Sandy’s Garden ... Scotland’s National Flower

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One of the side effects of the up-and-coming referendum on Scotland’s independence has been a small amount of interest in nominating a national flower for Scotland.

Many people believe that Scotland already has a national flower, the thistle. But, while there is a good case to declare that the thistle is the national emblem of Scotland, I don’t believe that it can be called the national flower. That title … which, I think, is not vacant … seems to belong to the Scottish bluebell. So far, so good. But an admittedly very subdued debate has arisen about exactly which flower can properly be termed the Scottish bluebell. There are two contenders … Campanula rotundifolia, commonly called auld man’s bells, dead man’s bells, blaewort, blue blavers, bluebell, gowk’s thummles, fairies’ thimbles, witch bells, witch’s thimbles among many other local names … and Hyacinthoides non-scripta, commonly called the bluebell in England.

My trusted and well-thumbed copy of ‘Collins Pocket Guide to the Wildflowers of Britain and Northern Europe’ describes Campanula rotundifolia thus: “Harebell: slender, short/medium, hairless. Basal leaved roundish, withering early. Stem leaves linear, the unstalked. Flowers blue, 12 – 20 mm, in loose clusters on long, thin stalks; petal-lobes short; July – October. Dry grassland, heaths. Also known as Bluebell in Scotland.” The description of Hyacinthoides non-scripta is very similar, the most obvious difference being that this latter plant is described as ‘a carpeting perennial,’ although, to continue the confusion, it is commonly called the ‘bluebell.’

To an ordinary mortal like myself, who is not greatly interested in the technical description of plants, the distinction between the low-growing Hyacinthoides non-scripta, which carpets the ground, and Campanula rotundifolia, which stands more erect, will suffice to differentiate between the two. And the many local Scots names bestowed on Campanula rotundifolia are sufficient to persuade me that this is the flower seen by our ancestors as the national flower of Scotland where, as well as being associated with humility and gratitude, it is seen as a symbol of everlasting love.

This latter attribute is rather hard to explain, for many of the common names for what I shall henceforward call the Scottish bluebell betray our ancestors’ beliefs about the plant. Fairies’ thimbles is the most obvious reference to their belief that the fairy folk had a special, interest in them, using them as bells to summon fellow-fairies to conventions. This belief led to the natural supposition that the fairy folk would be very upset if a mere mortal rang the bells by picking or even touching the flowers, which in turn meant that it was very unlucky to do so. Other names … the most obvious being auld man’s bells … reveal a belief that Scottish bluebells were associated with the devil, the ‘auld man’ of that common name being Auld Nick himself. From this came the supposition that hearing the bluebells ring was a certain omen of an impending death in the family. Taken together, these superstitions explain why Scottish bluebells were thought to render the veil betwixt the reality of our world and the mystery of the unknown world inhabited by fairies and demons well-nigh transparent; so it was not a good idea to meddle with these beautiful flowers. This meant, of course, that when Scottish bluebells were found near the dwellings of our ancestors they were left strictly alone and allowed to flourish wherever they chose. Sadly, in my view, we are less protective of our national flower than our ancestors were, although the legislation which bans the picking or digging up of wild flowers nowadays does offer protection to Scotland’s national flower.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society