What is the national animal of Scotland?

Some people believe that the national animal of Scotland is the haggis or even the Loch Ness monster. However, following the theme of mystical creatures, the national animal has actually been awarded to the unicorn. Perhaps an odd choice, seeing as you can’t spot one in the highland or visit one at the zoo, but there is a rich history behind the choice.

Why the unicorn?

What many people don’t know is a version of the unicorn once did roam the earth. The Elasmotherium Sibericum, a distant relative of the modern rhinoceros, disappeared less than 40,000 years ago.

The unicorn has been a symbol of power and strength in Scotland for hundreds of years in Celtic mythology. Folklore tells of stories where unicorns have been known to use their horns to purify poisoned water, giving them the reputation of being pure and noble creatures. According to the National Museum of Scotland, medieval legend further suggests only a king could hold a unicorn captive because of the supposed danger it posed, something that may have given rise to its widespread adoption.

What is known is James II wholeheartedly embraced the legend, and the unicorn became the symbol of purity and power that Scottish kings and nobility identified within the 15th Century. Over time, this led to the unicorn becoming officially recognized as Scotland’s national animal.

Due to these legendary traits, the Scottish people have always felt drawn to the mighty unicorn, and therefore it was knighted as the national animal of Scotland. Unicorns have been used in literature, art, folklore, and by Royals for hundreds and hundreds of years, and are still significant in Scottish culture today.

When did the unicorn get chosen?

Unicorn with glowing horn in mystical woodland setting

The unicorn was first recognized officially in the 12th century by William the First, within his Scottish royal coat of arms. It is thought the unicorn was chosen because of its famous traits of being brave, pure, and innocent.

From here, during King James the Third’s reign, gold coins that were used for currency were produced with unicorns on them.

Prior to the Union of the Crowns in 1603, Scotland’s coat of arms was supported by two unicorns. However, when King James VI of Scotland also became James I of England, he replaced one of the unicorns with the national animal of England, the lion, as a display of unity between the two countries. Of course, folklore fans will know that lions and unicorns have always been enemies, locked in a battle for the title of “king of beasts”.

An interesting thing to note is that Scottish unicorns in heraldry are always shown with gold chains wrapped around them. Why? Although we don’t know for sure, it’s believed that this was a way of showing the power of Scottish kings – that only they had the strength to tame the untameable.

The unicorn in historical Scottish art

Today, you will find lots of unicorns in Scotland on historical buildings, on gold coins, and on the top of some Mercat crosses. One of the most famous examples of this is the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh. Other famous mentions around Edinburgh are:

  • The Thistle Chapel, St Giles Cathedral
  • Above the fireplace in the royal palace at Edinburgh Castle
  • Holyrood Palace Gates and the entrance to the Queen’s Gallery
  • Mason’s Pillars, The Meadows
  • Mural on the corner of Leith Walk and Albert Street