Every nation has a few things that it’s known for. Scotland has more, a lot more than most! Here are a few that might surprise you.
Scotland’s national animal is the unicorn
America has the eagle, England has the lion, and Scotland has the unicorn. And while the horned mythological creature may not actually exist, the traits it represents certainly do: Purity, independence, and an untameable spirit are all qualities Scotland has long cherished. Unicorns appeared on the country’s coat of arms starting in the 12th century, and were officially adopted as Scotland’s national animal by King Robert I in the late 14th century. For many years, the coat of arms included two of the legendary beings, but in 1603 one was replaced by a lion to mark the Union of the Crowns. Fittingly for the then-newly united England and Scotland, folklore had long depicted the two creatures as butting heads to determine which one was truly the “king of beasts.”
Scottish kings also displayed that fighting spirit, which may be why unicorns were generally depicted in Scottish heraldry as wearing gold chains — only the land’s mighty monarchs could tame them. Unicorns remain popular in Scotland to this day, with renditions found on palaces, universities, castles, and even Scotland’s oldest surviving wooden warship.
Royals used to test their food for poison with faux-unicorn horns
Neither unicorns nor their horns are real, but that hasn’t stopped people from attributing mystical properties to them for centuries. One case in point: European nobility circa the Middle Ages, who used so-called unicorn horns (also known as alicorn) to determine whether or not the meal they were about to consume had been poisoned. The “horns” were actually narwhal tusks in most cases, and were believed to sweat or change color if poison had been detected. Rhinoceros and walrus horns were also used — and all of these stand-ins could cost 10 times their weight in gold. Belief in their powers was widespread for centuries, with no less a monarch than Queen Elizabeth I being a devotee.
The Loch Ness Monster was first written about in the year 565 CE
The earliest report of a monster in the vicinity of Loch Ness appears in the Life of St. Columba (image right) by Adomnán, written in the sixth century AD. According to Adomnán, writing about a century after the events described, Irish monk Saint Columba was staying in the land of the Picts with his companions when he encountered local residents burying a man by the River Ness. They explained that the man was swimming in the river when he was attacked by a "water beast" that mauled him and dragged him underwater despite their attempts to rescue him by boat. Columba sent a follower, Luigne moccu Min, to swim across the river. The beast approached him, but Columba made the sign of the cross and said: "Go no further. Do not touch the man. Go back at once." The creature stopped as if it had been "pulled back with ropes" and fled, and Columba's men and the Picts gave thanks for what they perceived as a miracle.
Columba at the Pictish King Bridei's fort near Loch Ness
The shortest commercial flight in the world is in Scotland
Just two miles separate the Scottish islands of Westray and Papa Westray, which means that the Loganair flight connecting them can last as little as 53 seconds. A number of locals depend on the eight-seat aircraft to go about their daily lives.
Numbers Don’t Lie
- There are 130 whisky distilleries in Scotland
- The word “unicorn” is mentioned 6 times in the King James Bible
- 1707 is the year the Kingdom of Scotland ceased to exist as a sovereign state with the union of parliaments
- 13 percentage of Scots have red hair, compared to 1-2% of the global population