Alexander McCall Smith: Save the unicorn before it’s too late!

The word ‘unicorn’ is starting to be used in a negative way by politicians, laments Alexander McCall Smith, after a conversation with a ‘real’ Unicorn.

HMS Unicorns figurehead is far removed from the vaguely creepy versions of the mythical beast sold to children (Picture: John Devlin)

I must admit that I have never felt much interest in unicorns, the beast, it would seem, de nos jours.

Dragons have always struck me as being rather more exciting. Those fire-breathing creatures have long played an important part in religious iconography, where they have tended to run into the likes of St George, to their considerable regret. Mermaids, of course, had their time in the sun, and then along came dinosaurs, who still enjoy considerable popularity amongst those under 12. Fairies and elves, of course, have always frolicked away in the background, and are still of great interest to children.

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Now, it would seem, it’s the turn of unicorns. These mythical beasts, with their single horn, have been growing in popularity in recent years. Now they are everywhere – particularly on merchandise directed at children.

In that context, they are often pink, glittery, and wide-eyed. They are endowed with fluttering eye-lashes and are vaguely creepy, in a syrupy sort of way. They are gender-fluid as well, I suspect, although many of them are designed to appeal to little girls rather than little boys. I would not choose to have one in the house – on aesthetic grounds, principally.

Give me a meerkat any day – another popular creature that seems to have lodged firmly in the human imagination. Meerkats send all the messages that unicorns do not send – meerkats are astute, as opposed to dreamy and ethereal; meerkats advise you on insurance and such matters with a demotic cheeriness; meerkats eschew glitter, and are reassuringly brown. They also eat scorpions for breakfast, which a unicorn would never dream of doing. Finally, meerkats actually exist and one can therefore believe in them without appearing to be simple-minded.

Unicorns have a surprisingly long history for a species that does not even exist. The Greeks considered them real, although presumably thin on the ground in Greece itself, and in early modern times they played an important symbolic role in literature. Unicorns represented shyness and virginity, and the capture of an elusive unicorn stood for the location and taming of beauty. Their horn was reputed to have aphrodisiac qualities, and people paid large sums for powder claiming to be just that – thereby creating problems for the rhino right up to our day.

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Unicorns have now started to seep into our consciousness in a significant way. Not only do we see their image just about everywhere, but they have started to insinuate themselves into the language. Unicorns have become a metaphor that politicians and others have started to use in order to drive home a point. Unicorns themselves, we may assume, are apolitical and have no party affiliation – unlike donkeys and elephants in the United States. So politicians of every stripe can invoke the unicorn if needs be.

So there was Ruth Davidson telling a Conservative conference that people were tiring of being offered free unicorns – a reference to political enticements offered by Labour. The intention of the metaphor is clear enough there, even if it may be arguable that people tire of such offers. In general, I imagine, people enjoy being offered free things, and many voters would be only too ready to vote for any politician who offered them free sandwiches for life. And as for those who believe in unicorns – or, perhaps, want to believe in unicorns – the offer of free unicorns is only too attractive.

And then the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who safely can be assumed not to believe in unicorns, said last November of the Brexit debate that “lots of unicorns (were) taking the place of facts about the future relationship (between the EU and the UK)”. So that’s the leaders of two parties warning us about unicorns. And as for the President of the USA, he has, as far as I know, failed to remark on “fake unicorns”, but that, for all we know, may come before too long. Whether we like it or not, unicorns have now taken their place in our everyday vocabulary.

Curiously enough, some days ago I enjoyed a conversation about unicorns with none other than Unicorn himself. Not everybody knows this, but the officers of the Court of the Lord Lyon, Scotland’s heraldic authority, include a pursuivant called Unicorn. This is an ancient office, along with distinguished but less colourfully named figures such as Rothesay, Snawdoun and Marchmont heralds.

The current Unicorn is a very approachable musician and music-teacher who occupies his office with great charm and good humour. I met him at the funeral of the late Lord Lyon, David Sellar, a kind and scholarly man who brought great learning and innate courtesy to the office of Lord Lyon. David was much-loved all who encountered him, and a large number of Scotland’s historians and proponents of geneaology were gathered for his send-off.

Unicorn drew my attention to the fact that unicorns were cropping up rather a lot in public debate. We both lamented the idea that they could become a negative symbol, as that was not what they had been traditionally. And if anybody has the right to express such a concern, I should think, then it must be Unicorn himself.

Of course nobody can control how language – and metaphor – will develop. We shall, I suspect, hear more about unicorns in parliament and elsewhere. The proliferation of unicorn references will need to be watched, though: metaphors, like powder, are sometimes best kept dry. Let’s not drag unicorns into the rough and tumble of political debate – that is not what they are for. What exactly they are for rather escapes me, but it’s certainly not that.