How Unicorn Symbolism Became the National Pride of Scotland

Unicorn Symbolism in Scottish Heraldry: A History of Purity and Strength

The unicorn has been a part of human mythology for centuries, with its symbolism evolving over time. In medieval Europe, unicorns were believed to be real animals with magical properties, and their horns were thought to have healing powers. Over time, however, the unicorn became a symbol of purity, strength, and grace. This symbolism is particularly prevalent in Scotland, where the unicorn has been a national symbol for centuries.

The Early Evolution of Unicorn Symbolism

The history of the unicorn in Scottish heraldry dates back to the 12th century, when William I of Scotland used the unicorn as a symbol of strength and purity. According to legend, only a virgin could capture a unicorn, which made the creature a symbol of purity and chastity. This was an important attribute for the Scottish monarchy, as it suggested that they were pure and noble rulers.

Unicorn Symbolism in Scottish Heraldry

King Robert III of Scotland, who reigned from 1390-1406 CE, affixed the unicorn onto the Scottish royal shield during a series of battles with the Norwegians. It is believed that Robert III did so as a means of inspiring his people. Several decades later, in 1480, James III of Scotland integrated the unicorn into currency, placing it on gold coins that were known as the unicorn and the half-unicorn. The unicorn was later adopted into Scotland's national flag and coat of arms by Mary, Queen of Scots.

The Royal Coat of Arms of Scotland

The unicorn also appears on the Royal Coat of Arms of Scotland, which was first used by William I in the 12th century. The coat of arms features a red lion on a yellow background, with a golden border that is decorated with eight alternating thistles and fleurs-de-lis. Above the shield is a helmet with a gold crest, which features a red lion standing on its hind legs holding a sword and a scepter. On either side of the shield are two unicorns, which represent the purity and strength of the Scottish monarchy.

The Popularization of Unicorn Symbolism

By the 16th century, the unicorn had become a popular symbol not only in Scotland, but throughout Europe. During this period, the unicorn was ubiquitous in European art and literature, and it was often depicted in tapestries and paintings. This popularity was due in part to "The Unicorn Tapestries", a series of tapestries depicting the hunt for a mythical unicorn. These tapestries were created in the late 15th century and are now housed in the Cloisters museum in New York City.

The Unicorn in the Scottish Enlightenment

The unicorn's popularity continued into the 18th and 19th centuries, when it became a symbol of the Scottish Enlightenment. This period of intellectual and cultural growth in Scotland saw the unicorn used as a symbol of the country's unique heritage and identity. It was also during this time that the unicorn began to be depicted in a more stylized manner, with a spiraling horn and a flowing mane and tail.

The Enduring Symbolism of the Unicorn in Scottish Culture

Today, the unicorn remains an important symbol in Scottish culture, and it is often featured in art, literature, and advertising. Its symbolism of purity, strength, and grace continues to resonate with people around the world, and it remains a beloved emblem of Scotland's rich history and heritage. From medieval legend to modern-day advertising campaigns, the unicorn has stood the test of time as a powerful symbol of Scottish pride and identity.

If you would like to learn more about the unicorn's heraldic symbolism in other culture, please consider ordering a copy of The Book of the Magical Mythical Unicorn

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