The unicorn representing Scotland in the coat of arms is always depicted bounded by a golden chain, often seen passing around its neck and wrapping all around its body. Believed to be the strongest of all animals, it’s possible that the chain symbolises the power of the Scottish kings - that only they had the strength to tame the untameable.
When Scotland and England unified under the reign of James VI of Scotland in 1603, the Scottish Royal Arms had two unicorns supporting a shield. When he later became James I of England and Ireland, James replaced the unicorn on the left of the shield with the national animal of England, the lion, as a display of unity between the two countries.
In Edinburgh, you’ll find these proud creatures dotted along over the city. Escape to the land of make believe and see how many you can spot on our Edinburgh Unicorn Trail……...
The Mercat Cross
The traditional heart of the Old Town, standing in Parliament Square, the Mercat Cross marked the location of Edinburgh’s marketplace, where townspeople would come to buy and sell goods, as well as catch up on the local gossip. Chained, to prove the control of the monarch, the unicorn sits atop.
St Giles' Cathedral
Often overlooked, you’ll find several unicorns hiding among the Victorian woodcarvings at St Giles’ Cathedral. Look closely and you’ll find one which has a particularly unusual fish like tail!
The North Gate, Inverleith Park
The North Gate to Inverleith Park is a large red sandstone arch, framing iron gates to the park. The arch features medallions either side: on the left is a castle, on the right is a lion rampant. Atop the arch is a painted unicorn rampant with a shield.
The Palace of Holyroodhouse
Standing proudly at the gates of the Holyrood Palace you’ll find a statue of a unicorn and a lion, as well as a beautiful heraldic shield on the wall by the gates, and another on the wooden doors of the Queen’s Gallery.
The Queen's official residence in Edinburgh and the home of Scottish royal history, when James IV built the first royal palace in 1503 the gardens were the setting for tournaments, hunting, hawking and archery.
Today, The Queen stays at the Palace during Royal Week each year, usually from the end of June to the beginning of July where, as well as entertaining around 8,000 guests from all walks of Scottish life at the Garden Party during Holyrood week, Her Majesty also holds Investitures in the Great Gallery and audiences in the Morning Drawing Room.
Built in the 1590s, this A-listed merchant’s house was once the dining place for King James VI and contains a beautiful unicorn fresco.
Running off the Royal Mile, but easily overlooked, can be found several historic closes - steep, narrow, alleyways which formed useful through-routes and excellent pedestrian links across the Old Town.
Populated during the 17th century, these closes were arranged as tenements inhabited by residents of all social classes, with the poorest living in the lowest part and the roof rooms (organic timber extensions on the roof), while the wealthier class lived in the middle of the buildings, which could have risen to 14 or 15-storeys high.
The name of each close is visible above and sometimes below the entrance, with some having intriguing names. Some were named after a notable occupant, such as Fisher’s Close - named after Thomas Fisher, the first Chamberlain of Edinburgh, who built a tenement on this site at the end of the 16th century; or Lady Stair’s Close - bought in 1719 by the widow of John Dalrymple, who was the first Earl of Stair, hence its present name. Others are named after a trade associated with the area – such as Bakehouse Close, which takes its name from the bakehouse on the west side of the close; or Sugarhouse Close, where sugar refining took place.
Today, these closes continue to play a part in Edinburgh’s next chapter - accommodating businesses, homes and visitor attractions.
As might be expected in this military stronghold, heraldic animals can be seen throughout the castle. Unicorns can be seen above the fireplace in the Royal Apartments, seated outside the National War Memorial and in front of St Margaret’s Chapel.
Known as Edinburgh’s ‘other castle’, Craigmillar Castle was famously used as a safe haven in 1566 by Mary Queen of Scots. Owner Sir Simon Preston’s coat of arms feature around the castle, which depict three unicorns.
Mason’s Pillars, The Meadows
Situated on either side of Melville Drive at the west end of the Meadows are Mason’s Pillars, a pair of tall (26ft) octagonal stone pillars, surmounted by 7ft high unicorns bearing metal banners. They were erected in 1886 for the Edinburgh International Exhibition of the same year, which was held in the Meadows.
Did you know – 9th April is marked as National Unicorn Day!