The Unicorn: Scotland’s National Animal

When it came to picking Scotland’s national animal back in the day, there would have been plenty of choice. Highland cattle, the cheeky Scottish terrier, the red squirrel, or, of course, the majestic golden eagle or red deer stag, to name but a few. Wolves were still numerous in Scotland at the time, so they might have have been likely candidates too, but the powers that be decided to think outside the box and go for something altogether different. Much to the delight of my My Little Pony loving daughter, Scotland’s national animal is the unicorn.

The Unicorn: Scotland's National AnimalThe unicorn has had a connection with Scotland for almost seven hundred years, since King Robert III incorporated a pair of unicorn supporters into the royal coat of arms of Scotland in the late fourteenth century. A carving of his coat of arms can be found above the gateway of Rothesay Castle, the earliest extant example of the unicorn’s inclusion. Robert III took the throne after Scotland had been at war with England for the best part of sixty years in the Wars of Scottish Independence, and it’s thought that the king adopted the mythical beast as the national symbol to draw inspiration from its strength, purity, and freedom as the newly liberated kingdom of Scotland was rebuilt. 

From 1484 to 1526, gold coins were struck bearing a crowned unicorn on one side. They were worth eighteen shillings and nine shillings, and were known as the unicorn and the half-unicorn respectively.  It became the coin most favoured for gifting to ambassadors and emissaries, with one record stating that James IV gave 100 unicorns to Lord Dacre, the English ambassador, in 1503.

The Unicorn: Scotland's National Animal - Coins

When King James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England in 1603, becoming James I of England, he revised the royal arms to include both the Scottish unicorn and the English lion, reflecting the Union of the Crowns. The arms were formally adopted with the Acts of Union in 1707 and remain the royal coat of arms of Scotland and the United Kingdom to this day, with only a few differences between the two – the Scottish arms naturally give more emphasis to the Scottish elements, crowning the unicorn and placing it in the dexter position, on the left, the dexter side being considered the side of greater honour. In the arms of the United Kingdom, the lion is given prominence and placed in the dexter position, and the unicorn is pictured without a crown. 

The Unicorn: Scotland's National Animal

In every version of the arms the unicorn is anchored to the ground by a golden chain that winds around its body. It’s been suggested that the chains were added to the arms after the Acts of Union, and represent England’s power over Scotland, a theory that became particularly popular in the lead up to the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014. In fact, the unicorn was pictured in chains well before the Union of the Crowns, and the chains are simply a nod to its reputation as a wild and dangerous beast.

Whilst it’s most likely that James VI chose the lion and the unicorn as supporters of the royal arms simply because they were the animals most persistently used on the arms of England and Scotland before his reign, I’d like to think that he was also giving a nod to the legendary animosity that existed between the two, an antagonistic relationship that would have been reflected in the relations between the Scots and the English at that time. The meeting of the lion and the unicorn on the arms is perhaps most famously recalled in the eponymous nursery rhyme:

The lion and the unicorn
were fighting for the crown.
The lion beat 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.

Last year, a campaign was launched at the Visit Scotland Expo to make Nessie Scotland’s national animal. Judging by the number of signatures the petition has accrued since the campaign started, I don’t think the unicorn has anything to worry about just yet.


Elder Folklore and Elderberry Syrup

The elder tree is a familiar sight in the Scottish hedgerow, with its flat topped clusters of delicate cream flowers in late spring, followed by bunches of purple-black berries in autumn. It has perhaps the greatest number of practical uses of any plant, and a wealth of folklore and superstition surrounds it, for example:

  • Standing under an elder tree at Beltane, Midsummer or Samhain lets you see the Riders of the Sith
  • The elder is thought to repel malignant spirits and witches, so it is often cultivated near houses, barns and stables. Similarly, wearing elderflowers in your hair affords you the protection of benign spirits and keeps you from harm.
  • The elder is guarded by the elder mother, or Hyldemoer, who lives in the tree and watches over it. Her permission must be sought if you want to cut any wood from her tree, traditionally by saying, “Hyldemoer, let me borrow some of your wood and when I turn into a tree you can have some of mine.” The Hyldemoer’s silence is her consent. A Danish folk tale recounts that a cradle of elder wood was made without the permission of the Hyldemoer, and each time the child for which it was intended was placed in it, the Hyldemoer would pull him out by his legs until eventually the cradle was no longer used.
  • A twig tied into knots and carried in the pocket is a charm against rheumatism.
  • Elder should never be used as firewood because burning it attracts the devil. 

In Scotland, the elder was known as the bour-tree, or bower-tree. The Statistical Account of Killearn, Stirling (1791-99) states:

“The sambucus nigra, (elder tree, Eng.) is no stranger in many places of the parish. Some of the trees are very well shaped, and by the natural bending of the branches cause an agreeable shade, or bower, exhibiting an example of the propriety of the name given to that species of plants in Scotland, namely, the Bower-tree.”

John Jamieson, in the first volume of his Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808) suggests that the elder is in fact the bore-tree:

“…it has received its name from its being hollow within, and thence easily bored by thrusting out the pulp.”

