WEEK THIRTY-SIX – Heather/Thistle

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heather                thistle


Think of a plant that represents Scotland and ‘the noble thistle’ will inevitably spring immediately to mind. But close behind it must be ‘the bonnie purple heather’. Calluna vulgaris, common heather or ling is simply heather in everyday parlance. Although the dominant plant in most heathland in Europe, it has come to be popularly associated with the mountains and moors of Scotland, a symbol of the abiding appeal of The Highlands. While white heather is regarded as a lucky charm, the common plant gives rise to many products from heather honey to heather ale. A very different plant, the thistle is equally widespread being native to Europe and Western Asia. The origin of the plant as an emblem of Scotland, which it has been since the 13th century, likely stems from it being an ancient Celtic symbol for nobility of character. But there is also the unlikely story from the days of Viking incursions, when the Scots defenders were supposedly alerted by the invaders treading on thistles and crying out in pain. Thankfully, it was the jaggy thistle that was doing its work for the nation then – had it been the more benign heather, who knows what might have transpired!

A Cultural Landscape
by Jacob Polley

o bilberry-rich birch wood
o heath understorey

by girsit, by scythin, by fire
thon place is kent

where pine trees stood

Melancholy Thistle, Garvald Quarry
by Vicki Feaver

Your tribe is famous
for its gregariousness
and ferocity.

You’re the odd one out –
spike-less, solitary,
a great big softie.

An apothecary’s cure
for melancholy,
not melancholy yourself,

a watcher, not a joiner-in,
you stand sentinel
at the edges of fields

shaking your huge
and heavy head
and quietly laughing.


The Melancholy Thistle is said by some to have been the original badge of the House of Stuart, instead of the Cotton Thistle. Garvald Quarry is a stone’s throw from Brownsbank where Hugh MacDiarmid wrote ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’.



Jacob Polley was born in Cumbria. His poetry and fiction is published by Picador and has won both the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award. Jacob has a fourth book of poems, Jackself, out in November 2016. He was previously a lecturer in creative writing at the University of St Andrews, and he now teaches at Newcastle University.


vicki-feaver-credit-caroline-forbesVicki Feaver moved to Dunsyre, South Lanarkshire in 2000. She previously taught creative writing at the University of Chichester where she is now Emeritus Professor. She has published three main collections of poetry: Close Relatives (Secker 1981), The Handless Maiden (Cape 1994) and The Book of Blood (Cape 2006). She was one of the poets invited to write on the themes of older age by the Baring Foundation, and her poems on the subject can be found in the resulting anthology, Second Wind (Saltire Society, 2015).

Images courtesy of;
Vicki Feaver photo courtesy of Caroline Forbes

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