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What unicorns mean to Scottish identity

In a corner of Edinburgh, outside the Palace of Holyroodhouse with its witches’ hat towers and crenellated turrets, 74-year-old tour guide Kenny Hanley can often be found pointing to a little piece of magic atop an ornamental gateway at the residence’s southern approach.

在愛丁堡一隅,荷里路德宮(Palace of Holyroodhouse)有女巫帽形狀的尖塔和有垛牆的塔樓外,人們經常看到74歲的導游漢利(Kenny Hanley)指著宮殿南邊裝飾性大門上方一個神奇的小物件在講解。

The focus of his attention is an almost-forgotten stone emblem of the city and country in which he lives, and yet few realise it’s one that teems with meaning, telling an almost unbelievable story about Scotland’s national identity.


Take a step back, and the fuller picture emerges. There’s a second cast-stone figure opposite – a rampant lion, crowned, and holding a ceremonial flag as it stands guard. But Hanley’s gaze remains drawn to the slender, mythical creature wrapped in chains to our right.


The stone is just stone and the lion is just a lion, but this horse-like figure – adorned with a singularly fancy horn on its forehead – is extraordinary. It is a unicorn. And, believe the hype or not, it is Scotland’s national animal.


Until recently, all talk of unicorns belonged in the glitteriest corner of a children’s playroom. Or on a rainbow-coloured cereal box. It’s a subject rarely cerebral enough to merit debate, but these days, wide-eyed unicorns are everywhere.


From cartoons and movies to fashion and social media, they have a bigger role to play in the public consciousness than ever before. To cap it all, there’s now a National Unicorn Day on 9 April. Hashtag #NationalUnicornDay on Instagram and you’ll find yourself entering a world of sparkly cupcakes and multi-coloured memes. Amid this, let’s not forget JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, inspired by many real places in Edinburgh and brimming with stories of magical unicorn blood and unicorn hair-infused wands.

從動畫片、電影,到時尚、社交媒體,它們在公眾意識中扮演的角色比以往任何時候都重要。4月9日成為蘇格蘭的國家獨角獸日(National Unicorn Day)。在Instagram上輸入#NationalUnicornDay的標簽,你會發現自己走進了一個充滿閃閃發光的紙杯蛋糕和五彩斑斕的“米姆”(meme,也稱模因,一種文化傳播模式)的世界。此時,不要忘記羅琳(JK Rowling)的《哈利波特》(Harry Potter),創作靈感正是來自愛丁堡很多真實存在的地方,書中有關獨角獸具有魔力的血液和用獨角獸的毛制成的魔杖的故事比比皆是。

Not that any of that matters to Hanley, who saw his first unicorn more than 60 years ago, when growing up in the city’s Canongate district near the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

對漢利來說,這些都不重要。60多年前,他還是個孩子,就在距離荷里路德宮不遠的卡農蓋特區(Canongate ),第一次看到獨角獸的模樣。

“It’s long been a symbol of purity and power, but also of virginity and subtlety,” said Hanley, who works as a Blue Badge guide for the Scottish Tourist Guides Association. “And those values still stand up when thinking about Scotland today. These are characteristics embedded in the Scottish psyche.”

“長久以來,它一直是純潔、力量、純真和精巧的象征,”在蘇格蘭導游協會(Scottish Tourist Guides Association)擔任藍牌導游的漢利說。“如今,想到蘇格蘭時,這些價值觀依然站得住腳。這些是深深印在蘇格蘭人心里的象征。”

In most countries, the national animal is little more than a consequence of natural history or geography. Australia’s is the red kangaroo and South Africa’s is the springbok. Spain has the bull, while India venerates the Royal Bengal tiger. Canada celebrates the North American beaver, Russia the Eurasian brown bear. Indonesia? The Komodo dragon. Afghanistan? The snow leopard. Scotland? Well, theirs is more in keeping with a once-upon-a-time world.


To the outsider, this all may seem absurd. Yet today there are dozens of places to see the pure-white, mythical horse of fairy tales at large in Edinburgh ­– and across all of Scotland. Blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality, you can see reminders of its influence on heraldic crests, engravings, gold coins, royal seals, wall panels, coats of arms, tombs and tapestries.


At the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh Castle, Craigmillar Castle and St Giles’ Cathedral, all in Edinburgh, unicorns are ubiquitous. Move west to Linlithgow Palace, the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots, and there are well-preserved unicorns on an inner courtyard fountain and on what remains of the ceiling. Veer north-west to Stirling Castle and the mythical beast is the focus of the intricate Stirling Tapestries, seven hand-woven recreations of ‘The Unicorn Tapestries’ (one of the most valuable artworks of the late Middle Ages; the originals are now on display at the The Met Cloisters in New York).

