Scotland is a legendary country, and fittingly, there is a slew of Scottish symbols. Some of these Scottish symbols have become well-recognized and associated with the country.
For example, kilts and bagpipes are synonymous with Scotland—but we’re talking about deeper symbols than that. Everyone knows that kilts are Scottish, but can you explain to your friends why thistles are so prevalent in Scottish culture?
So whether you’re planning your next Scotland-inspired outfit or brushing up on the history of all things Celtic, this guide will tell you all you need to know about the most significant Scottish symbols: the lion, the tartan, the unicorn, the thistle, and the Saltire.
How many of these have you seen before? Do you know the stories behind them?
If you’re ready to show your Scottish pride, visit the Celtic Croft online. You’ll find tons of traditional Scottish attire and Scottish symbols incorporated in jewelry, home decor, and more.
The Rampant Lion: A Symbol of the Scottish Monarch
The lion, or the rampant lion, is found on the Royal Banner of Scotland. You’ve probably seen this yellow or gold flag with an upright red lion and red double-border.
The official Royal Banner of Scotland has minimal use. Only the King or Queen of Scots and some official representatives of the Sovereign can use it.
As far as symbols go, this one goes pretty far back—back to King William I. After his death, he became known as “William the Lion” because of his use of the symbol.
Even though William the Lion became the most well-known ruler to use the lion rampant, other Scottish monarchs also used it. As far back as the 11th century, the lion was being used by rulers. William the Lion’s successors, Alexander II and Alexander III incorporated it into their seals.
Here’s some trivia about that Royal Banner featuring the lion rampant: It flies above royal residences when the Sovereign isn’t present.
The Scottish National Tartan: A Sign of Scottish Pride and Heritage
There are, of course, too many different tartan patterns to count in Scottish history. But a few tartans have become so recognizable as to be a so-called national tartan. Royal Stewart and Blackwatch, for example, are popular generic choices to represent Scotland.
However, in 1994 the Scottish Tartans Society recognized an official national tartan to represent Scottish pride and heritage. A lovely mix of dark green and blue with thin red and white stripes running through it, the national tartan has become a quintessential pattern for formal attire or anyone who wants to celebrate Scottish culture but doesn’t feel comfortable embracing a clan tartan.
It was initially designed as a symbol of the Scottish National Party but no longer has specific political associations. So you can wear this tartan without the worry of “offending” either side of the aisle!
The Unicorn: A Legendary Scottish Symbol
Scotland is a country steeped in legends and mythology, so it’s no wonder that the country’s national animal—yes, its official national animal!—is a unicorn.
King William I (remember him? William the Lion?) is responsible for this symbol’s original popularity, too. (Apparently, he really liked animals.)
In the 12th century, William I used a unicorn on the royal coat of arms. In the Middle Ages, unicorns represented dignity, purity, and innocence.
Legend has it that a unicorn could only be caught by an “innocent” girl (i.e., a virgin) because of its skittishness. This strength and tendency toward freedom became a Scottish symbol that monarchs continued to use throughout Scottish history.
In the 15th century, King James III minted gold coins with a unicorn on them, and in 1603 the Scottish Royal Arms included two unicorns. One of these unicorns was replaced with the lion (the national animal of England) to show these two countries’ unification when James VI became James I of England and Ireland.
The Thistle: A Humble Plant that Saved Scotland
The thistle is a modest plant, but it captures Scottish attitude nicely: humble and unassuming, but prickly if attacked.
Legend has it that it was a thistle (check this out about Scottish Whisky to fill your thistle glass) that gave the Scots a leg up before the Battle of Largs in 1263. The Norse troops were sneaking up on the resting Scottish army, which Alexander III led. A lone Norwegian warrior accidentally stepped on a thistle plant—his resulting screams of pain were loud enough to rouse the Scottish army.
So next time you’re out with your friends, impress them with your knowledge of how the thistle saved Scotland from a Norse invasion!
The Saltire: St. Andrew and the Scottish Cross
The word “saltire” actually refers to any X-shaped cross.
But when we talk about “the saltire,” we are typically referring to the flag of Scotland.
The Scottish Saltire represents the cross of Saint Andrew, who was the patron saint of Scotland.
Saint Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross in the 1st century: This makes the Saltire one of the oldest Scottish symbols.
Legend has it that during a battle in 832 AD, during which the Scots and Picts were battling against the Angles, the blue and white Saltire appeared mystically.
The Scottish leader, King Oengus II, took this as a sign since he had prayed to St. Andrew the night before the battle. Seeing a white cross of clouds in a clear blue sky, King Oengus took it as a sign and anointed St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland.
The Saltire has been used on more than a battle flag — the image of St. Andrew on the saltire cross first emerged during the reign of King William I (yes, the same one who popularized lions and unicorns!).
Since then, it’s been used in battle during a variety of fights—Scottish soldiers fighting in France in the 14th century, for example, wore the Saltire on their tunics.
You might be most familiar with the Saltire in the form of a blue Scottish bonnet. Jacobite rebels wore these striking bluebonnets, dyed with woad, during the Uprising of 1745-46. They added a white ribbon sewn in the shape of a St. Andrew’s cross to their worker hats to create a saltire they could wear.
Scottish Symbols at The Celtic Croft
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about different Scottish symbols. May you use this knowledge to share your pride in Scottish history and culture!
If you’re looking to incorporate more Scottish symbols and Celtic designs into your life, visit the Celtic Croft. You’ll find all of the Celtic symbols mentioned above and more, including Celtic knots and the tree of life.