What is Scotland’s National Animal? The Unicorn's Tale in Scottish Culture and Art

scotlands national symbol

Introduction to Scottish Symbols

When you think of Scotland, images of rugged castles, bagpipes, the Loch Ness Monster, and of course, the distinctive tartan will likely spring to mind. Each of these play an important role in the history and culture of a richly faceted nation. But, standing proud among these symbols is one especially intriguing figure that may not immediately come to mind: Scotland's national animal. And no, contrary to woolly belief, it is not the sheep. Get ready to be enchanted by a creature as spirited as the Scots themselves—the unicorn!

Historical Context

It’s a surprise to many that the land known for its hardy highlanders and misty moors has chosen not the stalwart stag or the majestic golden eagle, but a mythical horse with a spiraling horn as its national symbol. The unicorn galloped into Scottish heraldry in the 12th century when it was first used on the Scottish royal coat of arms by William I. It has been a symbol of purity, innocence, and power ever since. I mean, eagles and lions are great, but having a unicorn as our national animal? Now that's pure Scottish genius—always expect the unexpected!

But why would a nation pick a mythical beast to represent its essence? The answer lies as much in the unicorn’s storied past as it does in Scotland’s love for the mystical.

In Scottish mythology, the unicorn was revered, a creature of benevolence and boldness, not unlike the Scottish spirit. It's said to have the power to vanquish evil, and its horn could purify poisoned water—an emblem of good conquering evil. The choice of the unicorn, therefore, speaks of Scotland's aspiration towards purity, strength, and independence. A fierce, free-spirited animal that's never been tamed is exactly the type of creature to best represent its people.

picture of capitol hill edinburgh

Connection to Scottish Culture and Art

The animal often makes an appearance in Scottish artworks—gracing tapestries, illuminating manuscripts, and enhancing sculptures. The unicorn evokes a sense of fantasy amidst tradition, weaving the myth into the fabric of Scottish life.

Its symbol can be seen all across Scotland, including some of the oldest and most prominent organizations and buildings. For example, the unicorn is part of the logo for The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, one of the oldest surgical corporations in the world, and can be found in statues and engraved in gates and doorways at the Palace of Holyrood house, the Monarchy’s official residence in Scotland.

Perhaps the most important place of all the unicorn can be seen is on the British coat of arms. The royal coat of arms has showcased the unity of Scotland and England since 1603, with the Scottish unicorn on one flank and the English lion on the other. Interestingly the unicorn appears chained — perhaps a representation of a powerful entity that is so strong it needs to be entrapped. No one really knows the reason why it appears chained but one thing for sure is that unicorns aren't just a flight of fancy in Scottish culture; they symbolize a heritage deep-rooted in valour and strength.

royal coat of arms

Modern References

In today's Scotland, the unicorn is as relevant as ever. From souvenirs collected by travellers to peering out from the pages of children's storybooks, the unicorn is an enduring emblem of Scottish identity. Its image is still used to captivate and charm, and it can be spotted not only in tourist hotspots but also in the proud displays of Scots who honour their heritage. And if you’re really, really lucky, you may just see one - once on a misty Highland morning last November, I spotted a unicorn, bold as you like, grazing on thistle on the moors. I blinked, and poof! It disappeared. Of course, maybe it was just the mist playing tricks on my eyes again...

a picture of misty scottish highlands

From its ancient origins to its proud place on the Scottish coat of arms, the unicorn transcends mere mythology. In the world of Scottish art, the interplay of legendary creatures with traditional fabrics like tartan and plaid is a celebration of a culture steeped in history and imagination. This connection underscores not just a national identity but a world where myth and fabric are seamlessly interwoven. At Palmer Designs we embody this legacy—where every plaid pattern holds a story, and every artwork is a tribute to the untamed spirit of Scotland, as symbolized by our national animal, the unicorn.

We’re eager to hear your thoughts and stories about Scotland's captivating unicorn! Drop us a comment below with your thoughts and stories.



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