We are known for our love of legends in Scotland, from ghosts and witches to massive sea serpents. How did the unicorn become our national symbol?
Why is the unicorn the national animal of Scotland?
If we asked you, “What is Scotland’s national animal?” you might consider a few of our most recognizable species. You probably wouldn’t think of a magical creature with horns commonly depicted on children’s lunchboxes!
However, it is true that the unicorn is Scotland’s official national animal. Our affection for this well-known mythical creature dates back centuries.
Since the classical era, unicorns have been a part of numerous cultures, including those of the ancient Babylonians and the Indus civilization. In Celtic mythology, the unicorn’s white horse-like body and single spiraling horn represent purity, innocence, and power. Legend also states that their horns have the ability to purify poisoned water, such is their healing power.
These fiercely independent creatures are notoriously difficult to capture or subdue, which will sound familiar to anyone who has studied Scottish history. Despite the fact that unicorns are a myth, Scots have always been drawn to what they represent.
When did Scotland first start using unicorns?
Heraldry, the age-old practice of designing and displaying coats of arms or crests to distinguish between groups of people, armies, or institutions, is the answer to this question. Using heraldry as a guide, we can determine that the unicorn was first added to the Scottish royal coat of arms in the mid-1500s.
Prior to the Union of the Crowns in 1603, our coat of arms featured two unicorns as support. As a sign of unity between the two countries, when King James VI of Scotland also became James I of England, he replaced one of the unicorns with the lion, the national animal of England. Folklore enthusiasts are well aware that lions and unicorns have always been rivals, vying for the title of “king of beasts.”
Notably, Scottish unicorns in heraldry are always depicted with gold chains wrapped around their necks. Why? It is believed that this was a way of demonstrating the power of Scottish kings by demonstrating that only they had the ability to tame the wild.
Where can unicorns be found in Scotland?
For millennia, people around the globe believed that unicorns existed. Georges Cuvier, a prominent French naturalist, attempted to dispel the myth in 1825 by stating that an animal with a split hoof could never develop a single horn on its head (he also argued against theories of evolution). Since then, however, the spirit of the unicorn has endured; National Unicorn Day is celebrated annually on April 9th.
So… exist unicorns in Scotland? Obviously they do! You need only know where to look. Here are some locations in Scotland where you can spot the national animal of our nation:
When exploring Edinburgh, you will encounter a variety of unicorns of varying sizes. There is a fine example on a heraldic shield outside the gates of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, another in the Royal Apartments of Edinburgh Castle, and several hidden among the Victorian woodcarvings at St Giles’ Cathedral, just down the road from Gladstone’s Land.
Look for a unicorn atop the tower of every mercat cross (a Scottish market cross and an ancient symbol of trade and prosperity in many of our towns). In cities and towns such as Edinburgh, Culross, Prestonpans, Dunfermline, and Falkland, there are numerous examples ranging from the simple to the elaborate.
Stirling Castle, home of the ‘Hunt of the Unicorn’ tapestries, and Dundee, where HMS Unicorn, one of the oldest warships, proudly displays a unicorn as its figurehead, offer interesting examples of Scottish unicorns.
There are unicorns in our collections.
As part of our historic collections, there are also a large number of unicorns being cared for at Trust sites.
In the wine cellar of Brodick Castle, there is a silver-gilt cup with three oval plaques depicting a lion, a bear, and a unicorn. Another unicorn is included in the royal coat of arms of the House of Hanover, which is featured prominently on a gilt military gorget (a type of metal collar) at Castle Fraser.
Topic: The unicorn – Scotland’s national animal
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