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History: Symbols of Scotland

The Unicorn:

"The lion ands the unicorn
Were fighting for the Crown;
The lion chased the unicorn
All around the town."

The unicorn has long stood as a symbol of Scotland. In heraldry, it appears on the Royal coat of arms, valued for its associations with chastity, nobility, and freedom. Writing in the early 1600s, John Guillim described the symbolic might of this mythological beast:

"The greatness of his mind is such that he rather chooseth to die than be taken alive: wherein the unicorn and the valiant-minded soldier are alike, which both contemn to death, and rather than they will be compelled to undergo any base servitude or bondage they will lose their lives."
~ John Guillim 1
Maiden and Unicorn
Maiden and Unicorn

The unicorn was a fierce, proud, and dangerous creature. He contended all those who would see him captured or oppressed, and would rather die fighting than surrender and face imprisonment or slavery. It is no wonder, then, that this creature was such a perfect symbol for the Scots, who for centuries struggled to remain independent and free of foreign influence. But was also gentle; he understood that knightly ideal according to which exceptional power was necessarily balanced and justified by exceptional responsibility. His solitary nature gave him an air of quiet dignity; he was beautiful and strong. Most importantly, he was the champion of other animals who struggled against their enemies: the creatures of the forest waited patiently by poisoned pools of water for the coming of the unicorn, who would make the water safe for them by dipping into it his magic horn.

Modeled on the golden ideal of aristocratic knighthood, this tale shows the unicorn as a representation of purity, and with this he came to symbolize the figure of Christ. A wild, freedom-loving creature, the unicorn, moreover, could be tamed only by a virgin as equally pure as he. Thus the image of the virgin and the unicorn served as a Christian representation of the Virgin Mary and Christ. The unicorn, as a symbol of chastity, the foremost chivalric virtue, adorned the shields of many Scottish knights to remind them that they were, above all, servants of Christ.

  1. John Guillim, A Display of Heraldry, London, 1610. Sec. iii cap 14. Cf. Shepard, Odell, The Lore of the Unicorn, Avenel Books: New York, 1930. 74
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