According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, the Unicorn was a mythological animal resembling a horse or a goat with a single horn on its forehead. The unicorn appeared in early Mesopotamian artworks, and it also was referred to in the ancient myths of India and China. The earliest description in Greek literature of a single-horned (Greek monokerōs, Latin unicornis) animal was by the historian Ctesias (c. 400 BCE), who related that the Indian wild ass was the size of a horse, with a white body, purple head, and blue eyes, and on its forehead was a cubit-long horn coloured red at the pointed tip, black in the middle, and white at the base. Those who drank from its horn were thought to be protected from stomach trouble, epilepsy, and poison. It was very fleet of foot and difficult to capture. The actual animal behind Ctesias’s description was probably the Indian rhinoceros.
In a piece by Jessica Brain, published in Historic UK, she states that across ancient civilisations ranging from the Persians, the Egyptians, Indians and Greeks, such a creature was described and recorded, often with magical connotations. Even the Bible makes a record of an animal called the re’em which has been later associated with the unicorn.
Whilst the animal did not appear in the vast volumes of Greek mythological tales, it was cited by philosophers and writers who believed in the reality of such a creature, with figures such as the famous Greek geographer Strabo claiming such creatures lived in the Caucasus region, whilst other philosophers were convinced of their existence in India. Whatever the location, the sighting of such an animal was a rare and mystical event. Often associated with the moon and believed to have great healing powers, the unicorn quickly acquired different meanings in different cultures.
Interestingly, according to the National Museums of Scotland, is the fact that ‘unicorns’ did actually roam the earth not that long ago. A recent study led by Professor Adrian Lister, Merit Researcher at the Natural History Museum, has shown that Elasmotherium Sibericum was a distant relative of the modern rhinoceros. It had a horn which sprouted from the middle of its forehead and had survived far longer than initially thought, disappearing only 40,000 years ago.
However, although the depiction of the Elasmotherium doesn’t quite fit the romantic concept of the mythological creature that we know and love, nor the one that is depicted in our heraldry, it may have actually been the progenitor of the unicorn legend which started it all.
In the coming centuries, the medieval depiction of a unicorn became a much beloved symbol in Christian art and even today, the unicorn holds resonance as a fantastical delightful creature which has captured the imagination of generations of people.
The Scottish Unicorn
The national animal of Australia is the Red Kangaroo; of Canada, the North American Beaver; and the United States of America, the American Bison. The mythical Unicorn is the national animal of Scotland. It has been used since the time of William (the Lion) who reigned from 1165 – 1224, and holds a special place in the heart and soul of the Scottish nation.
According to the Scottish Tourist site; Visit Scotland, the unicorn was first used on the Scottish Royal coat of arms by William I. in the 12th century.
Regarding why it was used, the National Museums of Scotland tell us that in the 15th century, most of the European nobility were adopting animal emblems, often wild and uncommon ones (the lion for the kings of England, the porcupine for the kings of France, the eagle in Spain, etc.). In Scotland, James I went for the unicorn but we don’t really know why.
Some have said it is because the unicorn was the mortal enemy of the lion, but this idea doesn’t really develop until the 17th century, when the Lion and the Unicorn had to live together after the union of the crowns. It could have been because, in medieval novels, Bucephalus, the horse of Alexander the Great, was often depicted as a unicorn. Some other medieval legends said only kings could hold a unicorn captive, and the choice of the animal could have been urged by the memory of James I’s captivity. The unicorn was therefore believed to be the strongest of all animals – wild and untamed.
Whatever the reason for its adoption, the unicorn then starts to become a frequent sight in Scotland. It bore the arms of Scotland on the seals, and James III chose it as the emblem adorning the gold coins he, his son James IV and his grandson James V issued. More widely, it could be seen on monuments, like the panels from the Franciscan Nunnery Chapel in the Overgate, Dundee. Today, one can still find them on top of Mercat crosses in Edinburgh, Dunfermline or Prestonpans amongst others, on the façade of Craigmillar castle and in many other places.
Its use as a supporter mirroring the depiction and blazon of the Royal Arms, is an honour and privilege, which can and should only be used with permission from the British Crown.
In the 15th century, when King James III was in power, the gold coins which appeared with the unicorn on them, were initially valued at 18 Scots shillings, rising with the price of gold to 22 shillings. They were in circulation from 1484 to 1525 and came in Unicorns and half Unicorns, the latter introduced by James IV.
When Scotland and England unified under the reign of James VI of Scotland in 1603, the Scottish Royal Arms, as seen above, had two unicorns supporting a shield. This changed when James VI became James I of England and Ireland, and he replaced the unicorn on the left of the shield with the national animal of England, the lion, to show that the countries were indeed united. It is also interesting to note that both are considered King of the Beasts, with the Unicorn, ruling through harmony and the Lion, ruling through might.
With Scotland, as a nation with Celtic roots being famed for its love for and long history of myths and legends, it is no surprise that a fabled creature such as the unicorn is Scotland’s national animal. While the animal is mythological, the ideals it represents are what make it a perfect fit as the national animal for Scotland, and because like this proud beast, the Scots would fight (and have fought) to remain unconquered.
