A Unicorn-Hunter's Guide to Scotland
Everything you need to know about Scotland's beloved mystical creatures. For instance: Always carry cheese.
Fun fact: Did you know that the official national animal of Scotland is the unicorn? You'd never catch that vibe just walking around a tourist hotspot like Edinburgh's city center, where there's a noticeable dearth of unicorn merch in the city's Highland cattle and sheep-laden souvenir shops. But the Scottish affinity for unicorns is longstanding. According to a report in The Scotsman, the unicorn was adopted as the country's national symbol in the late 1300s—about 100 years after England adopted the lion. As folklore has it, the unicorn and the lion are natural enemies—and the unicorn was believed to be so powerful, it could defeat an elephant (so, by logic of the transitive property, perhaps lions, as well).
Spend a week in Scotland and it's likely you'll hear about dozens of mystical creatures—all accompanied by lavishly detailed stories intricately weaving their presence into the fabric of daily life. "I think they are probably accepted more casually because the stories have been integrated into Scottish culture for so many years that they are just more commonplace and not always considered particularly magical," University of Edinburgh Archeology Ph.D. student Elyse Waters tells Food & Wine. Waters is writing a dissertation about unicorns (more on that later). "The unicorn, in particular, was finally denied by scholars in 1825, but the existence of unicorns had been widely accepted in not only Scotland, but all of Europe, for many centuries. Although we now tend to think of the unicorn as a magical creature shrouded in mystery, people in Medieval and Renaissance Europe considered the unicorn to be, basically, a rare animal."
From unicorns to Nessie and, yes, even haggis, here are five legendary animals to keep an eye out for on your next journey through Scotland.
Elyse Waters is about to become one of the world's foremost authorities on unicorns. The University of Edinburgh Archaeology student is currently completing her dissertation—The Power of the Unicorn's Horn: Unicorn Artefacts in Renaissance Europe—and planning a research trip to visit unicorn artifacts around Europe.
"Before I started studying unicorns, I didn't particularly notice them either," Waters tell Food & Wine about the creature's subtle presence around the city's tourist attractions. "They are often subtly integrated into decorations. Because of the use of unicorns in heraldry and its religious associations, images of these animals can be found in churches and castles such as Stirling Castle, Edinburgh Castle, St. Giles Cathedral, and Holyrood Palace—to name a few. Statues of unicorns are also found in various places around Edinburgh and Inverness."
Beyond unicorn iconography, legend has it that its horns had magical powers—with practical healing applications. "In relation to food and drink, unicorn horn was actually ingested throughout much of European history," Waters says. "It was believed that the unicorn horn could detect and neutralize poison, so it was kept close to the food and drink of nobility to prevent assassination attempts.
"Because disease was thought to be caused by poisoned air, it was believed that unicorn horn could treat illnesses as well," Waters says. As the folklore goes, she says, "Horns were sometimes scraped to create a powder to mix into food or drink, and other times the horn was left in water so that the believed medicinal properties would be transferred into the liquid. Because so many 'unicorn' objects were employed this way, very few remain today since they were literally eaten away."
Also in contention for ultimate (fictional) animal: the haggis. Yes, that haggis—the savory comfort food dish made from sheep organ meats and oatmeal. Legend has it that haggis comes from a creature by the same name whose left and right legs are different lengths—so it's doomed to a life of running around a hill, only in one direction, clockwise or counterclockwise, depending on which legs are shorter.
This wild haggis folklore has somehow reached as far as America's shores. A poll of 1,000 Americans visiting Scotland in 2003 revealed that a full third of them believed the haggis to be a real wild animal—and "23 percent said they came to Scotland believing they could catch one." One tourist even went so far as to characterize the creature as "a wild beast of the Highlands, no bigger than a grouse, which only came out at night."
