Facts about Scotland’s national animal the Unicorn

NOW that we know that the unicorn is Scotland’s national animal, what else can we learn about our favourite mythical beast? (Sorry, Nessie.)
The unicorn is an icon of Scottish culture. Picture: TSPLThe unicorn is an icon of Scottish culture. Picture: TSPL
The unicorn is an icon of Scottish culture. Picture: TSPL

1. Unicorns are mentioned in the King James Bible, nine times – in Numbers, Deuteronomy, Job, Isaiah and Psalms – thanks to a mistranslation of the Hebrew word “re’em” which actually referred to a type of wild ox. Their earliest surviving literary mention, however, is from Ancient Greece. When the physician Ctesias left his home at Cnidus in 416BC to spend 18 years at the Persian court, he wrote of his experiences there, including this description of a unicorn: “There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads are dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about eighteen inches in length. The dust filed from this horn is administered in a potion as a protection against deadly drugs.” They also make an appearance in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, in Through the Looking-glass, where a unicorn tells Alice “Now that we have seen each other, if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you,” in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and The Tempest, and of course in the Harry Potter books, although not in the latter work of JK Rowling. When explaining her decision to set her first adult novel outside the wizarding world, Rowling said: “There are certain things you just don’t do in fantasy. You don’t have sex near unicorns. It’s an iron-clad rule. It’s tacky.”

2. The unicorn saved India from the grasp of the formidable Genghis Khan. Having swept across Asia to create one of the most comprehensive empires in history, Khan was preparing for what should have been another relatively effortless invasion when a unicorn appeared and knelt before him. The dumbfounded Khan took this as a sign from heaven not to attack, and commanded his army to turn back.

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3. Leonardo da Vinci’s home town of Vinci, Tuscany, plays host to an annual unicorn festival. The Festa dell’Unicorno is a mid-summer frenzy of medieval and fantasy role-play and sees the hill-top town fill with knights and goblins, Queen Amidalas and steampunks, and of course, unicorns, mingling at fire shows, banquets, archery competitions, markets and duels. In one of his otherwise impressively scientifically accurate notebooks, da Vinci explained the reasoning behind the medieval belief that only a virgin could capture a unicorn: “The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.”

4. According to writer and heraldry expert Gordon Casely, we can credit James I with the introduction of the unicorn to Scottish life: “Having spent 18 years in captivity in England, in 1424 James brought back to Scotland with him the idolising of the unicorn. It is no coincidence that two years after his return, James created a new Officer of Arms, the Unicorn Pursuivant, to join the heralds at the Court of the Lord Lyon. Less than three decades later, unicorns appeared as supporters on the Royal Arms. When James VI became King James I of England and VI of Scotland on the death of Elizabeth of England in 1603, he ordered the drawing of new Royal Arms, which incorporated the lion of England as well as Scotland’s unicorn. This was a move not without mythological irony, for in folklore, the lion and the unicorn are sworn enemies, a tradition dating back to the Babylonians of 3500 BC. An English nursery rhyme of the period sums up the animosity:

‘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’.”

5. The Scots Gaelic name for the unicorn is aon-adharcach. Proof positive that the myth of the horned horse got around a fair bit, it is in Welsh, uncorn; French, licorne; German, Einhorn; Spanish, unicornio; Dutch, eenhoorn; Polish, jednorożec; Swahili, nyati; Afrikaans, buffel; Greek, monokeros; Hebrew, Had-Keren and in Arabic, karkadan.

6. Having had their existence doubted for centuries, nowadays unicorns are like, so mainstream. A mere few years ago, if Dalston, Portland, the West End of Glasgow, pockets of Leith and large swathes of Berlin had teamed up to form The People’s Republic of Hipsters, the unicorn would have been its preferred heraldic symbol too, judging by the proliferation of unicorn masks seen at music festivals, mono-horn monikered Tumblrs and pages of unicorn-themed merchandise available from the Urban Outfitters online store. But by 2011, the dream was over, and YouTube vlogger Unicourt was wandering around Silverlake (LA’s Williamsburg) in a unicorn onesie asking hipsters (whom she defined as anyone who looks like they might be one but says they are not) if they still loved her, even though she was now “totally mainstream”.

7. According to local legend the Unicorn Cave – or Einhornhöhle – in the Harz mountain range in Germany was discovered when a wise old woman who dispensed advice to those in need was protected by a unicorn from a monk who sought to drive her away from the nearby church. The woman joined the witches’ community on the Brocken mountain and the monk disappeared into a hole in the ground, which was subsequently known as the Unicorn Cave. In 1686, mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz visited the cave and wrote a report about it, mentioning the local trade in “unicorn” bones found in the cave and used for making medicine. In 1663, Otto von Guericke, physicist and mayor of the town of Magdeburg, wrote about prehistoric bones found in the Zeunickenberg, a mountain in the Harz range, saying that in his opinion they were the remains of a unicorn. Based on Guericke’s writings, Leibniz drew a reconstruction of the unicorn’s skeleton using the bones that had been found in the cave, which appeared in his earth science textProtogaea.

8. The Western Isles have their own version of the myth of the unicorn. The baiste na scoghaigh is a creature more akin to a Clydesdale than an elegant symbol of chivalry and purity, but with the same single horn atop its head. As with the unicorn, there are no female baiste, however unlike the unicorn, the baiste race mates by taking on human form and seeking out human women, with whom it produces only sons. Weakling offspring, however, need not apply – runts are regarded as an affront to the baiste’s virility and swiftly despatched with its fearsome horn.

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9. Healing properties were attributed to the unicorn horn, or alicorn, through the ages, with horns available for purchase at apothecaries until the 18th century, when the narwhal was discovered. In the 12th century, abbess Hildegard of Bingen recommended an ointment against leprosy made from foie de licorne – unicorn liver – and egg yolk. A belt made of unicorn hide leather was meant to protect the wearer from the plague, while unicorn leather shoes were said to guard against diseases of the feet. It was believed that the unicorn purified water by dipping its horn into it as they drank – for this reason, “unicorn horns” were thrown into the canal at the Doge’s Palace in Venice so that the water could never be poisoned. It was one of the most trusted, and therefore expensive, health remedies during the Renaissance, and seen as one of the most valuable assets a king could possess. What was thought to be unicorn horn, but was in fact narwhal tusk, was used to create the throne of Denmark and the sceptre and imperial crown of the Austrian Empire.

10. In 2012 the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s state news service, reported that archaeologists could now confirm the existence of a unicorn lair in the capital city of Pyongyang. The lair was reportedly that of a unicorn ridden by King Tongmyong, monarch of a kingdom which ruled parts of China and the Korean peninsula from the 3rd century BC to 7th century AD. KCNA reported that the team from the History Institute of the DPRK Academy of Social Sciences discovered the lair 200 metres from a temple in the city, adding: “A rectangular rock carved with words ‘Unicorn Lair’ stands in front of the lair.”


A wise man never plays leapfrog with a unicorn – Tibetan proverb

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