Traditions

A magical mystery tour: The stories behind Scotland’s mythical creatures

Want to know where you can see a unicorn in Scotland or come face-to-face with a selkie? Let us lead the way…

Words: Janice Hopper

Scotland is a land of myths and legends, shape-shifting creatures and cautionary tales. These stories have enraptured listeners young and old for centuries, drawing people close around the fireside with fear, passion and wonder in their eyes.

The pull of these tales is still strong today, and you can take a journey around Scotland to discover these wondrous beasts, great and small, rooted in mythology.

Unicorns

A prominent place to begin a tour of Scotland’s mythical creatures is with the unicorn, adopted as Scotland’s national animal in the 15th century.

The concept of the unicorn dates back to roughly 400 BC in India. Over time the unicorn became associated with speed, magical properties, purity, and its horn was said to protect from poison. Those who sought and ‘found’ the unicorn include Marco Polo and his encounter with Javan Rhinoceroses in Sumatra, and the western discovery of Okapi in the Congo.

The beast captivated Scotland and when European kings began incorporating exotic beasts into their coats of arms, James I opted for a striking unicorn. Perhaps the animal’s fierce sense of independence and the challenge of snaring and taming the creature struck a chord. Legend has it that only a monarch can overpower a unicorn, so the chain and crown depicted around unicorns’ necks and bodies suggests they are under the command of a king or queen.

A section of the ‘Hunt of the Unicorn’ tapestry series in Stirling Castle. Credit: Rob Crandall/Alamy

From that point onwards, unicorns were spotted the length and breadth of Scotland. The first Great Seal of Mary, Queen of Scots, a red, sulphur cast, depicts two rearing unicorns on the royal arms. A grand coat of arms can be admired at Falkland Palace, or you can drop by Stirling Castle to admire intricate ‘Hunt of the Unicorn’ tapestries and dine in its Unicorn Café.

Ultimately, Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, is ideal unicorn hunting ground. A royal unicorn stands proudly atop Edinburgh’s Mercat Cross and adorns glass windows and wood carvings in St Giles’ Cathedral. The Palace of Holyroodhouse welcomes visitors with a proud unicorn on the gate post, etched into walls, on plaster ceilings and painted in stone.

Don’t miss

Within Edinburgh Castle, unicorns can be seen in an embroidery and on a coat of arms in the Ante Room of the Royal Apartments. Further unicorn-embellished coats of arms are within the castle’s Laich Hall and Great Hall. And a carved sandstone unicorn is discovered outside the Scottish National War Memorial. For those who really wish to celebrate, 9 April is National Unicorn Day.

Where to Stay

For Edinburgh accommodation close to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Macdonald Holyrood Hotel is reliable. For a base close to Edinburgh Castle and the New Town, try the gorgeous Kimpton Charlotte Square. macdonaldhotels.co.uk; kimptoncharlottesquare.com

This is an extract. Read the full feature in the September/October 2021 issue of Scotland, out on 20th August.

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SCOTLAND MAGAZINE

Published six times a year, every issue of Scotland showcases its stunning landscapes and natural  beauty, and delves deep into Scottish history. From mysterious clans and famous Scots (both past and present), to the hidden histories of the country’s greatest castles and houses, Scotland‘s pages brim with the soul and secrets of the country.
Scotland magazine captures the spirit of this wild and wonderful nation, explores its history and heritage and recommends great places to visit, so you feel at home here, wherever you are in the world.

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