在愛丁堡的荷里路德宮、愛丁堡城堡(Edinburgh Castle),克雷格米勒城堡(Craigmillar Castle)和圣吉爾斯大教堂(St Giles' Cathedral),獨角獸隨處可見。往西來到蘇格蘭瑪麗女王(Mary Queen of Scots)的出生地林利思哥宮(Linlithgow Palace),內庭的噴泉和殘存的天花板上都有保存完好的獨角獸。往西北方向轉身,來到斯特靈城堡(Stirling Castle),這頭神獸是精美繁復的斯特靈掛毯(Stirling Tapestries)的核心。斯特靈掛毯是七幅手工編織的“獨角獸掛毯”(The Unicorn Tapestries)的復制品。“獨角獸掛毯”是中世紀晚期最寶貴的藝術品之一,原件現在紐約修道院博物館(The Met Cloisters)展出。

And from Aberdeenshire’s Delgatie Castle to Dundee’s HMS Unicorn (Scotland’s oldest surviving wooden warship), via the mercat (or market) crosses of Prestonpans and Glasgow, there are a multitude of cloven-hooved unicorns, crowned at the throat and holding royal cartouches.

從阿伯丁郡(Aberdeenshire)的德爾蓋地城堡(Delgatie Castle)到鄧迪(Dundee)的“獨角獸號戰艦”(HMS Unicorn,蘇格蘭現存最古老的木制戰艦),經過普雷斯頓潘(Prestonpans)和格拉斯哥市集廣場,都有大量的獨角獸。它們脖子上戴著王冠,嘴里銜著皇家勛章。

As a unicorn newbie, I really had no idea where to begin. But the company of one of Scotland’s leading tour guides was as good a place to start as any.


“Everywhere you go in Scotland you can see them,” Hanley told me. “You just need to know where to look. Today, people read history through a 21st-Century lens – be it social media or whatever – and we miss the bigger picture as to how this all came together. Yet there’s a definite thread to follow. The unicorn is a symbol built on an ideology, and learning about it opens doors and surprises you. Even I find it almost unexplainable at times.”


This enigmatic creature has an equally complex and convoluted history that spans some 3,000 years. Considered real by the Ancient Greeks, the horse-like quadrupeds were first mentioned in the 4th Century BC by classical historian Ctesias in Indica, a book on India in which he describes the creature as a ‘wild ass’ with a horn sprouting from its temple.


Belief spread when the unicorn popped up in the Old Testament and references to mythical horses occurred in the Quran (the appearances of which are still wildly debated today), while the existence of other peculiar-looking, flesh-and-blood creatures, such as the rhinoceros, the oryx and the narwhal, did little to dispel the myth. One theory suggests unicorns were flushed off the face of the Earth because they were simply too slow to get onto Noah’s Ark before the flood.

獨角獸出現在《舊約》(Old Testament)中,《古蘭經》(Quran)也有多處提到了這種神話中的馬。這種觀念不斷擴散,但獨角獸存在的真實性至今仍極具爭議。其他看上去奇形怪狀但卻有血有肉的動物,如犀牛、大羚羊和獨角鯨的存在,幾乎沒能消散這種懷疑。有一種理論認為,獨角獸被從地球表面沖走,是因為它們的動作實在太慢,未能在大洪水到來之前登上諾亞方舟。

Over time, the creature came to represent Jesus Christ, while others believed it could only be tamed by virgins. By the 12th Century, the unicorn had made its first appearance in Scotland, placed on the royal coat of arms by William I (also known as William the Lion).


According to the National Museum of Scotland, medieval legend further suggests only a king could hold a unicorn captive because of the supposed danger it posed, something that may have given rise to its widespread adoption. What is known is James II wholeheartedly embraced the legend, and the unicorn became the symbol of purity and power that Scottish kings and nobility identified with in the 15th Century. Over time, this led to the unicorn becoming officially recognised as Scotland’s national animal.

據蘇格蘭國家博物館(National Museum of Scotland)介紹,中世紀的傳說稱,因為獨角獸很危險,只有國王才能馴服它。這導致獨角獸的形象被廣泛采用,詹姆斯二世全心相信這個傳說,獨角獸在15世紀成為蘇格蘭國王和貴族認同的純潔和力量的象征。隨著時間的推移,獨角獸得到官方的認可,成為蘇格蘭國獸。

What started with James II flourished through a succession of his ancestors – notably James III, James IV and his grandson James V – who ensured its appearance on coins, royal seals and coats of arms. Indeed, the Royal Coat of Arms of Scotland, used prior to 1603 before the Union of the Crowns (the accession of James VI of Scotland to the thrones of England and Ireland), was supported by not one, but two unicorns.

