Scotland’s Elusive Unicorns

A few conversations on Twitter going on about Scotland’s unicorns and why they’re chained. I had previously asked my late friend Harry, see 09/04/2018 @ 23:17, about Scotland’s having taken on the unicorn as the national animal. He was a heraldry professor & fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, but couldn’t tell me definitively why the unicorn was adopted. I know he’d sent me a letter with his scant findings but I’m unable to put my hands on that just now. He had given me, at a later a point, a scrap of paper with some books he wanted me to track down for him, which I found it just there in a notebook and happens to have some of his notes from his wee bit of research.

Harry Unicorn Thoughts

So I looked at the collection wondering which publication were most likely to yield information about Scotland’s unicorns or more on why, in the Royal Seal, they’re chained. I decided on about 5 different titles of which only one came close, having seals and coins depicted, ‘Pictorial History of Scotland‘ (1884-1888). I started with it’s sister publication ‘Pictorial History of Scotland‘ (1859), being easier to flick through but near impossible to scan.

Knowing “the earliest known illustration of the unicorn as a supporter of the arms of Scotland is said to be on a gold coin of James III., and issued about the year 1483,”1 I headed straight for his chapter. Nothing about unicorns, no coins or seals depicted. So, I went through what there was and that’s what constitute the following scans. You’ll perhaps notice that the seals and coins are attributed to kings up until James I. [1406-1437] then jumps forward a century, missing Jameses II.-V., to Mary, Queen of Scots [1542-1567].

However, now what I’m curious about is what the four wolf/fox/dog-headed snakes coming out the corners of David II.’s (scan 3, pic. 6) and Robert Bruce’s (scan 5, main pic.) thrones are? Also the two dragons(?) beneath the throne of same seal of David II. as previously and Robert II. (scan 6, pic. 1)? Comment below if you’ve knowledge and please include sources, if possible, so the information can be followed up on.

Scottish Seals & Coinsa

James Taylor D.D. (1884), ‘Pictorial History of Scotland’, Vol.1, London: H. Virtue and Company, p.96a;
“A silver coin and the Great Seal of Alexander I.”
“A silver coin and the Great Seal of David I.”

Scottish Seals & Coinsb

James Taylor D.D. (1884), ‘Pictorial History of Scotland’, Vol.1, London: H. Virtue and Company, p.136a;
                       “1. Seal of Malcolm IV.                         3. Coin of William I.
                        2. Seal of William I.                             4. Privy Seal David I.
5. Seal of Edward Baliol.”

Scottish Seals & Coinsc

James Taylor D.D. (1884), ‘Pictorial History of Scotland’, Vol.3, London: H. Virtue and Company, p.280a;
“1. Great Seal of John Baliol.              4. Silver Coin of Robert II.
 2. Silver Coin of David II.                 5. Coin of John Baliol.
 3. Coin of John Baliol.                        6. Great Seal of David II.”

Scottish Seals & Coinsd

James Taylor D.D. (1884), ‘Pictorial History of Scotland’, Vol.3, London: H. Virtue and Company, p.320a;
“1. Great Seal of Alexander II.             3. Seal of Euphemia Wife of Robert I.
 2. Coin of Alexander II.                      4. Coin of Alexander III.
5. Great Seal of Alexander III.”

Scottish Seals & Coinse

James Taylor D.D. (1884), ‘Pictorial History of Scotland’, Vol.6, London: H. Virtue and Company, p.208a;
“Seal Coins and Skull of King Robert Bruce.”
Scottish Seals & Coinsf
James Taylor D.D. (1884), ‘Pictorial History of Scotland’, Vol.1, London: H. Virtue and Company, p.264a;
“1. Great Seal of Robert II.              3. Coin of Robert III.
 2. Coin of Queen Mary.                 4. Coin of James I.
5. Great Seal of Robert III.”
1  From ‘Scots Lore‘ chapter ‘A Mediaeval Architect. His Work at St. Andrews and Melrose.’

Unicorns in the Press

   Several of the whale-fishing ships are returned to their ports, richly laden. The Prince of Wales, one of those belonging to the Edinburgh new company, has brought home the head and horn of a sea-unicorn, which they cut off from the body, found floating on the water, mostly consumed by sharks. The horn is beautifully wreathed and twisted, and about seven feet long. It is a great curiosity, and lodged in the royal infirmary, whither many persons go to see it – The unicorn’s horn (Pereyra says in his account of Greenland) is the tooth of a large fish of the whale kind, called by the islanders narwal, which serves it as a weapon of defence, with which it dares to attack the largest whale, and can strike it with such violence as even to pierce the side of a strong built ship. – We shall here add an article which was in the news-papers some time ago, viz. “St Eustatia, July 20, 1751. In our passage from the main hither, June 26. in lat. 15. long. 61. about eleven o’clock at night, we were struck by a sword-fish (or sea-unicorn) on our starboard-bow, which run his horn through our outside plank, a timber of ten inches thick, and cieling, into the hold, broke his horn off, and left it in the hold ten inches. We reckon that the horn went through fourteen inches and a half of solid oak.” 

Scots Magazine, 3rd June, 1754. 

