Scottish Symbols – Their Origins and Meanings

All of the national symbols of Scotland may be seen in the Royal Coat of Arms


How Well Do You Know All The National Scottish Symbols?

When putting together a highland wear outfit, most men think about the kilt first and foremost. However, a good deal of thought can also go into the accessories. Here at the shop, we are often asked by customers to explain the symbolism on our belt buckles, brooches, kilt pins, cap badges, and sporrans. Our first response is to remind them that which accesories they choose is entirely up to them — it’s a matter of taste, style and the context in which they wish to use the outfit. For those who want their kilt ensemble to really scream “Alba Gu Brath!”, there are many options that speak to Scottish pride through ancient national symbols. Here’s a quick re-cap of the most popular.



The thistle may be the most ancient symbol of Scotland

The thistle has been among the Scottish symbols since the reign of Alexander III (1249–1286) who was probably the first monarch to use the humble thistle as an emblem. Another early appearance is on silver coins issued in 1470 by James III. It is the emblem of Scotland’s high chivalric order, the Order of the Thistle and also appears in the base of the Royal Coat of Arms . The so-called “guardian thistle” is also the origin of one of Scotland’s official mottos: “No-one harasses me with impunity.” Usually written in the Latin, “Nemo me impune lacessit.” According to legend, the night before the Battle of Largs (1263) Norwegian troops were sneaking up on the resting army of Alexander III. One Norse warrior stepped on a thistle and his screams of agony alerted the Scots to the threat. The legend can’t be proven, but the thistle certainly reflects the prickly attitude of the Scots towards those who would subdue them.



 The rampant Scottish lion takes many forms

The rampant lion we all know and love is technically the central charge (heraldic symbol)on the Royal Banner of Scotland (Gaelic: Bratach rìoghail na h-Alba, Scots: Ryal banner o Scotland). This golden flag is very familiar and is reproduced on many articles even though technically its use is restricted to the King of Scots and Great Officers of State — official representatives of the Sovereign. The banner is “emblazoned” in heraldic language as Or, a lion rampant Gules armed and langued Azure within a double tressure flory counter-flory of the second. Translation: a red lion standing upright with blue tongue and claws within a red two-lined border decorated with opposing pairs of floral icons, all on a yellow or gold background. It will always be seen flying above royal residences when the Sovereign is not present.

The earliest depiction of the rampant lion of ScotlandProbably the earliest recorded use of the Lion Rampant was by King William I who became known posthumously as “William the Lion” because of the symbol (even though various forms of the lion had been used by earlier Scottish monarchs going back to the 11th century). His successor, Alexander II adopted it around 1222. Alexander III (1249–1286) also used it but added the double border set with lilies. Since 1603, when James VI acceded to the thrones of England and Ireland, the Lion Rampant has represented Scotland in the royal arms and banners of successive British monarchs.




The Saltire flag of Scotland is based on the cross of St Andrew

‘Saltire’ is actually a heraldic term for any X-shaped cross. THE Saltire, the national flag of Scotland, gets its name from this shape (Gaelic: Bratach na h-Alba, Scots: Banner o Scotland). More importantly, the Scottish Saltire is a representation of the cross of Saint Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland, who was crucified on such a cross in the 1st century AD. According to legend, the blue/white saltire shown on the flag appeared as a mystical symbol during a battle which pitted Scots and Picts against the Angles (Athelstaneford, 832 A.D.). King Óengus II, the Scottish leader, had prayed to St. Andrew for victory the night before the battle. The next morning, he and his men beheld a white cross of clouds in a perfectly clear blue sky. Taking it as a sign of divine support, the Celtic army was spurred to victory and in gratitude, Óengus declared St. Andrew the patron saint of Scotland. It is perhaps the oldest of the Scottish symbols.

The Jacobite Highlanders wore blue bonnets into battle

Images of St. Andrew with, or on, his cross appear in Scotland as early as 1180 during the reign of King William I (the Lion king we mentioned above). Andrew may also be seen on official seals dating to the late 13th century. Scottish soldiers fighting in France in the 14th century wore a white saltire on their tunics – perhaps the earliest solid use of the symbol in a military context. The earliest print image of a St. Andrew’s cross flag appears in the Vienna Book of Hours (1503), but in this depiction the white cross is on a red field. Use of a blue field is about as old — Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount’s Register of Scottish Arms (1542) depicts such a flag.

Perhaps the most romantic and stirring image of the Saltire is in the form of a hat. Not just any hat, but the famous blue bonnets worn by Jacobite rebels during the Uprising of 1745-46 which ended in the tragic Battle of Culloden. Dyed with woad, the felted wool “scone cap” was actually a very popular workingman’s hat for years – perfect practical protection for damp weather. The Jacobites made it a symbol of affiliation on the field of battle by decorating it with a white ribbon sewn into the the shape of St. Andrew’s cross — a wearable a saltire.



Anyone with pride in their heritage can wear the Scottish National tartan

 There are several universal tartans listed on the official national registry.  A few, like Royal Stewart and Blackwatch, are defacto national tartans — instantly recognizable as emblems of Scotland the world over. However, there is an official national tartan. Created in 1993 and recorded by the Scottish Tartans Society in 1994, ‘Scottish National’ was designed originally for the Scottish National Party. It has since lost any specific political association and merely represents Scottish pride and heritage. It’s an easy option for anyone who is unsure about wearing a clan tartan but wants something more significant than a “fashion tartan”.


And Finally The Unicorn.

Did you know that the unicorn is the national animal of Scotland? It’s true! This is an unusual outgrowth of Scottish heraldry and the whims of Royalty.

First used on the royal coat of arms by William I in the 12th century, the unicorn has been one of the most popular Scottish symbols ever since. In the 15th century, King James III minted gold coins featuring the unicorn. In 1603 when Scotland and England were unified under James VI of Scotland, the Scottish Royal Arms included two unicorns as supporters (see the picture at the top of this article). When James VI became James I of England and Ireland, he replaced the unicorn on the left with the national animal of England, the lion, to show that the countries were indeed unified.

So why a unicorn? Unicorns in mythology of the Middle Ages represent dignity, innocence and purity. They could only be captured, theoretically, by using a virgin girl as the bait — the wary beast only being comfortable around an innocent. Otherwise, the magical beast could not and would not be conquered. In Scotland, the unicorn symbolizes this strength — the will to always be free.

Of course, this doesn’t prevent people from having a bit of fun with it…


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