Regal, Noble, Fearsome: Meet Scotland’s National Animal

15th March 2021

by Eloise Leeson

Magnificent, mysterious, noble, powerful, and ferocious – all terms that could be used to describe Scotland’s national animal.

Differing reports note that it was either King Robert, in the 1300s, or King James IV, in the 1600s, who instated the unicorn as the national animal of Scotland – but our country’s affection for the one-horned creature certainly spans many hundreds of years.

And yes, that is correct. Not the haggis, not the stag, not the red squirrel, nor any other animal – the unicorn is, in fact, our national animal.


Narwhals and the Unicorn Horn Trade

Thought to be real for millennia, the idea of the unicorn enthralled people from different countries all around the world.

The mythical powers of this beast were coveted by many – and astute Vikings aboard their ship, spotted an even more elusive quarry – that of the sea-unicorn, or narwhal.

Though narwhal ‘horn’ is actually an extended tooth, Vikings throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods hunted the whales down for the appendage and sold them at astronomical prices throughout Europe.

Legend had it that the animal would dip its horn into polluted water to cleanse it – which is perhaps why ancient depictions of unicorns often include them by lochs, pools, and springs.

‘Unicorn’ horn, made into a chalice or cup, was thought to protect the drinker from poison, thanks to its purifying properties.

Elizabeth I was presented with one such ‘horn’ by Sir Humphrey Gilbert, carefully carved and set with precious stones, which she used as a sceptre.

Allegedly worth £10,000 (for context, Elizabeth I could have purchased another castle for that sum), the horn was so prized that it was kept with the crown jewels.

King of Beasts

Perhaps the only other creature to rival the majesty and power of the unicorn was the lion. According to legend, the pair were terrible rivals – each vying for the title ‘King of Beasts’.

It’s tempting to think that the lion and the unicorn’s fierce competition might be a reflection of England and Scotland’s shared history as the nursery rhyme below suggests, but the rivalry was allegedly present in Assyria and Babylonia as far back as 3500BC.

The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown.
The lion beat the unicorn
All about the town.
Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum-cake,
And sent them out of town.

According to the National Trust for Scotland: “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.”

Gold coins minted during King James’ rule were also actually known as a “unicorn” and a “half-unicorn”, and frankly, we think this excellent currency should be reinstated.

Unicorn Sightings in Scotland

Though it may have eluded its hunters and aficionados in the past, the unicorn can in fact be spotted all over Scotland – as long as you know where to look.

That’s where we come in.

Scone Palace, an essential visit for any Scottish trip, bears the royal coat of arms – but curiously, its unicorn is to be found on the left-hand side of the crest, and not on the right, as seen on the gates at Buckingham Palace.

After discovering Scone for yourself, we recommend a short drive north to Forter Castle, built in 1560, where you can discuss your unicorn hunt in the lap of luxury, tucked up in the Great Hall, beside a roaring log fire.

From Forter Castle to Stirling Castle, no unicorn spotting spree would be complete without a trip to the former residence of many of Scotland’s kings and queens. From statues to stone carvings and tapestries, this creature is literally woven into the fabric of the building.

An incredible 14-year project was undertaken from 2001 to 2015 to recreate and restore the interior of the castle to how it may have looked in the 1540s, when it was home to King James V, his wife Mary of Guise, and their daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots.

Seven handwoven panels, painstakingly recreated from 16th Century fragments, depict “The Hunt of the Unicorn” and can be viewed in the castle today.

But the royal references don’t stop there. The fountain at Linlithgow Palace boasts a carefully carved unicorn statue, and a closer look at the gilded doors of the Queen’s Gallery at Holyrood Palace also reveal this noble beast.

The unicorn can also be sighted standing proud on top of Edinburgh’s Mercat Cross, beside the stunning St. Giles’ Cathedral on the Royal Mile. Be sure to head inside the cathedral too, and take a closer look at the stained-glass windows, where another unicorn might just make an appearance.

Another Mercat Cross sports a unicorn – this time in Culross, of Outlander fame. This pretty village in Fife was used as a set for several episodes of the hit show, with many of its buildings dating back to the 18th century.

Mercat Cross in Culross image courtesy of National Trust for Scotland

In Kelso, close to the magnificent Floors Castle, the town hall’s coat of arms features not one, but two unicorns in its heraldry. A few miles over, in the beautiful Borders town of Melrose, you can gaze upon the unicorn that still sits on the top of their Mercat Cross, too.

If you’re looking for a little city hustle and bustle during your vacation, one of Glasgow’s universities also has a unicorn or two to offer. The University of Glasgow’s 17th Century staircase is guarded by both the lion and the unicorn as students make their way to and from lectures.

From one university to another, we recommend following the trail of the unicorn to the ancient King’s College campus at the University of Aberdeen, where it stands in chains, as tradition dictates – too powerful to not be bridled in some way.

Further north, in Inverness, you can also spot a more modern take on the unicorn, on Academy Street. Once you’ve had your fill of beautiful mythical animals, you can swing by The Old Course at Moray for a round of golf with breath-taking views, or continue northwards to the beautiful village of Dornoch.

Wherever you choose to go hunting majestic creatures, you can rest assured that with Away from the Ordinary’s hyper-personalised Scottish experiences, it won’t just be the unicorn that lends a sense of magic to your visit.