Pancakes and Unicorns

I was listening to the fantastic This American Life podcast the other day and the topic was things that people accidentally and often embarrassingly still believed into adulthood. One contributor aditmed that it was only as an adult, while having a conversation, that she realised unicorns are not real. She’d gone through her life believing that unicorns were somewhere out there, I think she said possibly on the plains in Africa. There’s something rather sweet about that. Imagine living a life where you thought unicorns were knocking about. Imagine thinking if you went on safari you might some day see one, nonchalantly nibbling next to an antelope. It’s a misguided sense of the world but it’s also a rather nice one. Imagine going for unicorn rides on a soggy, overcast beach in Blackpool. Imagine a Unicorn doing dressage. Imagine a Unicorn winning the Grand National (by a horn). It’s daft, implausible, but rather sweet.

What has this got to do with the referendum on Scottish independence?


The national animal of Scotland is…

the unicorn!

I had absolutely no idea until last year when my now sister-in-law informed me! How wack is that? The national animal of Scotland is a strange, mythic beast. I wonder how many people stoat about with that Venn diagram in their head, Scotland and unicorns. It’s wonderful, kind of cool and a bit silly.

Several people might think that the unicorn makes a great emblem for an Independent Scotland – ‘Something wacky and wonderful, but it surely can’t exist can it?’

My other now sister-in-law told me last year that a friend of hers had only just discovered that reindeer exist. She had assumed reindeer were made up like unicorns are made up. I’m sure any Canadians reading this will have just spluttered over their pancakes. It makes a similarly sweet and surprising companion piece to the girl and the unicorns. Imagine thinking that reindeer were just for Christmas. Imagine looking at a picture of a reindeer and thinking – I wish one of these existed. How cool would it be, you would think, to actually be in a sled pulled by a reindeer, but that’s impossible, something that could never happen. Imagine seeing a photo of a reindeer and thinking, ‘Yep, that’s what one would look like.’

So back to this referendum debate.

As was evidenced the other night by Alistair Darling’s discomfort and eventual inability to agree to the statement that Scotland could be a successful country, some people can’t see the wood for the Christmas trees. Is a successful Scotland to some of us Scots like a reindeer, something that’s nice and all, good on a biscuit tin, but doesn’t really exist? Is the flourishing society, with a long history and a longer future something we refuse to believe exists, can exist?

Are Yes Scotland telling us unicorns exist and Better Together telling us that reindeer don’t?

Why is it so hard for Better Together to affirm what’s successful and vibrant and distinctive about Scotland? It is possible to be pro union and pro Scotland and yet the narrative we get time and time again, is that we can’t make it, we are too expensive, frail, old and puny to go it alone. Don’t be stupid, reindeer don’t exist. Then we are lovebombed and told reindeer are lovely on Christmas Cards and make wonderful stuffed toys, but they don’t really exist so move on. As someone who over the last few years has moved from being pro Devo Max and skeptical of Independence to being pro Independence and skeptical about maintaining the Union I know there are positive arguments to be made about staying in the UK. They are positive arguments I no longer agree with but they are positive arguments. My initial worry about independence was that it would be an inward looking thing moving against the flow of increased cooperation and unity. I have now come to realise that an Independent Scotland would be more open, dynamic and welcoming and fit more comfortably into this world of global interdependence than the overly imperial, over centralised UK. I believe we have little to lose from independence and much to gain.

I’d rather live in a world where unicorns might exist than in one in which reindeer categorically do not.

For someone who doesn’t think reindeer exist, reindeer are simply kitsch, something for the biscuit tin, something nostalgic you celebrate once a year. Not a fantastic, bizarre, hardworking animal.

For someone who thinks unicorns exist, they’re equally wrong but they are dreamers, they are optimistic, they have hope. To expect unicorns to suddenly appear is of course childish and wrongheaded. Some who are pro Independence are using it as a form of escapism. Independence is not an easy option. Nothing that’s good ever comes too easy. Maybe, unicorns with their strong mythic association, are something we need to look for in the everyday. Alisdair Gray says, ‘Work like you live in the early days of a better nation.’ Maybe a paraphrase should be we should do ecology like we live in the early days of a fairytale. A dream of unicorns, of what could be and is yet out of our grasp, does more good than a world without reindeer.

In fact, maybe the reindeer itself makes a good candidate for at 21st Century Scottish Unicorn. Maybe reindeer can be unicorns, but with even more horns – a multi-corn if you will. It would be a big shout out to our Canadian Diaspora. Haggis pakora with maple pancakes anyone? Everyone?

Yes I’m saying our hardworking, sometimes stubborn reindeer that the Better Together campaign tells us doesn’t exist could become the unicorn that the Yes campaign dream of. Okay so we’ve got a White Paper. But paper comes in lots of colours.

This is just the beginning.

The following is from the above linked to article from The Scotsman, discussing the unicorn as our national animal,

In Celtic mythology, the Unicorn of Scotland symbolized innocence and purity, healing powers, joy and even life itself, and was also seen as a symbol of masculinity and power.

How much more vivid and interesting is this depiction of power than the tawdry hard man perpetuating the cycle of violence?

This is also from the same article,

During the reign of King James III (1466 – 1488), gold coins were introduced that featured a Unicorn, and at the time of King James VI of Scotland’s succeeding of Elizabeth I of England, and the resulting effective union of the two countries, the Scottish Royal Arms featured two unicorns as shield supporters. In a gesture of unity, King James replaced the one on the left with the English lion.

The symbolism was potent, for the lion and the unicorn had long been painted as enemies, vying for the crown of king of beasts, with the unicorn ruling through harmony and the lion by might.


The final line of the article is this,

The heraldic unicorn is pictured as being chained, because according to folklore a free unicorn was a dangerous beast.

A free unicorn is a dangerous beast, but one that rules through harmony. It is dangerous but not in the sense of the mighty lion, it is dangerous because harmony is dangerous, dangerous to those who want to rule by might, by established interest with their established interests in the status quo staying the way it is. Dangerous harmony. That’s a Gospel I’d get behind. In fact, it is a Gospel that I get behind.

Maybe it’s time to unchain the unicorn.


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