The unicorn representing Scotland in the British coat of arms after the Union of the Crowns has always been depicted as a white unicorn, collared on the neck with an open crown, to which is fixed a gold chain passing between the forelegs and over the back, to the rear leg.
It is possible that the entrapment symbolises the power of the Scottish kings – as it was deemed that they were strong enough to tame even a unicorn.
Unicorns do exist in other arms, but are only represented chained in such a fashion on the arms of the Scottish or British Monarchs, or again in this format in other arms, only with permission from the Crown.
Furthermore, the Mercat Cross (Market Cross), erected across Scottish towns, cities and even villages during medieval times, also incorporated the symbol of the unicorn, with some carving the mystical creature on the pillars. The Mercat Cross was a significant landmark for each location, serving at the nucleus of the community where ceremonies such as pageants, meetings and sadly, executionms took place. The unicorn therefore represented the nation at the heart of these settlements.
Today in Scotland, the unicorn can still be found as it has has left its imprint throughout the country. As well as other places it can still be seen prominently displayed in such places as; the finial on the Mercat cross in Dunfermlines; the gatepost of Holyroodhouse (Holyrood Palace) in Edinburgh; or standing proudly in front of St Margaret’s Chapel at Edinburgh Castle; carved in stone at St Andrews University; and as a figurehead for HM Frigate, Unicorn in Dundee.
The Unicorn in Scottish and British Royal Heraldry
The Royal Arms was changed after the Union of the Crowns in 1603, formalised in the Acts of the Union in 1707 by King James VI of Scotland James I of England. This led to a conjoining of the arms of both countries ie Scotland and England and the unicorn supporter on the left was replaced by the Lion of England. The arms carries the motto of the order of the Garter around the belt and buckle; Honi soit qui mal y pense (shamed be whover thinks bad of it) and the mottot of the British monarchy both in French: Dieu et mon droit (God and my right). The arms, in part or as a whole, are copyrighted by international law to the British Crown.
Therefore, the British Government, any British and some Canadian and Australian court rooms and some Canadian, to include the Lord Lyon displays the arms of the monarchy
Royal Warrants ie permission to carrying the Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom may be issued for businesses, but these are few and far between and again a great honour.
Therefore, the use of the unicorn alongside the lion is also very symbolic, not just in its representation of two nations being brought together but of two monarchies conjoining under one throne.
To the left are the Royal Arms of Scotland and to the right are the Royal Arms of the British Monarch in Scotland, with the Scottish Royal Standard (Lion Rampant), used since the reign of Alexander III (1249-1286) taking precedence. The shield to the right is quartered 1st and 4th with the Scottish Royal standard showing dominance. In the second quarter is the English Royal standard and fourth representing Ireland. The unicorn in both is wearing the Scottish crown.
The other noticeable difference, is the placement of the Unicorn, ie the left in Scotland and the right in England, where each animal retains the place of honour in their own country. All official Scottish-related arms would therefore carry the Royal unicorn supporter on the left.
However, the arms used by the current British Monarch while in Scotland, reflect and give precedence to the Royal Arms of Scotland as can be seen above, and carry the Royal Stuart dynasty and that of the Order of the Thistle motto below in Latin; Nemo me impune lacessit (No one provokes me with impunity) and above the crest; In Defens (In my defens God me defend). The latter associated with an old Scots prayer.
The unicorn heraldry is therefore very emblematic of our Scottish heritage and a valuable artefact denoting the ancient beliefs and value of this magical creature. In fact, along with the world famous Kelpie structures, Falkirk in central Scotland claims its own homage to the Unicorn in the sculpture by David Powel, named the Spirit of Scotland, which sits in Helix Park. made from metal armature it is woven with white willow, a species of flora much associated with legends and folk lore.
Interestingly the Unicorn and Lion have also been portrayed on the Arms of Canada since 1921 (below left), with the Unicorn also as a supporter on the arms of Nova Scotia (below right), both with permission of the British Monarch.
The history of the latter is interesting, as it is the oldest provincial achievement of arms in Canada, and the oldest British coat of arms in use outside Great Britain. The shield is blazoned as follows: Argent (white), a saltire Azure (blue) charged (on top of which) with an escutcheon (shield) of the Royal Arms of Scotland (Lion Rampant).
The arms were originally granted in 1625 by King Charles I for the first Scottish colony on the Canadian mainland. The arms are also borne as a heraldic badge by the Baronets of Nova Scotia, a chivalric order of Great Britain.
As it was a Scottish, not British colony, the Unicorn holds the place of honour on the left side. The supporters are therefore described as: Left; the unicorn from the royal arms of Scotland which is now borne by the British monarchy, and Right; a member of the Mi’kmaq First Nation indigenous to Nova Scotia.
They fell out of use when Nova Scotia joined the Confederation in 1867, but were restored in 1929 by royal warrant of King George V, thus retaining their strong link with Scotland, its history and the twinning culture of both lands.
The Unicorn, chained as in the arms of the Scottish or British Crown, is of course always treated as part of our Scottish heritage and culture, and with the respect it fully deserves.