carved unicorn at Linlithgow Palace

As you visit palaces, castles and sculptured stones around Scotland, you’ll spot these magical creatures in various guises. These shy beasts can be glimpsed in statues, engravings and coats of arms around Scotland.

See how many you spot this year, and don’t forget to share your photos with us using the hashtag #HistoricDaysAwait. Let the unicorn adventures begin!

Preston Market Cross

Starting in East Lothian, you can see one of the finest surviving market crosses in Scotland. Now at the edge of Prestonpans, Preston Market Cross was once at the heart of the old town of Preston. Perched at the top of a 6m tall classical column stands a unicorn, crowned at the throat and supporting a cartouche carved with a lion rampant.

Two views of Preston Market cross. THe first shows the entire structure - a small round base with a tall column and a unicorn carving on top. THe second image shows a close up of the carved unicorn. It is painted white and carries a shield with a red lion rampant.

The base of the market cross would have served as the town gaol.

 

Tarves Tomb

Explore Aberdeenshire, and come to face to face with a renaissance lord and lady at the beautifully carved Tarves Tomb. The whole tomb is bursting with heraldic imagery and even images of the lord and lady themselves. If you look closely you can make out two unicorns on a coat of arms, representing the Preston family from whom the Gordons acquired Tolquhon.

Ornate carving including a coat of arms which has unicorn heads in the top right and bottom left quarters. A boars head is carved in the other two quarters.

Kilmodan Sculptured Stones

Head to Kilmodan Sculptured Stones where you can visit a collection of finely carved late-medieval graveslabs. These slabs depict a range of animals, both real and fantastic – there’s a deer hunt, animals battling with axes and spears, and a solitary unicorn.

View of a grave slab which features a medieval carving of entertwined animals, including a unicorn

Craigmillar Castle

Known as Edinburgh’s ‘other castle’, Craigmillar Castle was famously used as a safe haven in 1566 by Mary Queen of Scots. The Preston coat of arms is present around the castle, and it depicts three unicorns.

An ornate carving featuring a shield with three unicorn heads held by two lions

Linlithgow Palace

The magnificent ruins of royal ‘pleasure palace’ Linlithgow are perfect for exploring. The royal emblem can be found throughout the palace – see if you can find the unicorns on the ornate fountain, and on ceiling bosses around the palace.

view looking up at the carved stone fountain, which features a carved unicorn

Spynie Palace

As you spot wildlife and explore the beautiful surroundings of Spynie Palace, see if you can spot the unicorn holding the royal arms. This medieval bishop’s house in the north of Scotland was used as a guesthouse for travelling royalty, and features ‘David’s Tower’- the largest tower house by volume to survive in Scotland.

heraldic symbols carved above a doorway, including a unicorn with a shield

Stirling Castle

This brings us to the mighty Stirling Castle.

In the Queen’s Inner Hall, you’ll find a set of seven intricate and beautiful hand-woven tapestries. They are closely based on the Hunt of the Unicorn series which were created in the Low Countries in the early 1500s and are now in the Metropolitan Museum of New York at its Cloisters Museum.

The huge new tapestries were created in a £2 million project which took 13 years to complete and allow visitors to recapture the atmosphere of Scotland’s royal court.

a woman dressed in renaissance clothes stands in front of the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry, which shows the unicorn being attacked by hunting dogs

Just visiting Scotland? The best way to get out and spot all of our unicorns is with an Explorer Pass.

Live close by? Sign up for Historic Scotland membership. It’s a fantastic value way to visit all of our sites and daytime events for free.


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About Author

Rachel Pickering

Rachel Pickering works in the Cultural & Natural Resources team. As Cultural Resources Advisor she is responsible for providing archaeological and historical advice on Historic Environment Properties in the Edinburgh region. This includes commissioning research, advising on archaeological matters relating to the sites in care, and contributing to interpretation projects.