Why Is the Unicorn Scotland’s National Animal?

It was more about the strength of the Scottish monarch than magic.
Scotland's national animal.
Scotland's national animal. / CSA-Printstock/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

When it comes to national animals, the chosen creatures usually have a strong tie to their country. Tanzania went with the giraffe, Indonesia chose the Komodo dragon, and the United States picked both the bald eagle and the bison. By that logic, you might guess that Scotland selected the ginger-haired Highland cow or the Shetland pony, but their emblematic animal is actually a more surprising horned beast: The mythical unicorn.

The unicorn rears its horned head in films and TV shows from around the world and is a staple children’s toy. As Scotland’s national animal, the magical equine also appears on castles, ships, and mercat crosses. The reason for this seemingly odd selection isn’t because Scotland is a nation of unicorn lovers; rather, it’s thanks to the country’s bygone kings.

Rainbows and Unicorns and … Royal Arms?

The first King of Scots who supposedly showed an affinity for unicorns was William I, often known as William the Lion, who ruled from 1165–1214. William is said to have had a unicorn added to the Scottish royal coat of arms—the shield of which is a red Lion Rampant on a yellow background—but no evidence of it has survived.

The oldest extant version of the royal arms with unicorn supporters can be found carved into a stone above Rothesay Castle’s gateway. It’s believed that this now weather-worn engraving was created no later than the reign of Robert III, which ended in 1406. Unicorns then leapt onto Scotland’s currency around 1484, with James III issuing gold coins called the unicorn and half-unicorn (worth 18 and 9 shillings respectively). One side of the coin was stamped with a wavy sun or star, while the other was emblazoned with a rather fierce-looking unicorn supporting the Lion Rampant shield.

A portrait of James VI and I as a boy.
A portrait of James VI and I as a boy. / Historical Picture Archive/GettyImages

A clear depiction of the two unicorn supporters can be seen on the coat of arms used by James V, who was king during the first half of the 16th century. James VI made a big change to the royal arms when he became James I of England in 1603 and decided to combine the Scottish and English coats of arms. The Scottish version has the unicorn standing in the dexter position—the dominant position on the right (from the POV of the shield bearer)—while the English version has the English lion on that side. To this day, the UK’s royal arms still feature a lion and a unicorn flanking the shield.

A Unicorn of a Different Color

Those with eagle eyes may be wondering why the unicorns on the royal arms are often wrapped in chains. That question gets to the heart of why Scottish kings likely chose the unicorn as their emblem in the first place.

Early accounts of unicorns depict them as real animals that were wild and fierce—qualities that kings would almost certainly like to be associated with. The first written description of a unicorn comes from ancient Greek historian Ctesias in his Indica, which was based on stories from traders. He describes it as a horse-like creature with a poison-curing horn—which is white at the base, black in the middle, and red at the tip—on its forehead. He states that “to take them alive is in no way possible,” because they will fight to the death rather than be captured.

A myth then developed that the only way to trap a unicorn was by using a virgin as bait. The first known reference to this tactic goes back to the 7th century, with scholar Isidore of Seville claiming that a unicorn can be “lulled to sleep” in a young girl’s lap, “having laid aside all ferocity.” This is likely where the association between unicorns and virtue started; this combination of power and purity may be why Scottish kings chose the unicorn as their symbol. It’s thought that the chains around the unicorns on the royal arms might symbolize Scottish kings having the strength to capture such a dangerous beast. 

The coat of arms displayed on Edinburgh's Mercat Cross, showing a lion and chained unicorn.
The coat of arms displayed on Edinburgh's Mercat Cross. / by Andrea Pucci/Moment/Getty Images

Another possibility is that the unicorn was chosen because in folklore it was the enemy of the lion, the symbol of England, and so may have been a nod to hostilities with Scotland’s neighbor to the south. A nursery rhyme titled “The Lion and the Unicorn” was written about the creatures battling for dominance and was likely inspired by James VI and I inheriting the English throne. The oldest surviving copy of the rhyme dates back to 1776, but it almost certainly circulated orally before then.

While it’s known that the unicorn became Scotland’s national animal because of its prominent place in the iconography of Scotland’s kings, what isn’t known is why and when the unicorn first pranced onto Scottish heraldry. Along with the theories above, it’s just as possible that William I (or whichever king started the tradition) simply thought that the horned horse looked cool standing next to the Lion Rampant shield.

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