Narwhal Tusk or Unicorn Horn?

If you have been along to our Treasured exhibition at the Gateway Galleries (if not, it’s only on until 14th December so be quick!) you’ll know it is full of all sorts of weird and wonderful objects, including a narwhal tusk.

Narwhal tusk on display in Treasured
Narwhal tusk on display in Treasured

Narwhals are rather unusual looking creatures which live in the Arctic and their tusks (which are actually just an extended tooth!) can grow to up to 9 feet long! As peculiar as narwhals are, however, it was once thought that these horns belonged to even stranger creatures.

Narwhal tusk...
Narwhal tusk…

In Mediaeval times many people, having never seen a narwhal, thought that these horns must come from unicorns. As unicorns were considered magical creatures, their horns were believed to have healing properties. Vikings would even use them to make drinking cups in the belief it would protect them against any poison which might have been added to their drink!

...or unicorn horn?
…or unicorn horn?

Not only that, unicorns were also associated with purity and faithfulness, characteristics which were essential for a good knight. As a result unicorns soon started to be symbolic of ideal ‘knightly’ behaviour. In Scotland in the 1400s the Scottish kings began to adopt the unicorn as their symbol, perhaps to emphasise their role as the ‘ultimate’ chivalric knight! One example of this is James III who issued gold coins with a unicorn on them.

However, this connection between the Scottish king and the unicorn in the 1400s was only the start of Scotland’s link to this mythical creature. Even today it features on the Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom, along with a lion to represent England, and is Scotland’s national animal!

This connection between Scotland and the unicorn may also explain the appearance of two unicorns on the back of the Oak Chair on display in Treasured. We think it belonged to Archbishop James Sharp, who was a very important figure in the 1600s.  As archbishop, he was the nation’s leading churchman and he may have wished to emphasise this by using a creature that was symbolic of Scotland. He was also appointed to his position by King Charles II and as such the unicorns may represent this royal connection.

Unicorns feature on the back of Archbishop James Sharp's chair
Unicorns feature on the back of Archbishop James Sharp’s chair

By Archbishop Sharp’s time, however, people no longer believed that unicorns were real creatures. Increasing travel to far-flung places meant they soon discovered that narwhals were the real source of these horns. Nowadays such horns, like the one on display in Treasured, are no longer used for their magical healing properties but for research. Such research into Natural History is incredibly important as, while they are not mythical like the unicorn, narwhals are very elusive animals and even today little is known about them.

Deirdre Mitchell, Curatorial Trainee (Collections)


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