從詹姆斯二世開始的傳統被他的連續幾任繼任者發揚光大,尤其是詹姆斯三世、詹姆斯四世和詹姆斯五世,他們把獨角獸印在在硬幣、皇家印章和盾徽上。在1603年的王室聯合(Union of the Crowns)時期,蘇格蘭的詹姆斯六世登上英格蘭和愛爾蘭的王位之前,蘇格蘭皇室盾徽上是兩只獨角獸,而不是一只獨角獸。

Despite such evocative history, the mythical beast remains misunderstood, at least according to one fervent Scottish believer. Liam Devlin is Scotland’s official Unicorn Pursuivant, a badge of office for the Court of the Lord Lyon, which helps bring order to matters of Scottish heraldry. Devlin, now in his fourth year in the role, believes the unicorn’s true meaning is getting lost in metaphor.

盡管有如此令人回味的歷史,但仍有狂熱的蘇格蘭信徒認為,人們對獨角獸這種神秘動物存在誤解。德夫林(Liam Devlin)是蘇格蘭官方的獨角獸紋章官(Unicorn Pursuivant),這是協助管理蘇格蘭紋章事務的萊昂紋章官(Court of the Lord Lyon)下屬的一個職位。已上任四年的德夫林認為,獨角獸真正的含義正消失在隱喻中。

“Its significance is being damaged by politicians [around the world, particularly when it comes to Brexit] who use it as an image of uncertainty and fanciful thinking,” said Devlin, who is also a Knight of Malta and a member of The Heraldry Society of Scotland. “Some Scottish nationalists also think the unicorn’s chains symbolise our subjugation from England. But that’s nonsense. The chains predate the Acts of Union in 1707 [that led to the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain] and show the savage nature of the beast – it is not My Little Pony with a horn. So it would be good to administer a history lesson to these unpatriotic politicians.”

“它的重要性正在被世界各地的政客削弱,尤其是在英國脫歐問題上,他們把它當作一種象征不確定性和異想天開的形象,”同時也是馬耳他騎士和蘇格蘭紋章協會(The Heraldry Society of Scotland)會員的德夫林說。“一些蘇格蘭民族主義者還認為獨角獸身上的鎖鏈象征著英格蘭對我們的征服,但這完全是無稽之談。鎖鏈的出現早于1707年的《聯合法案》(Acts of Union,該法案促成了大不列顛聯合王國(United Kingdom of Great Britain)的成立。身上的鎖鏈表現的是獨角獸的暴烈野性,它可不是長角的小馬駒。因此,給這些不愛國的政客上一堂歷史課是必須的。”

For the best part of three decades, another Scot, 72-year-old John Donaldson, has worked to bring unicorns back into the national conversation through art. The self-taught woodcarver has added to the architectural and heraldic legacy of the country in a way that no-one else has – and his works are beyond staggering.

30年來,另一名蘇格蘭人、72歲的唐納森(John Donaldson)大部分時間都致力于通過藝術讓獨角獸重新成為全國話題。這位木雕藝術家自學成才,以無人可及的方式為這個國家的建筑和紋章遺產做出貢獻,其作品令人嘆為觀止。

In particular, Donaldson worked with Historic Environment Scotland on the seven-year refurbishment of Stirling Castle, recreating the magnificent Stirling Heads – 16th-Century oak medallions carved with images of kings, queens and nobles – as well as a 1.8m by 1.2m ceiling boss of King James V’s crest and coat of arms for the King’s Bed Chamber. Unicorns, of course, are front and centre.

尤其是,唐納森與蘇格蘭歷史環境局(Historic Environment Scotland)合作,用七年的時間修復斯特林城堡,復原華麗的斯特林頭像(Stirling Heads)——16世紀時用橡樹雕刻的圓形國王、王后和貴族頭像。他還修復了1.8米乘1.2米的詹姆斯五世國王徽章和國王臥室盾徽凸飾。當然,獨角獸都是核心。

“It’ll be on the ceiling for hundreds of years and it’s a great legacy to leave behind for Scotland,” he told me. “This story shouldn’t be relegated to our past, because it’s a distinct part of our heritage, and our past is our future. People come here to see history, and whether that’s castles or unicorns, it’s a major attraction and part of our national fabric. It’s who we are.”


So, should you visit Stirling Castle or stand gazing upon a mercat cross, you may find yourself pointing to a little piece of magic, too. And amid the reality – maybe, just maybe – you might see the unicorn, Scotland’s venerated animal, in a whole different light.




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