Video: how the unicorn became Scotland’s national animal

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From kelpies and hags to the blue men of the minch, Scotland has a rich history of embracing mythology. It seems fitting then that the nation has a mythological beast as its national animal.

We’re not alone in this wild endeavour - Wales celebrates the dragon, the Czech Republic a two-tailed lion and Bhuddist Himalayan nation of Bhutan reveres the mighty thunder dragon.

Evidence of the unicorn as Scotland’s national beast dates back to the 1300s, but they were worshipped by civilisations for millenniums before. The ancient Babylonians worshipped effigies of the mythological beast and they appear in texts from the ancient Persians, Greeks, Romans and Ancient Hebrew civilisations.

In Celtic mythology, the Unicorn of Scotland symbolized innocence and purity, healing powers, joy and even life itself, and was also seen as a symbol of masculinity and power. The unicorn and lion were long-described as natural enemies: the unicorn rules with harmony while the lion reigns with might.

In particular, the water cleansing folklore tale had a big impact. The story recalls a snake slithering up to a watering hole and poisoning it, but then the unicorn would come along and dip its horn into the watering hole to purify it for all the other animals.

It could channel its power into protecting and providing for other creatures. During medieval times, this chivalrous act made the unicorn to the ultimate animal.

Sailors would return home with narwhal tusks and spin yarns about the mythological beasts to their awestruck friends and families. Scots built upon the myth and used it as a symbol of their heraldic prowess, a fearful opponent for the English lion.

Scotland’s stunning defeat of the mediaeval world’s most accomplished military force at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 earned the nation the right to adopt the Unicorn as a symbol of her might.

When King James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth I of England the Scottish coat of arms featured two unicorn shieldbearers, but to soften the stark symbolism, King James replaced the left unicorn with the English lion after the union of the two nations.

Today, the Royal Coat of Arms representing the United Kingdom, Great Britain and Northern Ireland features the English Lion on the left and a chained unicorn on the right, while the Scottish Royal emblem has the two beasts reversed.

Belief in the unicorn lasted well in excess of 4,000 years and it remains ever present in popular culture.