In the old Celtic mythology, the unicorn symbolized purity and innocence, but also maleness and power. The various tales of chivalry associated with the unicorn may explain why it was chosen as Scotland's national animal, among other things.
All the national animals are the first representations of the spirit of a country. America has the eagle, symbol of freedom. For example, England is represented by the lion, which is a great illustration of strength. And Italy has the wolf, an emblem of solidarity between countries. Scotland's national animal is a little different : it is both mythical and incredibly popular : it is of course the unicorn ! 😊
You may associate unicorns with glitter parties and Rainbow Unicorn School Bag. But the unicorn has been around for a very long time and was once revered more than any other animal, especially in Scottish history ! So what does the unicorn have to do with Scotland ? We try to elucidate this question in this article !
1) The Unicorn in Scottish History
With Scotland's reputation for love and its long history of myths and legends, it is not surprising that a legendary creature like the unicorn is Scotland's national animal. Unicorns are associated with Scotland since the world was born. Although the animal is mythological, the ideals it represents make it the perfect national animal for Scotland, and because like this proud beast, Scots fight to remain undefeated.
The unicorn is often used on the Scottish royal coat of arms by William I in the 13th century. In the 16th century, when King James III was in power, there were gold coins with the head of the unicorn. When Scotland and England united under King James VI in 1603, the Scottish royal coat of arms included two unicorns bearing a shield. When James VI became James I of England and Ireland, he replaced the unicorn to the left of the shield with England's national animal, the lion, to show that the countries were indeed united.
The unicorn representing Scotland in the coat of arms is always depicted surrounded by a golden chain, which can often be seen running around its neck and wrapped around its body. At that time people thought that the unicorn was one of the strongest animals of all time, wild and untamed, and that it could absolutely not be tamed by anyone but a young virgin. The chains represent the power of the Scottish kings, that is, they were so strong that they could tame a unicorn.
2) The Unicorn : the Emblem of Scotland
A) Why is the Unicorn the Emblem of Scotland ?
If you were asked "what is the national animal of Scotland", you might think about some iconic animals. You probably wouldn't think of a magical creature with horns that you usually see in the children's toy department ! To make it short, the unicorn is the official national animal of Scotland. And their love for this famous mythological creature goes back centuries.
Unicorns have been present in many cultures since time immemorial, including the ancient Babylonians and the Indus civilization. With its splendid white horse body and unique spiral-shaped horn, the unicorn is the greatest symbol of purity, innocence and power in Celtic mythology. Legend also tells that their horns can purify poisoned water, as their healing power is so powerful.
These proud and indomitable creatures are fiercely independent and are said to be difficult to capture or tame, which will seem familiar to anyone who has read Scottish history. Although unicorns are mythological, Scots have always felt drawn to them.
Since the 15th century, many Scottish monarchs have used the unicorn in their coats of arms. Kings chose the mythical beast because they considered it to be the best representation of power. In fact, unicorns were believed to be so strong that only kings and virgins could keep them in captivity. Kings could do this because of their divine right to rule and virgins are as pure and innocent as the unicorns themselves.
B) When did the Unicorn become the Emblem of Scotland ?
The answer lies in heraldry - the centuries-old practice of creating and exhibiting coats of arms or blazons to differentiate groups of people, armies or institutions. Using heraldry as a guide, we can see that the unicorn was first introduced into the Royal Arms of Scotland in the mid 15th century.
Before the Union of the Crowns in 1603, the arms of Scotland were supported by two unicorns. However, when King James VI of Scotland became James I of England, he replaced one of the unicorns with England's national animal, the lion, as a sign of unity between the two countries. Of course, lovers of folklore know that lions and unicorns have always been enemies, engaged in a battle for the title of "king of the beasts".
C) Where to find Unicorns in Scotland ?
For thousands of years, people all over the world believed that unicorns existed. However, in 1825, an eminent French naturalist by the name of Georges Cuvier tried to dispel the myth by stating that an animal with a split hoof could never produce a single horn from its head (he also opposed the theories of evolution). Good news the spirit of the unicorn is still alive. Why ? Because people even now celebrate National Unicorn Day every year on April 9 !
So do unicorns exist in Scotland ? Of course they do ! You just have to know where to look. Let's take a look at some places in Scotland where you can see the national emblem !
As you explore Edinburgh, you will see a number of unicorns in different shapes and sizes. There is a fine example on a heraldic shield near the gates of Holyrood Palace, another in the royal flats of Edinburgh Castle, and several hiding among the Victorian wood carvings in St Giles Cathedral, just down the road from Gladstone's Land. Here are some more examples of unicorns to see in Edinburgh :
- Above the Royal Palace fireplace
- At the gates of Holyrood Palace and at the entrance to the Queen's Gallery
- At Mason's Pillars
On murals at Leith promenade and Albert Street.
Wherever you see a "mercat cross" (an ancient symbol of trade and prosperity for many Scottish towns), look for a unicorn at the top of the tower. There are many different examples throughout the country, from the most modest to the most ornate, in cities such as Edinburgh, Culross, Prestonpans, Dunfermline and Falkland.
Further north you will find interesting examples of Scottish unicorns at Stirling Castle, home to the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, and in Dundee, where the HMS Unicorn is the oldest warship in the world, proudly carries a unicorn as its figurehead. In the rest of Scotland, you can see unicorns in a variety of places, here are just a few examples :
- Statues at the entrance to Delgatie Castle
- Life-size model of a unicorn at the Cromarty stables on the Black Island
- Stone unicorns on the gates of St Andrews University
- The "Doulton Unicorn pillar" in Glasgow's Springburn Park
- Mural painting at Shilling Brewing Co in Glasgow
- Mural painting of Bordalo II
D) What is HMS Unicorn ?
The HMS Licorne is a ship that resides in the port of Dundee. She was launched in 1824 and is one of the six oldest ships in the world. What makes this ship magical ? The majestic figurehead of the Unicorn, of course ! It is a symbol of the Scottish Navy, and many Scottish Navy ships have used the same name over the years.
E) National Unicorn Day ?
Yes, there is such a thing as National Unicorn Day ! It is celebrated on 9 April in different ways. While many people are happy to simply put on their favourite sparkling horn headband, Scotland is known for taking a more respectful approach. On Unicorn Day in 2017, artist Woody Fox created a metre-long sculpture of a willow unicorn for Crawick Multiverse in Dumfries and Galloway.
We have just seen together why and since when the unicorn is the emblematic animal of Scotland. As you can see, Scots are proud of their national symbol and you can't really blame them ! So they show it everywhere : on tapestries, coats of arms, statues, on National Unicorn Day etc.
If you are here, it's because you too love unicorns ! The best way to show it is to decorate your home with the mythical horse. To do this, spend some time exploring our website : unicorn-village.com