In accordance with tradition, knights are appointed to the Order of the Thistle on the feast of Scotland’s patron saint, the Apostle Andrew, but they are not formally installed until the following summer when the Queen is in residence at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. And so this past July, the ‘Thistle Service’ took place at St. Giles’, the High Kirk of Edinburgh, and two new knights were inducted into Scotland’s highest honour and most exalted order of chivalry.
The knights, dames, and officers, dressed in their flowing velvet mantles of green along with their hats and collars, gather across Parliament Square in the Library of the Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet (Scotland’s professional body of solicitors), part of the Parliament House complex that long ago housed the kingdom’s legislature, and is now home to her courts. In Parliament Square itself, the Royal Company of Archers (the Queen’s Body Guard for Scotland) forms a guard of honour and is accompanied by the band of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.
When the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh arrive, the Chancellor of the Thistle and the Dean of the Thistle accompany them to the Signet Library to join the other knights. They then process to St. Giles’ where the Thistle Service takes place. A short reception usually follows back in the Signet Library before the members of the Order retire to the Palace of Holyroodhouse and enjoy a proper luncheon as guests of the Sovereign.
The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle has a long and varied history, though precisely how long is a matter of some dispute. The oldest tradition is that Achaius King of Scots was engaging the Saxon king Aethelstan in battle at Aethelstaneford when the Cross of Saint Andrew appeared in the sky in A.D. 786. After achieving a victory, Achaius founded the Order of the Thistle under the patronage of the saint. Another story posits Achaius as founding the order in 809 in commemoration of an alliance with the Emperor Charlemagne, while another battle-related story has Robert the Bruce re-instituting the order after Bannockburn. James III (1451–1458) certainly adopted the thistle as his personal emblem and may have established the order. Perhaps more likely is that James V, who was a member of the Order of Golden Fleece and France’s Order of St. Michael, created it since Scotland had no order of chivalry along the lines of other kingdoms of the day.
What is certain is that James VII on May 29, 1687 issued letters patent “reviving and restoring the Order of the Thistle to its full glory, lustre and magnificency”. (King James, you will recall, was the man after whom New York is named). The King of Scotland was the Sovereign of the Order, and twelve knights were to be appointed, later expanded to sixteen. Queens were originally excluded unless it was a queen regnant, but George VI made his queen a member in 1937, and in 1987 Elizabeth II allowed women to become regular members of the Order of the Thistle (doing the same for England’s Order of the Garter at the same time). Outside the sixteen-member limit are a small number of extra knights from the ranks of the Royal Family.
Aside from the Sovereign and the knights, there are a number of officers appointed. The Dean of the Thistle is given the style of “The Very Reverend” and from 1886 until 1969 the Dean of the Chapel Royal was given this role, now wisely separate. The Chancellor is usually appointed from among the knights and tends to be one of the more senior members. The Gentleman Usher of the Green Rod is the order’s usher and the office is usually granted to a retired military man with a long record of service. Lord Lyon King of Arms, Scotland’s senior herald, is the King of Arms of the Order of the Thistle. There is also a Secretary of the Order, although Lord Lyon is almost always appointed to this office as well.
When the Order of the Thistle was created (or re-created) in 1687, the King directed that the Abbey Church at Holyrood be converted into a chapel for the order. The classical design of the chapel’s fittings (above) reflected the vogue of the day, but fit poorly with the gothic design of the former Benedictine abbey. James VII was deposed by the Whig coup a year later, however, and rioters sacked the church and destroyed its interior.
In 1911, a new Thistle Chapel (above) was inaugurated at St. Giles’ to the design of the noted Scots architect Robert Lorimer (father to the sculptor Hew and brother to the painter John Henry Lorimer). Each knight has a stall in the chapel, but the armorial banners are hung in the body of the cathedral itself rather than in the chapel. In each stall is a metal plate depicting the arms and name of the knight who occupied the particular stall from the construction of the chapel onwards. (Just outside the chapel are inscribed all the names of the members of the Order up to 1911). The current members vary widely in their origins. The knight with the highest seniority is Andrew Douglas Alexander Thomas Bruce, 11th Earl of Elgin and 15th Earl of Kincardine and a Scottish nobleman of long lineage. The most recent knight appointed is Narendra Babubhai Patel, Baron Patel who, since he was born in Tanganyika to Indian parents, is both the first African Scot and the first Asian Scot to be raised to the Order of the Thistle.
The Earl of Elgin and Kincardine
The Earl of Airlie
The Viscount of Arbuthnott
The Earl of Crawford & Balcarres
Lady Marion Fraser
The Lord Macfarlane of Bearsden
The Lord Mackay of Clashfern
The Lord Wilson of Tillyorn
The Lord Sutherland of Houndwood
Sir Eric Anderson
The Lord Steel of Aikwood
The Lord Robertson of Port Ellen
The Lord Cullen of Whitekirk
Sir Garth Morrison
The Lord Hope of Craighead
The Lord Patel of Dunkeld
The Duke of Edinburgh
The Duke of Rothesay
The Princess Royal
Gilleasbuig Iain Macmillan
The Earl of Airlie
Rear Admiral Christopher Hope Layman
Gentleman Usher of the Green Rod
King of Arms & Secretary