The Story of the Scottish Unicorn

The unicorn really is an unusual mythical beast. Built like a horse, it is a large and strong animal but it is also gentle, fairy-like and (nowadays) most often rainbow coloured. It’s fairly well known, up here anyway, that the unicorn is Scotland’s national animal – we won’t thank you for a bull or an eagle or perhaps what you might associate with Scotland: a stag, a capercaillie, a squirrel… no ta, we’ll have a fantastical be-horned-make-believe-beast please. So, where did the unicorn come from, and how did it come about that it became Scotland’s national animal?

This happens to be something that I get to talk about when I go to read The Unicorn in the Castle. (Yes, shameless plug. You’re on an author blog after all). The history behind the unicorn in Scotland’s folklore dates back hundreds of years, but the nation’s adoption of the creature as its official animal seems to be down to James I.  

The Unicorn in the Castle

Unicorns appeared in Celtic myths as something of a paradoxical symbol – both of innocence and purity (why they are always white) and of masculinity and power. In folklore, the unicorn and the lion were arch enemies and fought in a perpetual battle to be the king of beats – the unicorn as a ruler by harmony and the lion as a ruler by valour. As a sign of strength, unicorns became associated with stories of male superiority and dominance and of chivalry, which led to the depiction being incorporated on coats of arms.

The earliest known use of a unicorn on a heraldic coat of arms was by William I in the 12th century and 300 years later by the 15th century, gold coins were in use with unicorns minted on them. By 1603 and the union of England and Scotland under James the VI and I, the Scottish Royal Arms depicted two unicorns in a mirror image, one left and right, supporting a shield. King James replaced one for a Lion (depicting England) to represent the union.

The Unicorn in the Castle Crest
McCaley’s Crest

In heraldry the unicorn is usually drawn with chains around its body and a crown around its neck. This is because the creature was said to be extremely powerful. In folklore, it was said that the unicorn could only be tamed by virgin maidens (no mere man could do so), so there is some suggestion that the gold chains and crown show the strength of a Scottish king to overcome even this most unruly mythological creature.

Unicorns are dotted around all over Scotland and are an important part of our built and our folkloric heritage. But the history of Scotland’s unicorns doesn’t really make for an engaging or captivating story for children, not to mention explaining virgin maidens to youngsters isn’t exactly the done thing.

Turning this legend into a children’s story was something that really appealed to me because the market is absolutely flooded at the moment with fluffy, flying unicorns and I for one wanted to see something different. The Unicorn in the Castle offers a version of the story for children to contextualise the unicorn in its history, rather than in popular culture.

In The Unicorn in the Castle, the unicorn is chained throughout and held captive in the castle, which speaks to the depictions of unicorns children will see in sculptures, statues, paintings, crests and in history books. Uncle Angus, well, he’s an old school Scottish chap – kilt and all – who’s to say he might not be a king? When Amber’s hurt, the unicorn heals her grazed knee and that echoes the Celtic belief that unicorns possessed healing powers in the tip of their horns. And ultimately, Amber convinces Uncle Angus to free the unicorn from its chains – there’s the virgin maiden bit… just put simply for kids.

Intertwined with this though we have Alfie, who is playing dress-up knights and is convinced – as any other six year old let loose in a castle would be – that there’s a dragon lurking in the cellar. So I hope that this brings the unicorn story away from the world of glittery poop (whatever, good grief) that is, to something a bit more rooted that can educate as well as entertain.

I’m on my way tomorrow to meet Primary 3 to talk about Scotland’s myths and legends so I’m excited to hear about what they’ve been learning. Here’s hoping Storm Whatever-its-Name-is doesn’t dump a load of snow on the Central Belt and call the whole afternoon off…

Thanks for reading,

Rachel

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