John MacTaggart, in Natural Curiosities of the South of Scotland (1824) notes that hollowed out lengths of the tree were called bowertree-puffs, and were used by the ‘kill-men’, men employed to stoke the fires of the kilns, ‘to blow through, and rouse their seed fires, or fires fed by the husks of corn‘. The branches can also be used to make flutes and whistles, and the bark of the tree was used for chanter reeds before cane became widely available. Somewhat less practically, the hollow lengths were also used for ‘bootrie guns’, blowguns with darts of chewed balls of paper, as recounted by James Chapman Craig in his poem School Days, from 1821

The time wad come when every ane
Wad a ha’e a ‘bootrie-gun’,
An’ chowin’ towe to mak’ the balls
Aye had its slice a’ fun.

The small stature and crooked growth of the elder tree has long thought to have been a punishment inflicted upon it because of its use as the wood of the cross on which Christ was crucified. In The Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1870), Robert Chalmers recounts a rhyme addressed to it:

Bourtree, bourtree, crooked rung.
Never straight, and never strong.
Ever bush and never tree,
since our Lord was nailed to ye!

The elder was also thought to have been the tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself, presumably before it was cursed with smallness or he would have found it rather difficult. The ear shaped fungus, auricularia auricula-judae, most often found on the elder, has the common name Judas’s Ear. The notion that Judas died on an elder was popularised by Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost (Begin, sir; you are my elder / Well followed: Judas was hanged on an elder), and in Cymbeline, it serves as a symbol of grief (and let the stinking elder, grief, untwine).

Hippocrates referred to the elder as his medicine chest because of its wide and varied medicinal benefits, and the berries have been used as a remedy for cold and flu for centuries. In the 17th century a whole book was written about its healing qualities. Numerous studies have proven the anti-bacterial, and anti-viral properties of elderberries, and recent research has shown that they are also anti-inflammatory. They are rich in antioxidants and vitamins C and A, and contain a high level of immune boosting compounds. 

Dr Madeleine Mumcuoglu of Hadassah Medical Centre in Israel found that elderberry disarms the enzyme that viruses use to penetrate healthy cells in the lining of the nose and throat. Taken before infection, the elderberry prevents infection. Taken after infection, it prevents the spread of the virus through the respiratory tract. In a clinical trial, 20% of study subjects taking an elderberry extract reported significant improvement within 24 hours, 70% by 48 hours, and 90% claimed complete cure in three days. In contrast, subjects receiving a placebo required 6 days to recover.

With cold and flu season just around the corner and elderberries ripe on the trees, this is the time to make up a big batch of elderberry syrup. Aside from the health benefits, it’s super cheap to make and tastes amazing. Take it daily throughout the winter months for an immune system boost, or hourly to quickly see off a cold that’s already set it. You can also pour it over ice cream or pancakes, use it as a baking ingredient in muffins or cupcakes, or drink it diluted with fizzy water – or prosecco!

Elderberry Syrup

Elderberry Syrup
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  1. 250g fresh elderberries (you can half this if using dried elderberries)
  2. 1 litre of water
  3. 6 cloves
  4. 2 cinnamon sticks
  5. 2 tbsps fresh ginger, grated
  6. 500ml honey
  1. Place the elderberries, water, cloves, cinnamon, and grated ginger in a pan and bring to the boil. Immediately reduce the heat and simmer for thirty minutes. or until reduced by about half.
  2. Strain the mixture using a cheese cloth or an old pillowcase, being sure to squeeze out all the juice.
  3. Add the honey to the warm mixture and stir until completely combined.
  4. Carefully pour the syrup into glass bottles (it helps to pour it from the pot to a jug first), and keep refrigerated.
  1. Dosage: take 1 tbsp of the syrup daily as a preventative through the colder months, or 1 tbsp per hour if you've already got the lurgy. Reduce the dosage to 1 tsp for children.
  2. NB. If you're picking your own elderberries, be sure to only use the black berries. The green parts of the plant, including the unripe green berries, are mildly poisonous, as are the uncooked berries, so don't try eating them until after they're cooked!
Wee White Hoose

Bramble Ramble: Folklore and Jam

I must be honest, we spent a good chunk of Spring ripping out almost all the brambles from our garden. The previous owners of our wee white hoose had been elderly, and from what we can gather they had just left the garden to go to seed once the house was on the market, so the grounds were all pretty wild and almost entirely overgrown by the time we moved in. I hadn’t considered that we were getting rid of about ten kilos of hypothetical blackberries, I was focused only on clearing enough thicket to make space for chickens. Luckily – I think? – the small section of the garden that we left to go wild over the summer is now a tangled mass of arching bramble shoots, so when the wee one and I went out to forage for berries yesterday we weren’t disappointed.


After an hour of picking we had almost a kilo of bramble berries, plus a quart of elderberries from a tree in our local woodland park, just down the road from us. I’m going to leave those to ripen for a couple of days before using them to make elderberry syrup. 