While we can't vouch for haggis hunting as a sport, we can say that one of the best places in Edinburgh to come face-to-face with haggis—the food, not the mystical creature—is at high tea at The Balmoral, where Michelin-star Executive Chef Jeff Bland serves it in bite-size bon bon style (he also includes haggis in a more traditional plating—with "neeps and tatties," turnips and potatoes, in the hotel's brasserie, Hadrian's).
LOCH NESS MONSTER
Perhaps the most famous Scottish mystical creature is the Loch Ness monster, affectionately nicknamed Nessie by locals, and rumored to be a large, shy, water-dweller living in Loch Ness, a body of water situated about a three hours' drive from Edinburgh. Of all the creatures mentioned here, the Loch Ness monster is probably the, um, least unreal —considering there have been plenty of "sightings" of the alleged lake-dweller since the seventh century. But without clear photographs, any sonar evidence, and little clear anecdotal evidence beyond vague descriptions of "a dark object" and "several black humps," the existence of Nessie remains inconclusive to this day.
There are dozens of day trip tours operating from tourist hubs within driving distance to Loch Ness, where you can try your own luck at Nessie-spotting. The Loch Ness tour from highly-reviewed Scottish Tours stop in the idyllic hamlet of Kilmahog visits Rob Roy country (Rob Roy is the Scottish Robin Hood), the Rannoch Moor, the Weeping Glen, and the majestic Glen Coe, before arriving at Loch Ness and the ruins of Urquhart Castle. Take a cruise on the loch if you dare—but don't worry, in thousands of years, Nessie hasn't eaten anyone... yet.
Lesser-known to foreigners are Scotland's kelpies—shape-shifting water creatures often taking on the form of a horse—but tourists are bound to see them everywhere. "Falkirk has two enormous statues of kelpie heads 30 meters high," Waters says. In fact, weighing in at 300 tons, Falkirk's kelpies are "the world's largest equine structures," The Scotsmans reports—and they're so beloved that miniature model versions have been making the rounds, with one pair of maquettes set up to guard the entrance to Scottish Parliament for ten days late last month.
Also ubiquitous in Scottish folklore—but less apparent in visual representation, especially in large urban areas—are fairies. Protectors of waterways, wells, lakes, fields, and forests, Scotland's fairies are a "diminutive race of beautiful, lithe creatures" who live in fairy mounds and spend nights dancing "on the hill under the light of the moon, leaving its surface marked with circles of matted, yellowed grass." Don't they sound delightful? Well, don't get it twisted, because on the sliding scale of sociability, these fairies are about as far from Tinkerbell as you can get.
"The fairies of Scottish folklore are not the benign, gossamer-winged nymphs of popular tradition," Windsor's Scottish Heritage explains. "Cast out of heaven because they did not take part in the battle between Lucifer and Saint Michael the Archangel, the little creatures of Scottish legend became aggressive and quarrelsome on earth. When not bickering and fighting among themselves, the fairy folk caused destruction in the human world by attacking people and inflicting livestock with disease."
But while fairies have a local reputation for being horse-stealers and cow- and sheep-killers, they can easily be deterred with carefully uttered, perfectly timed charms… and things like cheese. "Woe to the person who happened to fall asleep in a fairy mound," warns Windsor's. "Travelers would take care to protect themselves with some sort of charm, or perform a ceremonial rite in order to avoid displeasing the fairies when crossing their dwellings. There is a spring on a mountain in Peeblesshire, for instance, called the Cheese Well. Passerby were advised to toss a piece of cheese in the well as an offering to the fairies, to whom the well was consecrated, in order to avoid a curse." (I feel you fairies, I like cheese too.)
Don't worry if you happen to be hiking through the highlands and don't have any cheese handy—just be polite and keep to yourself and everything should be fine. After all, fairies are introverts and just want to be left alone. "In general, faeries are extremely private, and see any invasion of their privacy or space as an act that can be avenged by taking away a humans' sight, bringing illness, or destroying crops," explains Scotland.com's experts. "As long as you stick to rules, respect the faeries, and do not enrage anyone, you should be safe on the Scottish plains."
Pro tip: bring some cheese just in case.