England has its lion, France its cockerel, the United States their eagle, and Scotland has ……. the unicorn!
But why would Scotland make this extremely strange choice of national animal? To find out, we have to go back in time to Celtic lore and legend. The ancients believed unicorns had healing powers. Throughout the ages, people thought they could purify water, and heal rubella, measles, and even the plague! Although the unicorn symbolised purity and innocence, it also stood for masculinity, power and courage (eat your heart out, My Little Pony!) It was such a free, wild animal that it had to be chained – and only a virgin maiden could tame it! It would choose to die rather than be taken alive. One can see how our Scottish kings would appreciate the symbolism.
Unicorns in Heraldry
In Scottish heraldry, it goes back to the 12th century, when William I used it in his coat of arms. The unicorn was the enemy of the lion – perhaps another reason to keep it in chains. Might King Robert the Bruce have seen the significance of this emnity when he adopted the unicorn as Scotland’s national animal in the 14th century? The unicorn also appeared on Scottish coins in the 1400s and 1500s. Then, in 1603 came the Union of the Crowns. James VI of Scotland, now also James I of England, decided to change the coat of arms. He replaced one of the two unicorns in his Scottish Royal Arms with a lion to symbolise the unity of England and Scotland.
Unicorn Horn Marketing
While unicorn horn isn’t the marketing draw it used to be (in the middle ages merchants could make a pretty penny because of its well-advertised healing powers) we can still enjoy going searching for the motif as we travel through Scotland. And don’t worry if you don’t believe in unicorns – gone are the days when Inquisition could burn you at the stake for doubting its existence!
To get you started, here are a few examples unicorns in Scotland – where have you spotted our national animal?
As there’s been wonderful winter weather in Edinburgh recently, I took a dauner from Anthemion up to Edinburgh Castle. When I go there, I always make a point of looking at the 78th Highlanders monument on the Esplanade.
What makes it special is the elephant – and there’s a reason he’s there!
In 1838 when the regiment came back from their posting in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) they came home with an unusual souvenir – an elephant they had adopted as a pet during their time abroad. The elephant became the regimental mascot and headed their parades. He lived on site in the Castle stables, looked after by Private McIntosh. Before long the soldier discovered he had a drinking buddy: the elephant showed a taste for beer, and used to reach its trunk through the bars in the canteen windows to get its evening brew!
Oddly, the elephants toenails are on display in the National War Museum within the Castle!
Anyone visiting Scotland (and indeed the UK in general) between now and 12 November will no doubt notice that many people are wearing red poppies. The Answer is Poppy Day.
Remembrance Sunday is the nearest Sunday to the anniversary of the end of the First World War, when Armistice was declared in 1918 on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
As a symbol, they come from the 1915 poem “On Flanders Field” by Canadian Lt Col Dr John McCrae. He saw the poppies popping up as the first signs of life on the muddy battlefields of Ypres. The poem inspired Moina Michael, an American teacher, to have disabled ex-servicemen make and sell silk poppies. A member of the French YWCA, Anna Guerin, saw how these poppies could support ex-servicemen and families affected by the war. She spread the idea to Canada, New Zealand and Australia. In 1921 she met Field Marshall Earl Haig, and persuaded him to adopt the poppy for the British Legion.
Poppies move to Britain
The Legion ordered 9 million poppies for the first Poppy Day in November of that year. The poppies sold out almost immediately. The demand was so high that Scotland did not see many of these poppies for sale, and in 1926 Earl Haig’s wife set up a poppy factory in Edinburgh for Scottish sales.
The Edinburgh Connection
When you walk along the Royal Mile, look out for Panmure Close. The entrance has wrought ironwork poppies on top. This close was the location of the poppy factory from 1931 to 1965. The factory has now moved to Warriston in Edinburgh, and poppies are still made there by hand by disabled ex-servicemen.
The photo shows the entrance to Panmure Close. On the left, the plaque to the poppy factory. On the right is a plaque to the Adam Smith, pioneer of political economy, who lived in Panmure House for 12 years! Edinburgh does indeed have a multi-layered history.