The Unicorn: Scotland’s Unusual National Animal | History Hit

The Unicorn: Scotland’s Unusual National Animal

'Unicorn' by Maerten de Vos, 1572
Image Credit: Maerten de Vos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

With its white horse-like body and long spiralling horn, the unicorn has long been a creature that represents purity, innocence and power. Throughout the ages, tales of the unicorn have been cultural legend across several civilisations. In particular, Scotland, a nation with a long and rich tradition of myth, folklore and symbolism, has a particularly strong tie to the horned creature, since it is the country’s national animal.

Though a mythical creature, reported unicorn sightings have been recorded throughout history, and the creature is said to have magical powers such as the ability to purify poisoned water with its horn.

So where did stories of the unicorn originate, and how did it come to be Scotland’s national animal?

The legend of the unicorn has existed since antiquity

Ancient civilisations such as the Persians, Egyptians, Indians, Greeks, Babylonians and Indus describe and mention a creature resembling a unicorn, that is often referred to as having magical abilities. Even the Bible references an animal called the re’em, which was later associated with the unicorn.

While the animal didn’t appear in most Greek mythology, it was described by philosophers and writers who truly believed in the animal’s existence, with famous figures such as Strabo claiming that the creature lived in the Caucasus region, while other philosophers believed that it lived in India.

Scotland’s association with the unicorn stems from its ancient Celtic culture, since Celtic mythology associated unicorns with innocence and purity as well as pride, boldness and chivalry. In many cultures, the unicorn was thought to be associated with the moon, and was said to have great healing powers.

Prehistoric animal carvings, thought to be up to 5,000 years old, have been discovered in Scotland for the very first time. The images, which include carvings of two red deer, were found by chance on an ancient burial site in Argyll, called Dunchraigaig Cairn. Dr Tertia Barnett, principle investigator for Scotland’s Rock Art Project at Historic Environment Scotland, is on The Ancients to explain why this incredible new discovery is so significant. Find out what the carvings might mean, how they have been conserved for thousands of years, and why these images rewrite the story of prehistoric rock art in north-west Europe.
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The unicorn is often used to symbolise Jesus

Since its first mention in antiquity, medieval depictions of the unicorn became a beloved symbol in Christian art. For instance, in Domenichino’s The Virgin and the Unicorn (1605), the unicorn is seen asleep in the lap of the Virgin Mary, and represents the incarnation of Christ, a symbol of purity and grace that could only be captured by a virgin.

Similarly, acclaimed 4th-century theologian Bishop Ambrose was one of several early writers to also equate the unicorn with Christ, writing ‘Who is this unicorn but God’s only son?… The only word of God who has been close to God from the beginning.’

The unicorn was first used on a coat of arms in the 12th century

The first recorded use of a unicorn symbol was in the 12th century, when it was adopted by William I on the Scottish Royal Coat of Arms. By the reign of King James III in the 15th century, the unicorn was used on coins which went on to be in circulation for a further century.

The symbol of the unicorn then spread across Scotland, featuring in carvings and sculptures that adorned Mercat Crosses (a marker of a market square) in towns, cities and villages. Since Mercat Crosses were often at the heart of a community, the unicorn represented the nation at the heart of each settlement.

Particular members of the nobility would occasionally be granted permission to use the unicorn in their coat of arms; for instance, the Earl of Kinnoull was honoured with being granted the use of the creature’s image.

His Majesty’s Frigate ‘Unicorn’ (1824) in Dundee. Close-up view of the unicorn sculpture at the head of the ship

Image Credit: Yottanesia, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The Lion and Unicorn combined crest dates to 1603

The symbol of the unicorn became ubiquitous in Scotland, and remained so even when the union of the crowns occurred in 1603, when King James VI of Scotland also became King of England and Ireland until his death in 1625. Upon the union of the nations, the English national animal, the lion, was incorporated side by side with the unicorn. The use of the unicorn alongside the lion contains further symbolism because the creatures have legendary status as natural enemies.

Interestingly, the heraldry of the unicorn features a gold chain which is used to restrain the unicorn. While it isn’t entirely clear why or when the chain first appeared, it is thought that it represents the crown being able to tame the powerful beast, which in turn emphasises the extraordinary power of the Scottish royals.

Unicorns are depicted in many Scottish artworks and artefacts

A number of significant Scottish artworks and artefacts attest to the creature’s cultural significance in Scotland. For instance, tapestries housed in Stirling Castle and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art known as The Hunt of the Unicorn (or, more informally, The Unicorn Tapestries) depict a hunting party chasing and eventually chaining the unicorn, further demonstrating its status as a significant, desirable and near-untameable creature with otherworldly power.

Similarly, the gatepost at famed royal residence Holyroodhouse Palace features a unicorn, while HM Frigate Unicorn in Dundee boasts a unicorn figurehead. Today, National Unicorn Day is held on 9 April.

Lucy Davidson