The other day I went into a hunting frenzy -but worry not, no animal was hurt in the process. I was just trying to capture a very elusive beast on camera, and I happened to achieve a great success, for there are lots of them inhabiting Edinburgh: the unicorn.
If we think about it for a moment, we can consider that a city is a domesticated forest of stone, bricks and glass, with its own ecosystem and strange creatures hiding in every corner. After walking through Roslin Glen and discovering its mystical beauty, this time I decided to go to the capital in search of the national animal of Scotland. You won’t see this mythical beast wandering through the woods, but you will certainly find it in all sorts of heraldic paraphernalia in the city.
For centuries, this mythological beast has captivated the imagination of people. Although similar to a horse, the unicorn was coveted by kings, since its horn was said to counteract poisons. According to the legend, there were two ways of hunting a unicorn. In the first one, the hunter stepped in front of the beast, with a tree behind him -when the animal tried to charge against him, he would move, and thus the unicorn would find itself trapped with its horn deep into the wood. The other way was to lure the unicorn with a maiden, since innocence was desarming for this beast -the animal would place the head on her lap and fall aslep.
How did an imaginary beast become the national animal of Scotland? The unicorn represented virility, beauty, power, purity and, above all, freedom. It has appeared in heraldic representations since the 12th century, when it was used on an early form of the Scottish Coat of Arms by William I.
The unicorn bears a crown on its head and is always in chains. Some say that these chains are meant to restrain it, since it was a dangerous wild beast, while others claim that they are a symbol of the House of Stuart’s power -they reigned over Scotland, and therefore, they had tamed the unicorn. Their motto, Nemo me impune lacessit (“No one can harm me with impunity”) appears frequently with the image of the unicorn.
Today, the Scottish Royal Coat of Arms has a unicorn on the left side, and a lion on the right side, whereas the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom has them the other way round.
The enmity between the lion and the unicorn (representing England and Scotland, respectively), is recorded in a nursery rhyme:
«The lion and the unicorn
were fighting for the crown.
The lion beat the unicorn
all around the town.
Some gave them white bread,
and some gave them brown;
some gave them plum cake
and drummed them out of town».
J. Tenniel, illustration for Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There”. 1871
Of course, we can find a golden unicorn next to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, depicted on the gate of The Queen’s Gallery.
If we walk up the Royal Mile towards the castle, we can find another one on top of the Mercat Cross. This time, the unicorn is holding the Flag of Scotland.
And finally, although there are lots of them in the city, we can find this majestic creature protecting The Meadows, such a beautiful place full of tall trees for an animal like this. After all, nature always finds its ways into the city.
The Scotsman, Scottish fact of the week: Scotland’s official animal, the Unicorn: http://bit.ly/1aY2cLK
I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 442-3.