Yesterday morning we went on a guided walk with the North Ayrshire Countryside Ranger, learning about foraging, and about native plants and trees and their associated folklore. I think Esme’s favourite part was finding out how to measure the height of any tree with nothing more than a stick and her own two feet. I particularly enjoyed the folklore bits, of course. Did you know that the Celts equated hazelnuts with wisdom and poetic inspiration, for example? Me neither!

The most common folk tale surrounding brambles is the warning not to eat the fruit after Michaelmas Day, the feast of the archangel Saint Michael, as this is the day on which he cast Lucifer out of heaven, and Lucifer landed in a bramble thicket and cursed the brambles, and spat on them. In a similar story from Greek mythology, the arrogant Bellerophon dared to ride Pegasus to the heights of Mount Olympus, enraging the Gods. Zeus sent a gadfly to sting Pegasus, who bucked and sent Bellerophon flying through the sky until he eventually landed in a bramble bush, which blinded him. He lived the rest of his life as an outcast, in misery.

In Scottish mythology, it is the bogle who spits, or even pees on the bramble berries to discourage you from eating them. Similar to the English puck, and the Irish púca, a bogle is, ‘a freakish spirit, who delights rather to perplex and frighten mankind than either to serve or seriously to hurt them‘ (from Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales, by George Douglas). In Popular Tales of the West Highlands, J. F. Campbell tells of a young baron of Badenoch who stumbles across a bogle with a red hand, dripping with bramble juice. The baron reports the bogle for stealing fruit, and the creature is punished. After receiving his punishment, the bogle, in his rage, returns to the brambles and defiles them. 

As always, these folk tales have their roots in common sense. By Michaelmas the bramble berries, having been out for a couple of months, become flyblown and start to rot. They can subsequently be infected by various moulds, rendering them inedible, and the bitter taste of the tannin in the fruit becomes much stronger and unpleasant.

Esme and I broke the cardinal rule and picked our berries on the 14th of October, but in our defence, all of our home grown produce has been about a month late this year because of the cold spell in the summer, and it seems that brambles are no different. I can assure you they tasted fantastic, regardless of the date. We used ours to make jam.


Bramble Jam with Apple and Cinnamon
Yields approximately 5 450g jars.
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Prep Time
15 min
Cook Time
30 min
Prep Time
15 min
Cook Time
30 min
  1. 600g cooking apples, peeled and chopped
  2. 125ml water
  3. 600g blackberries
  4. 2 heaped tsps ground cinnamon
  5. 1kg granulated sugar
  6. juice of 1 lemon
  7. 1/2 tsp butter
  1. Wash your bramble berries, picking out any foliage or twigs. Leave to drain in a sieve or colander while you prep your jars.
  2. Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F. Clean 5 450g glass jars and lids, scrubbing them in hot soapy water and rinsing well. Place the wet jars in the oven to dry out. Turn off the oven after ten minutes and leave the jars in there until you're ready to use them - keeping the jars hot ensures the glass won't crack when you pour the hot jam into them.
  3. Put a few small plates into the freezer. You'll use these for testing the setting point of the jam.
Cooking instructions
  1. Add the chopped apples and the water to a large pan and warm over medium heat for a few minutes. Add the bramble berries and cinnamon. Cook for five minutes, or until the bramble berries have released their juices.
  2. Add the sugar and the lemon juice to the pan and stir well until the sugar has completely dissolved (about five minutes).
  3. Bring the mixture to a boil, and maintain a rolling boil (approx 104°C) for 15 minutes.
  4. Take one of your small plates out of the freezer and spoon a teaspoon of hot jam on to it. Allow it to cool, then run a finger through the centre of your jam puddle. If the jam is set, it will hold its shape and the channel you made with your finger will remain clear. If the channel floods, your jam is too runny. Return it to the heat for a few minutes before testing it again.
  5. Once your jam has reached setting point, turn off the heat and add the half teaspoon of butter to the pan. Stir until dissolved. The butter causes any scum or foam that formed on the surface of the jam to dissipate.
  6. Take your jars out of the oven and place on a heat proof mat. Carefully fill the jars with the jam mix. I find it easiest to first tip the hot jam into a large measuring jug, and fill the jars from that. Screw the lids on tightly.
  1. Your jam should last for about eight weeks once opened, or two years unopened.
Wee White Hoose



Fifty Day Drawing Challenge

It occurred to me last night that we’re now closer to the end of the year than we are to the start – that’s terrifying! Where have the last six months gone? Despite my brief panic I do love this time of year when the evenings seem endless, the rain occasionally stays off all day, and the girls finish school for the summer. A calm descends on the house as it sinks in that the seven o’clock alarms can be turned off for eight weeks and they can get stuck in to the ridiculously long list of the things that they vowed they would get round to doing in the holidays (they never manage to tick everything off!). We’ve decided to do a drawing challenge this year, fifty days long to take us right through the holidays. As with every challenge, there are, of course, some very stringent rules. 

Fifty Day Drawing Challenge – The Rules

1. Draw a thing that relates to the day’s word from the challenge list. Do this at least once a day, using whatever materials you feel like using.  

Yup, that’s it. You can download a printable list of challenge words from here. If you decide to take part, tag any photos with #50daydraw so I can keep up with you. Happy drawing :)

Fifty Day Drawing Challenge