exploring stories, traditions, and folklore from Scotland

The Unicorn: Scotland’s National Animal

Reading Time: 4 minutes

With over 90,000 species inhabiting Scotland’s land, seas, and skies, there would have been no shortage of choice when it came to choosing the country’s national animal back in the day: highland cattle, the cheeky Scottish terrier, or the red squirrel, not to mention the majestic golden eagle or awe-inspiring red deer stag. The intelligent and fiercely loyal wolf was still roaming Scotland until the 18th century so they might 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 Little Pony fans everywhere, Scotland’s national animal is the unicorn.

The unicorn has had a connection with Scotland for almost seven hundred years since King Robert III (1337-1406) incorporated a pair of unicorns into the royal coat of arms of Scotland in the late fourteenth century. The unicorns support a shield, symbolic of the country remaining unconquered. A carving of his coat of arms can be found above the gateway of Rothesay Castle, the oldest surviving example of the unicorn’s inclusion. Robert III came to 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 he adopted the mythical beast for 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. These were worth eighteen shillings or nine shillings and were known as the unicorn and the half-unicorn respectively. The unicorn became the coin most favoured for gifting to ambassadors and emissaries. One record states that James IV presented 100 unicorns to Lord Dacre, the English ambassador, in 1503, enough money to pay a skilled tradesman’s wage for eight years.

When 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 – the unicorn bears a crown and is placed in the dexter position, on the left, the dexter side being considered the position of greater honour. In the arms of the United Kingdom, the lion is given prominence and placed in the dexter position, wearing the crown.

The Unicorn: Scotland's national animal. An illustration showing the coat of arms of Scotland and England in order to compare the two

In each version of the arms, the unicorn is anchored to the ground by a gold chain that winds around its body. It’s been suggested that the chains were added 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 shackled well before the Union of the Crowns, and the chains are simply a nod to its reputation as a wild and ferocious beast, the strongest of all creatures.

Undoubtedly, James VI chose the lion and the unicorn to support the royal arms because they were the animals most persistently used on the arms of England and Scotland before his reign. However, I like to think that he was also giving a nod to the legendary animosity that existed between the two beasts, 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.

And when he had beat him out,
He beat him in again;
He beat him three times over,
His power to maintain.

In 2015 the Visit Scotland Expo started a petition to install Nessie as Scotland’s national animal (it didn’t get very far), and in recent years various wildlife organisations have suggested that the critically endangered Scottish wildcat would be a worthy replacement, but in this liminal time when the calls for a further Scottish independence referendum grow louder and louder, the unicorn – strong, dominant, governed by reason, and a little mad – seems to me to remain the perfect choice.