I can remember when I first – somewhat disbelievingly, I have to admit – discovered that Scotland’s national animal was a unicorn.
A few years ago, an old friend of mine made an appearance on a prime-time Moldovan television show, for the sole reason that he was one of only a handful of foreigners who were living in the eastern European country at the time.
A somewhat surreal cross between Saturday Kitchen and The One Show, the programme saw my mate John, a charity worker from Perth, quizzed by Chisinau’s equivalent of Alex Jones over Scottish culture. He was asked to entertain viewers with a quick demonstration of almost everything Scottish – from kilt-wearing and ceilidh dancing to live stovie-making, all of which he pulled off with aplomb.
What he hadn’t expected, however, was that the Moldovan TV researchers appeared to know more about Scotland than he did, as demonstrated by a short video package explaining that Scotland’s national animal was the uinicorn. John looked as surprised as I was, but a quick google proved that it was true.
More recently, with the advent of all things unicorn in popular culture, the fact has perhaps become better known. Back then, however, it came as something of a shock to everyone. While we are all well acquainted with our other national symbols of the thistle, haggis and Irn-Bru, it seemed like few knew that we had a national animal of our own – albeit one that doesn’t actually exist.
Our favourite mythical animal came to mind when I read recently about the suggestion that a monumental statue should be built on the uninhabited Cramond Island in the Firth of Forth. Business owner Eddie Tait, of Cramond Boardwalk Cafe, revealed he was forming a taskforce of MSPs and councillors to take forward his vision of transforming what he refers to as “Scotland’s Bondi Beach” with a raft of new attractions and features for the area, including the giant statue, which he said could be the equivalent of Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North in Gateshead.
What better to draw visitors to Cramond foreshore than Scotland’s national animal? A huge statue of a unicornon the island could be the first thing that visitors to the capital see when they fly into Edinburgh Airport.
It perhaps sounds like I’ve had one too many shots of Unicorn Tears – yes, such a spirit does actually exist, 40 per cent proof if you’re interested – but the history behind why the unicorn is our national animal dates back centuries. Celtic mythology portrays the unicorn as a symbol of purity and innocence, as well as masculinity and power, which have all appeared in legends as qualities which Scots should proudly embrace. It even has a national day, 9 April, which is celebrated not only in Scotland, but in other unicorn-loving countries. The unicorn was first used on the Scottish royal coat of arms by William I in the 12th century. In the 15th century, when King James III was in power, gold coins appeared with the unicorn on them. When Scotland and England unified under the reign of James VI of Scotland in 1603, the Scottish Royal Arms had two unicorns supporting a shield. One unicorn was replaced by a lion as he became James I of England and Ireland to represemnt the unity between the two countries.
Yes, there is no doubt that we are a country with more than a passing allegiance to the unicorn. There are also more unicorn statues kicking about in Scotland’s towns and cities than you might think. Mercat crosses in Dunfermline, Jedburgh, Melrose, Culross, Falkland, Crail and Cupar all boast unicorn statues, while unicorns are visible at Delgatie Castle in Aberdeenshire and the Kings Fountain at Linlithgow Palace. The animal is also the figurehead of HM Frigate Unicorn in Dundee – one of the world’s oldest wooden ships – while a gatepost at the Palace of Holyroodhouse proudly boasts the mythical creature.
Personally, I am not a huge fan of unicorns, but I have no doubt that this comes from having a primary school age child. The unicorn has been ruined for me and many others. The animal, while once majestic and mythical, has become an icon of My Little Pony-style kitsch. You rarely see a unicorn without a rainbow these days, while their flowing manes are always speckled with glitter. Children’s clothes are adorned with tiny unicorns, huge unicorns and unicorns which change colour when you flip the sequins – and rare is the birthday party for the under-eights which does not include at least one item of unicorn-themed tableware. Similarly, it is almost impossible to buy clothes, pencil cases or stationery without seeing one.
This year, no fewer than four of the top ten toys already predicted to be big hits with children this Christmas are unicorn-themed, ranging from a £229 electric unicorn ride-on to the Poopsie Unicorn Surprise, which “poos” glitter. Urgh. This has to stop.
As a nation, we need to reclaim our national animal and this looks like just the way to do it. Tait’s Cramond statue could be a chance to resurrect this mighty symbol of power and purity and rid it of its nauseating sparkly shroud. We could test the idea by borrowing one of the Kelpies and sticking a horn on it, then watch the visitors pour in. We need to do it for Scotland.