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So, Long, Long Ago, The Lion and the Unicorn Were Fighting for the Crown…
By Brianna Duff
I have a picture of the Queen Elizabeth Gate in Hyde Park from the first time I went to London. At the time, young and so in culture shock as I was, I had no idea what this gate or the two animals on it represented. It was simply a beautiful piece of ironwork with a unicorn on the right and a red lion on the left, one’s paws raised toward the other’s hoofs and a tree blossoming between them.
When I sat down to write about the unicorn of Scotland, this picture was the first thing I thought of–it is an image I have never forgotten. Perhaps it is because I have always loved mythical creatures, and the sudden appearance of a golden-haired unicorn in the middle of Hyde Park enchanted me when I first saw it. I had wondered what it was then, but it wasn’t until today, as I pulled out this picture and propped it on my computer screen monitor before writing, that I really understood. The unicorn is more than just a fairy tale.
The unicorn is, in fact, the representing figure of Scotland, born from a long history dating back to the early 12th century. Because of the unicorn’s lasting presence in mythology, it carries with it the tale of a creature that has always been innocent and pure, as joyful as life itself. It is also a fierce creature that would rather die than be captured into slavery. This duality–the combination of male strength and female nurturing–made the unicorn a creature of harmony that soon came to represent Christ for its set of mixed traits. Because of this call to Christendom, Scottish knights would hold shields bearing the unicorn, not only as a reminder of fierce pride, but also of the chivalric virtue that they were first and foremost servants to Christ.
Fast-forward a couple hundred years and soon Scotland has adapted the unicorn as its official national animal. King James III (1466-1488) minted gold coins bearing the mythical creature, and the Scotland Royal coat of arms featured two unicorns supporting the shield. In many ways, the stubbornness of the creature to never stop fighting for its independence mirrored many of Scotland’s own struggles to remain politically independent.
This independence changed when King James VI of Scotland took over the English throne as well as the Scottish following the death of Elizabeth I. The unicorn was then joined with the English lion to create the symbols I had seen on the gate in Hyde Park: the animals opposite one another to show the joining of countries.
But, it was not a peaceful turnover. The unicorn and the lion were, in mythology, always feuding creatures. The unicorn was said to hold power through unity and the lion through might, and the two were always struggling to be king of the beasts. This same unease was present in the places they represented. Even today, Scotland’s Royal arms feature the unicorn on the left side of the shield while the English feature it on the right. (In case you didn’t know anything about coat of arms, like me, the left side of the shield, called dexter, is considered the side of greatest honor.)
So, even today, the unicorn stands proud for Scotland and fights for the right of independence and unity. It may not be the unicorn you would typically think of, with its maidens and castles, but it is a symbol that is stronger than you would imagine, catching eyes as it did mine so many summers ago.