Why Scotland’s National Animal Is The Unicorn

Royal Crest above the entrance to Fort George; 18th-century fortress, north-east of Inverness in Scotlan
Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

National animals are selected as representations of a country’s spirit. Some countries choose animals that signify freedom, such as America’s eagle. England’s lion embodies strength. And Italy selected the wolf, an animal that represents solidarity with fellow countrymen. Scotland’s national animal is different from these because it doesn’t exist in real life and is commonly associated with glittery children’s toys today. This animal is the unicorn.

Although it might seem like an odd choice at first, there’s very good reason for the revered creature to represent Scotland.

The country’s history is rich in myths and legends, full of stories involving creatures like ghosts, witches, and fairies. For thousands of years, Scots (and many other Western civilizations) believed that unicorns existed, and people saw them as symbols of power, pride, innocence, and purity. A French naturalist named Georges Cuvier claimed in 1825 that unicorns were a physical impossibility, but this did little to dampen the admiration that Scots held for the animals.

Since the 15th Century, many monarchs of Scotland used the unicorn in their coat of arms, with kings selecting the beast as the ultimate representation of power. It was adopted as Scotland’s national animal by King Robert in the late 1300s. The current royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom is supported by a unicorn for Scotland and a lion for England.

April 9th was designated National Unicorn Day and is widely celebrated each year. And people who travel to Scotland will discover many unicorns of various shapes and sizes in a number of locations throughout the country including palaces, castles, and churches.

As the Scottish Tourist Guide Association has stated, the unicorn has “long been a symbol of purity and power, but also of virginity and subtlety. And those values still stand up when thinking about Scotland today. These are characteristics embedded in the Scottish psyche.”