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The Thistle - A Meditation for Tartan Day

Inspired by Tartan Day (April 6), which celebrates the contributions of Americans of Scottish heritage.


One of the most powerful symbols of Scotland and things Scottish, is the thistle. Every Scot has heard some variation of the story about the enemy that were creeping up on the unsuspecting Scots and stepped on this prickly plant. Anyone who has had a close encounter with a thistle might almost feel sorry for them. And I know of few Scots who would willingly pick one, as portrayed in the movie Braveheart, when Wallace is handed a thistle by his sweetheart. I can only presume that many Scots snorted in disbelief when they saw that.

So often used as a metaphor for Scotland, one might almost take the thistle for granted or consider it a cliche. As a symbol, though, it has endured and there must be a reason for that. I would like to think that Scots see it as an emblem of their own stubbornness and unwillingness to give in to circumstance. Certainly the plant has a number of characteristics that are reminiscent of the Scottish temperament. It is prickly, persistent, wanders far afield, quietly moves in and takes over, and is considered by many to be a bloody nuisance. Yet, hidden behind its gruff exterior, is a kinder heart.

The thistle is of a lineage that has long been in the human herbarium, provides food for birds and insects and some even consider it worthy to present at table. As a native-born Scot, I have seen the thistle in its many variant forms for as long as I can

Bee on thistle

remember. It is prominent on the masthead of The Scotsman newspaper, other print publications and even online. One of its more abstract manifestations has been its use as a symbol of the Scottish National Party. It also persists in more conventional form in countless linen table cloths, dish towels and other souvenirs sent overseas to relatives in Canada and the United States.

But perhaps in its nomadic ways, the thistle best symbolizes that Scottish diaspora that has brought so much talent to the world and particularly to North America. Many are not aware of the extent of that contribution. The Scots are quiet about their achievements and St. Andrew's Day (November 30th.) passes largely unnoticed by most others. But, for a small country, Scotland has made a great name for itself and people of Scottish heritage have touched every corner of the planet.

We have all heard the better known names like John Muir, Andrew Carnegie, John Paul Jones and Alexander Graham Bell. But countless unnamed individuals have made amazing contributions in their wandering, building and striving. To them I pay tribute. We owe them a great deal.

Thistle down

Scots have been coming to North America for a long time. I am heir to an old tradition. Born in Glasgow, doubly blessed to be Scottish and Glaswegian, I have lived in the United States for more than forty years. My paternal grandfather, also Murdo Morrison, was born in the Isle of Lewis, the Morrison heartland. Speaking Gaelic as a first language he moved to Glasgow to find work. My father, Donald, born in Glasgow, worked as an apprentice in John Brown’s yard, Clydebank, during that time when the the great ocean liners were being built. During World War II he served on the Atlantic and Russian convoys and later worked for another 30 years building ships at Yarrow’s in Scotstoun, Glasgow. I started life under the shadow of shipyard cranes within a stone's throw of the River Clyde.

Through my mother, Ella Morrison, I am linked to the Burnetts of Fraserburgh in the northeast and to the McClartys of Campbelltown in Argyll. My maternal grandfather, Charles Burnett served on all manner of ships, including tankers on the coastal convoys. And now our offspring, all born in the USA, are the latest in the line. We Scots who have wandered from our home soil, transplanted islanders, highlanders and lowlanders, have rich stories to tell. Our collective history is woven into the fabric of Scotland and North America.

For the last few years a thistle has appeared in my garden. Whether brought by a bird or some wayward Scottish spirit, it is left unmolested. I keep its presence quiet and, if anyone asks, explain its existence as food for the birds. But it is really its symbolic power that keeps it in my garden. I doubt if it is a Scottish thistle but I feel that, having found me, it must be close kin to it. It is a quiet sentry guarding my heritage and reminding me of who I am.


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