My inspiration for The Unicorn in the Castle

One of the most commonly asked questions by the older children I visit when storytelling is ‘where did you get the idea for this book?’ – usually because we’re talking about writing stories and where they might find inspiration.

Since it’s National Unicorn Day tomorrow (did I mention that?), here’s where I found inspiration for my book The Unicorn in the Castle. If you’re interested in how the unicorn became adopted as Scotland’s national animal, have a look at another unicorn blog post here: The Story of the Scottish Unicorn – Rachel McGaw

For the past few years, unicorns have been a staple character in children’s books – they have enjoyed something of a renaissance of late, with countless rainbow-maned creatures swarming in the picture book market in particular. Working as a book buyer, I saw so many of these books come across my desk, with their variety of characters, stories and illustrations. Many were similar in that the unicorn was a fantastical and friendly creature, inhabiting a world of glitter and magic (and sparkly poop, bizarrely). And these were certainly popular among booksellers and book readers alike, and I’m not knocking these stories as many of them are absolutely marvellous.

I did come to think though that there was a unicorn story missing in the mix, especially in the Scottish market. The unicorn is our national animal and it is not a pink and purple, prancing, dancing character. It’s a whole other kind of beast, representing strength, power, purity, royalty and much more. Where was this folkloric unicorn that passed through centuries in oral history and in art? Where was the unicorn we Scots once believed could be real in a time that horns of the narwhal were traded as genuine unicorn horns and that to possess one was the ultimate symbol of status? How could we account for the chained and captive beast that appears in so much of the imagery in historical buildings in Scotland?

In my line of work I come across a great many Scottish sights and scenes. For a while, I was designing and formatting postcards for the tourist market and had the pleasure of working on a series of cards that featured the ‘Hunt of the Unicorn’ tapestries on display in the Royal Palace at Stirling Castle. The imagery in these tapestries, along with the wide variety of unicorn statues and artistic representations across Scotland really got me thinking about the unicorn as a symbol of nationhood and how that might translate into a children’s book. I thought it was important to offer an interpretation of the unicorn in this historical context, to suggest a reason why the unicorn might be associated with Scotland, and to help children notice, appreciate and enjoy the unicorn statues, sculptures and artistic representations across the country.

The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, if you haven’t seen them, are magnificent. They are also not Scottish, nor do they ‘belong’ in Stirling as they were never possessed by a Scottish monarch. The set in Stirling are replicas of one of the few remaining medieval tapestry sets that survive, which is housed in the MET in New York. It’s a Flemish series, probably woven for an extremely wealthy patron, I’m sure to hang in some tremendous European home to impress anyone who visited.

So why are they in Stirling? They are indicative of the tapestries of their time, which were a phenomenally expensive possession and traded among the elite of society. Similar sets were most certainly possessed by King James V, who was building the Palace at Stirling to be a primary residence (James died in 1542 before the Palace was completed, so unfortunately was unlikely to have actually lived here). The tapestry project at Stirling was the largest undertaken in Britain for some 100 years or more and it became a living exhibition that enabled weavers to create something in the style of the sixteenth century decoration that has so sadly been lost over time. They are exquisite, and well worth a visit should you find yourself in Stirling.

The story depicted in the set can be read as a few different narratives – an allegory of the life of Christ, a mediaeval love story, the triumph of monarch over beast. For The Unicorn in the Castle I wanted to take these images in their simplest form to create a story of the Scottish unicorn for kids. So the unicorn that Alfie and Amber discover is the ‘Caledonian Unicorn’ and it is chained and held captive, just as in the imagery of the time. It is a powerful and potentially dangerous beast, just as was believed in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. And it is, of course, at home in a castle, as so many unicorns are.

There is naturally a happy ending to The Unicorn in the Castle as Amber is able to tame the beast and allow it its freedom. I hope that the mythical aspect of the story means that this book appeals to all children, while many others are for the traditional ‘girls’ market. I’ve certainly had positive feedback that that is the case. It was my intention to present a different kind of unicorn story, grounded in history and legend, that is uniquely Scottish and appeals to natives and visitors alike. As ever, credit to P.S. Brooks for the wonderful illustrations that reflect the nature of this story perfectly.

The Unicorn in the Castle, available from all good booksellers

If you’d like to discover the story of The Unicorn in the Castle yourself, the book widely available online and in bookshops in Scotland. I’ve posted a few links at the bottom here – I hope you enjoy it.

And don’t forget to join me for a livestream storytelling filmed in the Palace at Stirling Castle, surrounded by those magnificent tapestries, tomorrow (April 9th) at 4pm. The event is hosted on both Stirling Castle’s website here and on Facebook here.


Purchase The Unicorn in the Castle here:

Scottish Bookstore
Historic Environment Scotland
Amazon UK

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