The unicorn is the national animal of Scotland.
A country’s ‘National Animal’ should represent the best, and defining, qualities of the nation who chose it.
Scots have a strong sentimental streak under that practical and reserved exterior, and Scottish culture is rich in superstitions, myths and legends.
So, choosing a heraldic symbol as awe-inspiring as the unicorn makes perfect sense!
The stories and legends surrounding the Unicorn go about as far back in history as the human race.
Unicorns were considered to be very rare and precious, a lunar symbol (ie symbolized the moon), and they were given differing characteristics depending on the culture and country that was describing them. These included:
They grew to become an exotic creature… a magnificent horse with cloven hooves, the tail of a lion, and a perfect spiraled horn in the middle of their foreheads.
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!
It was seen as a wild, freedom-loving creature. Fierce, bold, proud and intelligent. Beautiful and courageous. Dangerous if running free and impossible to capture alive – (except if lured into an ambush by a virgin.)
You might notice that when he’s featured on heraldic symbols, the Unicorn often has chains wrapped around him. This is a ‘nod’ to this medieval belief that he was a dangerous creature.
To a country as bold, fierce and proud as Scotland, one that was fighting for it’s independence from ‘oppressors’ this was the perfect choice as the ‘National Animal’ that would appear on heraldic symbols.It’s not quite clear exactly when the Unicorn first appeared in Scottish heraldry, but one of the earliest examples is seen in the ‘Royal Coat of Arms’ at Rothesay Castle which is believed to have been carved sometime before the 15th century.
Before England and Scotland came under joint rule, Scotland’s Coat of Arms featured two Unicorns supporting a shield.
In 1603 the reigning King of Scotland, King James VI, also succeeded Queen Elizabeth 1st of England and become King James the 1st of England. This was known as the Union of the Crowns.
Although the new country of Great Britain did not legally exist for another century, this union seemed to require a new Royal Coat of Arms, and work began on creating the design you see today which features the Unicorn of Scotland on the right, and the English Lion on the left.
This was supposed to symbolize the accepted union of the two countries. In real life the actual union was less than friendly.