What is Scotland's National Animal? The Unicorn

Written by Chris Thornton | 12th of October 2022
Scotland's National Animal - The Unicorn

The fabled Unicorn is Scotland's national animal!

Yes, you read that correctly; a fictional animal represents Scotland. The unicorn is a beautiful symbol for Scotland and is steeped in history, not only in Scotland but since the very earliest history in south Asia over 6000 years ago.

So how did a mythical beast become Scotland's national animal? Let's find out!

What is a unicorn?

A unicorn is a fictional animal usually depicted as a beautiful white horse with a single spiralled horn on its forehead between its ears. Seen as a symbol of purity and grace, a unicorn was described as a wild forest creature that could only be captured or "humbled" by a virgin maiden.

The qualities of a unicorn:

  • Innocence

  • Masculinity

  • Boldness

  • Pride

  • Nurturing powers

  • Purity

  • The power to heal

  • Intelligence

  • Virility

  • Joy

Did unicorns have magical powers?

A unicorn's horn (known as alicorn) was said to have magical properties, including the power to heal the sick and sanitise poisoned water. Narwhal tusks were often sold as unicorn horns in medieval times and were considered very precious. Walrus ivory and rhino horn were also passed off as alicorn, but only narwhal tusk had the unique spiral formation.

Mary Queen of Scots is said to have requested a unicorn horn to test her food for poison whilst being held captive by Elizabeth I.

Could the Unicorn have been a real animal?

There is no scientific evidence that unicorns were ever real, but it's interesting that so many civilisations have written about them in many different countries over thousands of years.

Even in modern times, the unicorn frequently appears in fantasy fiction, for example, in the Harry Potter book and film franchises. The highly popular "My Little Pony" kids TV series is also heavily influenced by unicorn legends.

If you think about all of the diverse animals on planet earth, a white horse with a horn doesn't seem that fanciful for a mythical creature.

Outline of a unicorn at sunset.  A mythological creature part of Scottish folklore.
The unicorn doesn't look that fantastical compared to other legendary creatures.

Why is the unicorn Scotland's national animal?

William I selected the unicorn in the 1100s for use in the Scottish royal coat of arms. Seen as a symbol of unyielding strength and nobility, the unicorn was the ideal choice for royalty and for the proud Scots to defy all conquerors.

Many countries have chosen animals from their natural environment, for example, the Kangeroo in Australia, the Bull in Spain and the brown bear in Russia; it's interesting Scotland is different. Perhaps if royalty had not selected the unicorn, Scotland's Red Stag might have been chosen instead.

I personally think that the national animal should be the Highland cow; it has become synonymous with Scotland and is loved by tourists and locals!

Celtic Mythology & Scottish Kings

Unicorns played a strong role in Celtic folklore with virtues such as courage, nobility and strength. This is one of the primary reasons William I chose the unicorn for his heraldry.

Why is the unicorn chained?

Many wrongly believe that the chain was added to Scottish heraldry upon the unification of Scotland and England... i.e. a chain to signify that Scotland would be forever under England's subjugation within the union, but a gold chain has featured in Scotland's royal coat of arms from its inception.

The gold chain is shown wrapped around the unicorn's neck and coiled around its body due to the fact it was the strongest and wildest of all animals and completely untamable. Without the chain, the unicorn would escape forever. The chain also symbolises the power of the Scottish Kings - only they had the strength to tame the wild and powerful unicorn - the strongest of all animals.

Mary Queen of Scots heraldry includes two chained unicorns, long before the union of the kingdoms.

Since the 1707 union of Scotland and England, the royal arms of the United Kindom are shown supported by the English lion and the Scottish unicorn.

Scottish Coat of Arms
Scottish Coat of Arms.

When did Scotland adopt the unicorn?

William I first used it on the royal coat of arms in the 1100s.

Where can you see unicorns in Scotland?

There are many examples of our country's national animal to be found in the numerous historic places throughout Scotland, especially in Edinburgh and the central belt. Why not keep a look out for them when you visit Scotland's capital?

King James V Coat of Arms
King James V coat of arms. Image by TravelKat.

Unicorns in Edinburgh

Unicorns can be found at these locations around Edinburgh:

Edinburgh Castle

Unicorns are displayed above the fireplace in the Royal Apartments and at the Scottish National War Memorial outside St Margaret's Chapel.

The Mercat Cross

In Parliament Square, just next to St Giles Cathedral, you can find the Mercat Cross, which acted as the hub of Edinburgh's marketplace within the heart of the Old Town. The monument displays fine examples of heraldry, but atop the central post sits a fine Royal unicorn holding a Scottish saltire flag.

The Mercat Cross, Edinburgh with unicorn.
The Mercat Cross, Edinburgh. Image by TravelKat.

There are unicorns on other Mercat Crosses around Scotland, including at Dunfermline, Culross, Prestonpans and Falkland.

St Giles Cathedral

Within the Cathedral itself, you can find Victorian unicorn woodcarvings; one unique carving has a fishlike tail, perhaps a nod to Scotland's mythological kelpies. Read more about Scotland's mythical beasts here.

Craigmillar Castle

Once a safe haven for Mary Queen of Scots in 1566, Sir Simon Preston's coat of arms can be found around Craigmillar Castle, featuring three unicorns.

