Scots Symbols: Meaning and History

Exploring the Meaning and History of Scots Symbols

Updated On: May 04, 2024 by   Panseih GharibPanseih Gharib

Scotland’s rich heritage is woven into its iconic symbols. From the defiant roar of the lion to the sky-reaching form of the Scots pine, each emblem whispers tales of battles fought, saints revered, and a land cherished.

This article delves into the fascinating history of Scots symbols, exploring their origins, the legends that shaped them, and the enduring spirit they represent. We’ll uncover the story behind the Saltire, the St. Andrew’s Cross that proudly flies as Scotland’s national flag. We’ll meet the mighty unicorn, a mythical creature that embodies Scotland’s fierce independence. And we’ll explore the prickly thistle, a symbol of resilience that’s become synonymous with the Scottish people. So, join us on a journey through time as we unearth the stories behind Scotland’s symbolic tapestry.

History of National Scots Symbols

Scotland’s national symbols are more than just emblems; they’re threads woven into the fabric of the nation’s history and identity. Each Scottish symbol carries stories of battles won, saints celebrated, and a fierce spirit that has endured for centuries. Let’s delve into the rich history behind some of Scotland’s most iconic symbols:

  • The Saltire: This bold white cross on a blue background, also known as St. Andrew’s Cross, is Scotland’s national flag. Legend tells of a battle in the 9th century where King Angus witnessed a vision of the cross in the sky before a victory against the Northumbrians. The Saltire is considered one of the oldest national flags, and it is still in continuous use.
  • The Lion Rampant: This powerful Scottish symbol features a red lion standing on its hind legs, a symbol of strength and royalty. It appears on the Royal Banner of Scotland and has been associated with Scottish heraldry since the 12th century under King Alexander II.
  • The Unicorn: This mythical creature, a symbol of purity and innocence, has been linked to Scotland since the 12th century. The unicorn’s fierce and untamable nature resonates with the Scottish spirit of independence. It graces the Royal Coat of Arms and is a popular motif in Scottish art and architecture.
  • The Thistle: This prickly purple flower is Scotland’s national emblem. Legend says a sleeping Scottish army was awakened by a Viking stepping on a thistle, leading to a successful defence. The thistle’s prickly nature also reflects the resilience of the Scottish people.
  • Other Notable Symbols: Scotland boasts a wealth of symbolic treasures beyond these. The Scottish kilt, a patterned garment with a rich history, and the bagpipes, the haunting music of the highlands, are also powerful cultural icons.

Meaning and History of Scottish Symbols

Scottish symbols hold deep meaning and rich history, encompassing a range of Celtic, cultural, and mythical elements that reflect the essence of Scottish identity and pride.

Celtic Symbols

Celtic symbols are a captivating collection of imagery used by the ancient Celts across Europe, particularly in the British Isles and Brittany. These symbols served many purposes, including representing religious beliefs, signifying social status, and decorating everyday objects.

Here are some of the most well-known Celtic symbols and their meanings:

  • The Triskelion (Triple Spiral): This symbol features three interconnected spirals and is one of the oldest Celtic symbols. It can represent motion, progress, and the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
  • The Celtic Cross: This iconic symbol combines a cross with a surrounding circle. It is believed to represent the meeting point of the physical and spiritual worlds, with the cross representing Christianity and the circle representing pagan sun worship that was absorbed into Christian beliefs.
  • The Triquetra (Trinity Knot): This three-pointed knot is another symbol believed to represent Christianity, specifically the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit).
  • The Spiral: The spiral is a common motif in Celtic art and can represent a variety of things, such as the sun, eternity, and spiritual growth.
  • The Shield Knot: This intricate knot is thought to be a protective symbol, warding off evil and bringing strength to the wearer.
  • The Tree of Life: The Tree of Life is a common symbol in many cultures, and the Celtic version is no different. It represents the connection between heaven, earth, and the underworld, as well as the interconnectedness of all living things.
  • The Shamrock: The Shamrock is perhaps the most recognisable Irish symbol. Saint Patrick is said to have used it to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity. However, it may also have had significance in pre-Christian Ireland.

Cultural Scottish Symbols

Scotland boasts a rich tapestry of cultural symbols that weave together its history, heritage, and spirit. These symbols transcend mere decoration; they act as powerful messages, encapsulating the essence of what it means to be Scottish. Let’s delve into some of the most prominent Scottish symbols:

  • The Kilt: This patterned garment with a long and fascinating history is more than just clothing; it’s a cultural symbol. The kilt’s design reflects clan tartans, signifying the wearer’s heritage and lineage.
  • The Bagpipes: The haunting melodies of the bagpipes evoke the imagery of rolling Scottish hills and a rich musical tradition. This instrument is a powerful symbol of Scottish culture and heritage.
  • Gaelic Language: While not a visible symbol, the Gaelic language holds immense cultural significance. It reminds Scotland of its Celtic roots and is a unique aspect of its identity.

