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 untamable 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.
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, though rhinoceros and walrus horns were also used — and 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.