The Unicorn of Scotland
The Unicorn of Scotland might sound an unlikely choice to be the national animal, and a heraldic symbol, of a country that's not considered to be exotic in any sense.
But, you may be surprised to know that Scottish culture is rich in superstitions, myths and legends, and that the Scottish people themselves have a strong sentimental streak under that practical and reserved exterior!
When you realize all of that, then the Scottish Unicorn, although still intriguing, becomes a bit less surprising.
The Unicorn - History & Legends
The stories and legends surrounding the Unicorn go about as far back in history as the human race.
Although often thought of as imaginary, or purely mythical animals, perhaps these beautiful creatures really did exist. The ancient Persians, the Romans, the Greek philosophers, even ancient Jewish scholars, all describe a horse-like creature who's single, beautiful horn had magical properties that could heal any disease or illness.
They were considered very rare and precious, and seem to have existed in many different countries including Greece, Persia (now Iran), Egypt, India and Africa.
In the 5th Century AD, interpretation of a passage in the Hebrew Old Testament described an animal that scholars believed was a Unicorn.
This may be the beginning of this mythical creatures' association with Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, the basis for the legends that claimed only a Virgin could tame the Unicorn, and its' popularity in Christian Art, particularly during the Middle Ages.
Although the Unicorn of Scotland is a popular Scottish heraldic symbol, Unicorns have been associated with Royalty and heraldry since at least the time of the Romans.
As the Unicorns' image grew in popularity, he was given all sorts of physical characteristics, and went through several 'up-grades' until he finally resembled the creature you're probably seeing in your imagination right now ... a magnificent horse, with a lions' tail, cloven hooves, and a single, perfect, spiraled horn in the middle of his forehead.
His personality traits went through a similar process, although the core temperament and characteristics were embellished, rather than changed.
The Unicorn of Scotland - A Heraldic Symbol
In Celtic Mythology the Unicorn of Scotland symbolized innocence and purity, healing powers, joy and even life itself. It was also seen as a symbol of masculinity and power. Two sides of the same coin as it were, a blend of male virility and female nurturing - perhaps the perfect mix!
Other countries and cultures also recognized the Unicorn and believed in its' incredible powers.
It was thought of as a wild, freedom-loving creature. Fierce, bold, proud and intelligent. Impossible to capture alive, except if lured into an ambush by a virgin - another reference perhaps to the Virgin Mary connection.
Historians believe that written accounts of Unicorns appear as early as the first century AD, but probably the most well-known description of the Scottish Unicorn (or any Unicorn for that matter) is the one written during the 17th Century by John Guillim in his 'Displays of Heraldry'....
The greatness of his mind is such that he rather chooseth to die than be taken alive: wherin the unicorn and the valiant-minded soldier are alike, which both contemn death, and rather than they will be compelled to undergo any base servitude or bondage they will lose their lives.'
When exactly the Unicorn of Scotland first appeared as a Scottish heraldic symbol isn't certain, but the two Unicorns that appear as part of the 'Royal Coat of Arms' at Rothesay Castle are believed to have been carved sometime before the 15th Century.
During the reign of King James III (1466 - 1488), gold coins were introduced that also featured a Unicorn.
Before Scotland and England came under joint rule, Scotlands' Royal Coat of Arms featured two Unicorns supporting the shield, while Englands' featured various beasts, usually including a majestic Lion.
In the 16th Century, King James IV of Scotland became 'King James VI & I' when he married Margaret Tudor of England, assumed the English throne and became King of the whole of 'Great Britain'.
This new 'country' (Great Britain) needed a new Royal Coat of Arms, and it was designed with the Unicorn of Scotland on the right, and the English Lion on the left.
This symbolized the union of the two countries, but the actual union was less than friendly, and this conflict was immortalized in the well-known British Nursery Rhyme 'The Lion & The Unicorn'....
Were fighting for the Crown;
The lion chased the unicorn
All around the town.
Some gave them white bread,
and some gave them brown
Some gave them plum cake
And drummed them out of town.'
Another famous poem, 'The Thrissil and the Rois' (The Thistle and the Rose') was written by Scottish poet William Dunbar, to commemorate the marriage of King James IV & I and Margaret Tudor. Visit our Scottish Thistle page to learn more about this Scottish symbol.
At the beginning of this page I said that at first glance the Unicorn of Scotland may seem an odd choice for the countrys' national animal.
But, now that you know a bit more about the Unicorn, it's history and the legends that surround it, you can see how the personality traits and characteristics of this beautiful, wild and courageous beast actually make it a 'perfect fit'.
NOTE: A little bit of information here, that's not related to the Scottish Unicorn but is interesting all the same, is that King James IV & I also designed a new flag for Great Britain, combining the flag of scotland, the Scottish Saltire, with Englands red cross of St. Andrew, to produce the 'Union Jack'.