Mythical Scottish Symbols

Exploring the Meaning and History of Scots Symbols

When it comes to mythical Scottish symbols, the realm of imagination takes centre stage. These captivating creatures and legends have become woven into the fabric of Scottish folklore, reflecting the nation’s spirit and history. Here are a few of the most prominent mythical Scottish symbols:

  • The Kelpie: Shape-shifting water spirits from Scottish folklore, kelpies are often depicted as beautiful horses near water bodies. However, their allure is deceptive. Legends warn of kelpies luring unsuspecting travellers onto their backs and dragging them to a watery demise.
  • The Loch Ness Monster (Nessie): Perhaps the most famous mythical Scottish symbol, Nessie is a creature said to lurk in the depths of Loch Ness, a vast freshwater loch in the Scottish Highlands. Sightings of this elusive creature have fueled speculation and intrigue for centuries. Nessie embodies the mystery and untamed wilderness that Scotland is known for.
  • The Selkie: A fascinating creature from Scottish mythology, the Selkie is a magical being that can transform between seal and human form. Selkie myths often explore themes of love, longing, and the consequences of transgressing the natural order.
  • The Gruagach: A terrifying spectre from Scottish folklore, the Gruagach is a monstrous cannibal said to live in remote wilderness areas. Legends depict the Gruagach as a ferocious creature with a thirst for human flesh, serving as a cautionary tale about the dangers lurking in the wilds.

Everyday Scots Symbols

Beyond the grand pronouncements of national flags and mythical creatures, Scotland’s cultural identity is enriched by a tapestry of everyday symbols. These are the sights, sounds, and traditions that permeate daily life, fostering a sense of community and connection.

  • Tartan: This colourful patterned cloth, woven in specific threads and designs, is more than just fabric. Tartan is a visual representation of clan affiliation, carrying a deep sense of heritage and belonging. Seeing a flash of tartan can spark conversations about family history and cultural identity.
  • Shortbread: This crumbly buttery delight is a quintessential Scottish treat. Its simple ingredients and comforting taste evoke feelings of home and tradition. Sharing shortbread becomes a symbol of hospitality and warmth.
  • Ceilidhs (pronounced kay-lee): lively social gatherings that involve traditional music, dancing, and storytelling. They provide a platform for people to connect, celebrate their heritage, and have fun. The shared experience fosters a sense of community and cultural continuity.
  • Highland Games: These annual events showcase traditional Scottish athletic feats like tossing the caber (a giant log) and hammer throwing. Highland Games are more than just competitions; they are vibrant celebrations of Scottish culture, strength, and resilience.
  • Gaelic Greetings: While not everyone speaks Gaelic, traditional Scottish Gaelic greetings like “Hàlàibh” (hello) and “Slàn aged” (goodbye) hold a special place. Using these greetings shows respect for the language and its cultural significance.

Literary and Artistic Expressions of Scottish Symbols

Exploring the Meaning and History of Scots Symbols

Scotland boasts a rich literary and artistic tradition that breathes life into its cultural symbols. Writers, poets, musicians, and artists have used these symbols for centuries to express themes of identity, history, and the human condition.

  • Literature: William Shakespeare’s iconic play Macbeth features the witches’ prophecy referencing the dagger and the crown, foreshadowing the play’s themes of ambition and power. In modern literature, Scottish author Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting depicts the thistle as a symbol of resilience amidst the challenges faced by working-class Edinburgh youth.
  • Poetry: Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, frequently referenced the thistle in his poems. In his poem “To a Mouse,” Burns uses the thistle to represent the fragility of life and the connection between humans and nature.
  • Music: The haunting melodies of the bagpipes often evoke images of the Scottish Highlands and themes of bravery and defiance. Bands like The Corrs and Red Hot Chilli Pipers have brought contemporary twists to traditional Scottish music, keeping these symbols alive for new generations.
  • Art: Paintings by artists like Alexander Nasmyth captured the majesty of the Scottish landscape, often featuring iconic symbols like the thistle or the Saltire. Modern Scottish artists continue to explore these symbols in their work, reflecting on their contemporary meanings.


In conclusion, Scottish symbols hold deep meaning and reflect the rich history of Scotland. Each symbol represents Scottish pride and heritage, from the national flag, the Saltire, to cultural icons like bagpipes and kilts. Celtic symbols and mythical creatures also play a significant role in Scottish folklore and identity. Exploring these symbols allows us to delve into the captivating stories and traditions that make Scotland unique.

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