Craigmiller Castle triple unicorns.
The three unicorns above a door at Craigmillar Castle.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse

There are numerous unicorns to be found in and around the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The entrance gate to the palace has a unicorn on its right side pillar and on a heraldic shield mounted on the wall.

The main entrance has an exquisite stone sculpture of two unicorns directly above it, with Scotland's motto below it, "Nemo me impune lacessit". Another can be found on the wooden doors of the Queen's Gallery.

Holyroodhouse unicorns.
Stone unicorn sculpture above the entrance of the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
Unicorn on the door of the queens gallery.
Golden unicorn on the door of the Queens Gallery.

Riddle's Court

Riddle's Court is an old merchant's house dating from the 1590s. A favourite dining place for King James VI, it contains an impressive unicorn fresco.

Riddle's Court
Riddle's Court, home to a unique unicorn fresco.

Mason's Memorial Pillars

At the west end of The Meadows, a large park in Edinburgh, Mason's Pillars can be found. Erected in 1886 for the "Edinburgh International Exhibition", each pillar is 26 st tall and proudly holds a 7 ft unicorn bearing metal banners.

The pillars mark the entrance of the exhibition location for this fair-like showcase of Art, Science and Industry; it must have been quite an event.

Mason's Memorial Pillars
RMason's Memorial Pillars

The North Gate, Inverleith Park

This large red sandstone entrance gate lies on the north side of Inverleith Park. The arch shows an inscription in Latin which reads "Nisi Dominus Frustra" or "Without the Lord, all is in vain". The unicorn can be seen on the very top of the arch with a heraldic shield.

Stirling Castle

When visiting Stirling Castle in central Scotland, you can view a collection of beautiful unicorn tapestries. "Hunt of the Unicorn" is included in the collection, which cost £2 million and took 13 years to complete.

Unicorns can also be found as a statue in the Great Hall and on the coat of arms above the hearth of the King's Bed Chamber.

Unicorn tapestries of Stirling Castle.
The beautifully made unicorn tapestries of Stirling Castle.
Stirling Castle unicorn heraldry. Unicorn symbol.
Heraldry above a fireplace at Stirling Castle.

Linlithgow Palace

Built in 1538 by James V, the ornate fountain in the courtyard of Linlithgow Palace showcases unicorns and, interestingly, mermaids too!

Linlithgow Palace Fountain.
The fountain at Linlithgow Palace featuring unicorns.

St Andrew's University

Two finely carved unicorns can be seen upon pillars at the entrance to St Andrew's University, the oldest seat of learning in Scotland, founded in 1413.

A short history of Unicorns

Here is a short history of unicorns dating back thousands of years!

Indus Valley Civilisation

Unicorn-like creatures with a single horn protruding from their heads were first seen in the Indus Valley Civilisation around 2000 BC. Carved into soapstone seals, these animals looked more like cows and the singular horn curved upwards at the tip.

Indus Valley unicorns.
Indus Valley soapstone seals dipicting unicorns.

The Ancient Greeks

Greek writers believed that unicorns were real and could be found in India. Given the distance, India was believed a fantastical place with strange creations never seen in Greece.

Greek writer Ctesias wrote in his book "Indika" describing unicorns as being like a wild donkey with a horn one cubit and a half long on its head. Living in Persia at the time, it's thought Ctesias saw examples of unicorns on relief sculptures in what would be modern-day Iran.

Medieval times

Unicorns continued to be legendary animals throughout the middle ages, with Marco Polo even confirming their existence but saying they looked nothing like the legends - he was describing rhinoceros.

It was around this time that the unicorn took on new significance within Christianity as a symbol of Jesus Christ.

The Unicorn as an LGBT+ symbol

In modern times, the Unicorn has been adopted as a symbol of the LGBT+ community, mainly due to unicorns being associated with rainbows which also resemble the pride flag. A marketing campaign in 2018 solidified the unicorn's place within the LGBT+ community, with rainbow-coloured unicorn horns being worn at pride parades around the world.

The "rare" unicorn also works well as a mascot, as heterosexuals vastly outnumber LGBT+ people, and being of different sexuality is seen as being as rare as a unicorn.

Unicorn as an LGBT+ symbol.
The unicorn has been adopted by the LGBT+ community.

HMS Unicorn

When visiting Dundee, why not check out HMS Unicorn, one of the six oldest ships in the world? Launched in 1824 from Chatham Royal Dockyard, the Unicorn is a 46-gun frigate which eventually arrived in Dundee in 1873 for use as a Royal Naval Reserves training ship.

It costs £7.25 for adults and £3.60 for children; you can choose to pay a little more if you would like to make a small donation. There is a great deal to learn about this ship's 200-year history.

Unicorn on the bow of the hm frigate unicorn.
Unicorn on the bow of HMS Unicorn.

National Unicorn Day

The 9th of April is National Unicorn Day, but this isn't a big thing in Scotland; it's not like we worship them or anything! If you're a massive fan of unicorns, then enjoy your day next April!

I enjoyed this song as a child - The Unicorn Song by the Irish Rovers - I hope you will too.


So there we have it, everything to do with Scotland's national animal. Although it's not a real animal, the Scottish unicorn is still an enduring symbol for Scotland, rich with history and hidden in plain sight.

All information was correct at the time of writing, please check things like entry costs and opening times before you arrive.

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