The origin of the emblem
All sources regarding the origin of Scotland's national symbol, the thistle, concur, and the legend seems to be endorsed by the motto of the Order of the Thistle itself. This highest honour of Scotland was established by King James V in 1540. He received the honour of the Order of the Garter from his uncle, King Henry VIII. James had also received the honour of the Golden Fleece from the Emperor of France. Such honours perhaps prompted him to create a royal Scottish title, naturally to be bestowed to himself, as well as to twelve of his trusty knights (an immodest allusion to Christ and his twelve Apostles).
Thus the Order of the Thistle came about and became the portal emblem of the King's palace at Linlithgow. The arms contain the motto 'Nemo me impune lacessit' (No one harms me with impunity) or, as the Scots would more familiarly translate it : 'Wha daurs meddle wi me,' which must mean: 'beware who dares meddle with me,' or 'Cha togar m' fhearg gun dìoladh' in Scottish Gaelic.
It's said that the Scottish symbol of the thistle originates from the Celtic era. It's certainly recorded as early as the reign of Alexander III (1249-1286). Later, in 1470, during the reign of James III, the thistle motive was depicted on silver coins.
The motto- 'No one harms (or attacks) me with impunity' - is ironically reflected in the legend of the emblem's origin.
As regions of Scotland were once claimed to be part of the Norwegian realm, a claim most likely to have been dismissed by the early Scottish clansmen whose pride and love of their Highlands would have been just as strong then as it has always been, King Alexander III made a bid to buy back Kintyre and the Western Isles from the Viking King Haakon IV. This bid may have aroused Viking interest in Scotland once more.
In the late summer of 1263 King Haakon sailed with a fleet of his fearsome, finely built long boats. He was determined to make a considerably long voyage in order to surprise, conquer and plunder the entire kingdom of Scotland, which would naturally have included the wealth of King Alexander III himself.
Due to stormy gale force winds, some of the Viking ships ran aground on the beach of Largs, Ayrshire. The undaunted armed Vikings then waded ashore intent on surprising the Scots.
Being aware of the fierceness of the Highlanders, surprise was essential. In order to move silently the Norse men removed their bound footwear, and with the cover of the night's misty darkness they advanced towards where they knew the clansmen were sheltered and sound asleep.
Everything went smoothly and silently according to the Vikings' plans as they confidently and stealthily crept inland, their bare feet sometimes catching the wan light of the moon as it shyly peeped through breaks in the damp mist.
The spongy wet moss and heather made the going soundless and easy. There was no visible obstacle that could possibly prevent them from achieving their goal, and the thought made them grin maliciously, quickening their pace as they quietly drew their swords, secured their shields, and readied their spears.
At this point they came to a wide bed of thistles. It was so unexpected as well as extremely painful on the feet, that those of King Haakon's Norse warriors unfortuante enough to tread on them, couldn't restrain themselves from bellowing out in great pain. Needless to add, this was enough to wake and warn the Highlanders, who quickly reacted and were able to defeat the Vikings at the Battle of Largs, and thus save Scotland from then on.
This is why the thistle, the Highland's purplish-pink and thorny ally, became Scotland's proud emblem. For modest though it may be, the thistle was significant enough to make its presence felt in such an acute way that leaves no doubt about 'Nemo me impune lacessit.'
Text © Mirino, from various sources. Top image (modified by M) Field of thistles by Joe Wigdahl. With thanks. Image (sightly modified) of the Banners of the Knights of the Thistle, St. Giles High Kirk, by Aquilachrysaetos. With thanks, also to Wikimedia Commons.