In some parts of the world (chiefly North America, it seems) April 9 is celebrated as National Unicorn Day. What you may not know is that the unicorn is the national animal of Scotland, often featuring in a variety of heraldic designs and logos across the country.
The choice of animal might seem a little unusual - it is a mythical creature, after all, unlike the Highland coo, which is justly celebrated as an iconic beast, and a popular subject for Sottish-themed imagery. We could even have chosen the Loch Ness Monster (another mythical animal with rather more direct association with Scotland) but instead we elected to have the unicorn represent our nation on the zoological stage.
The unicorn was originally, chosen, it seems, for the values and characteristics embodied by this animal. Famously needing to run free and not be constrained by any man-made force (some myths have the unicorns dying out in the Old Testament flood, rather than board Noah's ark) there is certainly a spirit of independence captured in the unicorn's behaviour.
They were also considered proud, noble creatures, embodying the spirit of the Scottish nobility, and used in family crests with royal permission to recognise family service to king and country - the royal emblem of the lion and the unicorn ('fighting for the crown...') is a well reognised device featuring the national animals of both Scotland England.
But originally that royal emblem was a purely Scottish one, and featured TWO unicorns either side of a crown! Some versions of this original emblem still exist, and can be spotted around Edinburgh.
In 1603, when James VI of Scotland took the throne of England (becoming James I of England) the unicorn joined the lion (representing England) on the British royal insignia. Two versions of the crest exist, one in which the lion is crowned and the unicorns stands on the right hand side of the crest, and a Scottish version in which the unicorn and lion are transposed, with the lion now on the left hand side. In this Scottish version, both lion and unicorn are adorned with crowns.
You can also find unicorns in emblems and carvings all across the city. On the columns at entrances to the Meadows parkland, a leftover from the International Exhibition which was held at the Meadows in 1886, guarding the entrance to an Irish pub on Forrest Road, painted on doorways, and inside Edinburgh Castle...
Traditionally, when featuring in a heraldic form, the unicorn is shown wearing a golden chain, securing it to the ground. This is a nod to the mythical beliefs that unicorns were magical and therefore unpredictable, and therefore dangerous. Some would suggest that in modern times, the chaining of the unicorn embodies the relationship between Scotland and England, with the unicorn unable to roam freely and independently.
Unicorn figures can be found all across Scotland - the emblem of Stirling Castle, for example, is a unicorn design - as well as around Edinburgh.
Book a private Edinburgh tour for a unicorn hunt - how many unicorns will you find around the city?!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
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