   P.S. SEA-SNAKE. In our last, we announced the Rev. Mr Fleming’s discovery of the Small-headed Narwhal, or Sea-Unicorn, at the Sound o Weisdale in Shetland. This was an excellent and rare addition to the Fauna of Scotland. But we have, this month, to congratulate zoologists on the appearance, in Orkney, of a still greater rarity;- an animal, nearly 60 feet long, yet a non-descript, or unknown to the writings of Linnæus and other systematic naturalists. It is the Great Sea-snake, described and figured by Pontoppidan in his History of Norway, and which has very generally been considered as a fabulous monster: at least, it evidently appears to be the animal which has served as the prototype of the Serpens marinus magnus of the Bishop of Bergen. For particulars, we refer our readers to the report of the proceedings of the Wernerian Natural History Society, (p. 805). The destruction of this wonderful specimen by the fury of the waves is much to be regretted. It will not, in consequence, be possible to form, with precision, a generic character on Linnæan principles; and centuries may revolve, before another animal of the same sort shall again be wafted to our shores. 

Edinburgh,                                                                                                                                                     N

Nov. 25th 1808. 

Scots Magazine, 1st November, 1808. 

   The Unicorn discovered. – Major Latter, commanding in the Rajah of Sihkims territories, in the hilly country east of Nepaul, has addressed to Admiral-General Nicol a letter, in which he states that the Unicorn, so long considered as a fabulous animal, actually exists at this moment in the interior of Thibet, where it is well known to the inhabitants. “This,”! says the Major, “is a very curious fact, and it may be necessary to mention how the circumstance became known to me. In a Thibetian manuscript, containing the names of the different animals, which I procured the other day from the hills, the Unicorn is classed under the head of those whose hoofs are divided; it is called the one-horned Tso’po. Upon inquiring what kind of animal it was, to our astonishment, the person who brought me the manuscript described exactly the Unicorn of the ancients: saying, that it was a native of the interior of Thibet, about the size of a [lacuna], (a horse from twelve to thirteen hands high,) fierce and extremely wild; seldom, if ever, caught alive, but frequently shot; and the flesh was used for food. The person who gave me this information, has repeatedly seen these animals, and eaten the flesh of them. They go together in herds, like our wild buffaloes, and are very frequently to be met with on the borders of the great desert, about a month’s journey from Lassa, in that part of the country inhabited by wandering Tartars.” This communication is accompanied by a drawing made by the messenger from recollection: it bears some resemblance to a horse, but has cloven hoofs, a long curved horn growing out of the forehead, and a boar-shaped tail, like that of the “fera monoceros,” described by Pliny. From its herding together, as the Unicorn of the Scriptures is said to do, as well as from the rest of the description, it is evident that it cannot be the Rhinoceros, which is a solitary animal: besides, Major Latter states, that in the Thibetian manuscript, the Rhinoceros is described under the name of serva [?], and classed with the Elephant; “neither,” says he, “is it the wild horse, (well known in Thibet,) for that has also a different name, and is classed in the M.S. with the animals which have the hoofs undivided.” “I have written (he subjoins) to the Sachia Lama, requesting him to procure me a perfect skin of the animal, with the head, horn, and hoofs; but it will be a long time before I can get it down, for they are not met with nearer than a month’s journey from Lessa.” 

Aberdeen Press and Journal, 24th January, 1821. 

    The Rev. John Campbell (who is attached to the London Missionary Society) has twice visited the missionary stations in South Africa. It appears that Me Campbell’s last visit has been productive of a discovery alike important to revelation and to science. At a city which he reached beyond Lattakoo, the inhabitants, on complaining that their harvest that year had been defective, urged Mr C. to request his men to shoot a rhinoceros for them. His Hottentots accordingly went in pursuit of one, and were providentially directed to an animal which, in the Scriptures, is called the unicorn. It was long thought that the rhinoceros was the animal there described; but the head of the one shot being brought to Mr C. he immediately perceived it to be the unicorn of the Scriptures! He has deposited the horn in the museum of the London Missionary Society: and in the opinion of the scientific men, it is pronounced to be that of the unicorn so long sought after. 

Aberdeen Press and Journal, 7th November, 1821. 

The Elasmotherium is also dubbed the “Siberian Unicorn,” and there are a few reports suggesting it’s the source of the unicorn myth, but it died out about 27,000 years ago. Perhaps cave paintings, or found skulls, led to an early knowledge of this animal having previously existed?

The unicorn is likely the symbol of Scotland due to the idea that it would rather die than be captured, which was a feeling strongly possessed by those patriotic Scots as they attempted to prevent varying incursions from the country to the south.

3 thoughts on “Scotland’s Elusive Unicorns

  1. The choice of unicorn as Scotland’s beast presumably because it is mortal enemy of the lion in mythology

    1. What would that then signify? Scan 2 shows a resting lion & a lion rampant, in Scan 4 you’ll see Euphemia was a fan of lions rampant, Scan 5 has 2 lions on the reverse of Robert Bruce’s coin and again in Scan 6.
      Do you suppose Scotland adopted the unicorn to be the enemy of her already chosen heraldry symbol, the lion rampant?
      You could be on to something but I’m not sure yet what 😉

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