mongers. In the absence of any other, the genuine Scots thistle is the first one comes to. Its claim rests on the more or less emphatic enunciation of the motto, "Nemo me impune lacessit." If we have any preference, it is for the most bristly-looking.