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 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.
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.
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.