Scotland's National Animal - The Unicorn

By Sophie 11 months ago 7008 Views No comments

The Unicorn...

The unicorn is a legendary creature, believed to be a powerful, horse-like beast with a large, pointed, spiraling horn projecting from its forehead. The unicorn was depicted in ancient seals of the Indus Valley Civilization and was mentioned by the ancient Greeks in accounts of natural history by various writers, including Ctesias, Strabo, Pliny the Younger, and Aelian. The Bible also describes an animal, the Re'em, which some versions translate as unicorn.

In European folklore, the unicorn is often depicted as a white horse-like or goat-like animal with a long horn and cloven hooves (sometimes a goat's beard). In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it was commonly described as an extremely wild woodland creature and a symbol of purity and grace. In the encyclopedias it's horn was said to have the power to render poisoned water potable and to heal sickness. In medieval and Renaissance times, the tusk of the narwhal was sometimes sold as unicorn horn.

Why the Scots adopted the unicorn...

The unicorn has been a Scottish heraldic symbol since the 12th century, when it was used on an early form of the Scottish coat of arms by William I. Seen as a proud and superior animal who would rather die than be captured, the symbolism of the unicorn resonated with the Scots of the time, who fought to remain sovereign and unconquered.

Notice the two unicorns supporting the royal arms of the King of Scots. Since the 1707 union of England and Scotland, the royal arms of the United Kingdom have been supported by a unicorn along with an English lion. In the rule of King James VI in the early 1700s, in a gesture of unity, he replaced one of the unicorns with an English lion. Note that the lion rampant in the center of the coat of arms does not represent England, as the lion at the top does, but rather the coat of arms of the Clan that ruled Scotland (Scotland's Royal Family), who were the Stewarts.

Two versions of the royal arms now exist: that used in Scotland gives more emphasis to the Scottish elements, placing the unicorn on the left and giving it a crown, whereas the version used in England and elsewhere gives the English elements more prominence.

According to folklore, however, the lion and the unicorn hate each other - a tradition going back to the ancient Babylonians in 3,500 B.C. The fight between the two results from the Unicorn representing spring and the lion representing summer. Each year the two fight for supremacy; and each year the lion eventually wins.

In the case of Scotland and England, as the fight continued, and a popular English nursery rhyme of the period sums up the animosity. It also recalls old wars between England and Scotland:

"The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown;
The lion beat the unicorn
All round about the town."

Golden coins known as the unicorn and half-unicorn, both with a unicorn on the obverse, were used in Scotland in the 15th and 16th century. In the same realm, carved unicorns were often used as finials on the pillars of Mercat crosses, and denoted that the settlement was a royal burgh. Certain noblemen such as the Earl of Kinnoull were given special permission to use the unicorn in their arms, as an augmentation of honour. The crest for Clan Cunningham bears a unicorn head.

A fictitious creature may seem an odd choice for a country's national animal, but perhaps not for a country famed for its love for and long history of myth and legend.