Visitors to Scotland can be tickled and flummoxed in equal measure when they hear the national animal is the unicorn.

The reason behind our choice is almost as mythical as the creature itself but a new exhibition, opening at the end of March, will open wide the doors into the world of the magical horned horse. Unicorn is the opening exhibition at Perth Museum, the new £27 million facility housed in the former City Hall, itself a historic building for the city.

The building has been the site of concerts by iconic bands such as The Kinks and The Who and it has also been a gathering place for political activity – as a key building in the life of the city, it’s hoped that the new museum will bring that life and activity back to a central part of Perth that has been a gathering place for a millennium. As we speak, JP Reid, Senior New Projects Officer, Culture Perth & Kinross, looks out of a window at the west side of the museum and points out the unicorn atop the mercat cross – a good omen.

“This has been the social and spiritual heart of the city and there is a huge amount of archaeology on this footprint. Unfortunately, this block of the city has been empty for 20 years, so to refurbish this building and set the placing of all of these stories through the collection seemed very appropriate, particularly at a time when we’re looking at a shift in the economics of town and city centres and the recalibration away from our reliance on a retail economy.”

It’s a solid reason for investment in Perth city centre, but the museum has more romance to it, telling the story of Scotland through the lens of Perth and the wider area as an ancient capital. Its first big announcement was the fact it would be the permanent home of The Stone of Destiny. JP says it has been a very challenging object in terms of interpretation. 
“We have to balance the fact that some people have a lot of knowledge of the object and some people have absolutely none and need a kind of grounding in what they’re looking at.”

What they’re looking at is a big, roughly rectangular, roughly cuboid piece of stone but, as well we know, people can project many things on to an object. JP notes there are the mythologies and series of debates and controversies around authenticity to consider.
Its political history has been fractious, of course, but again telling that story comes down to the skill of interpretation of the piece as a museum object.

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“It does go both ways. It’s obviously, I think, the symbol of Scottish nationhood, but it’s also a major constitutional element in the British monarchy.” The monarchy also has a significant role to play in the unicorn’s ubiquity in Scottish culture. “In the exhibition we are exploring the ways in which people have projected their values or symbolism on to a horse with a horn,” says JP. He says that in terms of Scotland, the unicorn emerges at the time of James I of Scotland.

“At the time a lot of the royal families of Europe are basically looking to brand themselves. So, the English will really start to lean into the royal lion, the Aragonese and Castilians pick a black eagle and, for some random reason, the French pick a porcupine. The theory is that James picks the unicorn because he spent the first 18 years of his reign in captivity. He was basically held hostage in England.

“If you look at any royal depiction of a unicorn they are always shown with chains and the theory is that those chains reflect James’s captivity.  It is ambiguous. There are lots of different stories why the unicorn is Scotland’s royal symbol.”

For the opening of Perth Museum it is perhaps the perfect choice: the connection to Scottish history and monarchy but also that instant name recognition. There is no other mythical animal, apart from the dragon, so saturated in contemporary popular culture. “The unicorn has been present in European culture for more than 2000 years and it is still able to carry so much symbolism. Each society or generation applies their own meaning and value to unicorns, and that’s something we also want to explore in the exhibition,” adds JP. 

The element of surprise is important to any exhibition – museums should promote discussion and sometimes confound expectations. With each of us projecting our own idea on the meaning of the unicorn, that is highly likely here. Unicorn is the first of the temporary exhibitions, running for six months. The story of Royal Scotland is a major element of the permanent galleries. “For Unicorn the curators have been able to source objects near and far – as close as Dundee and as far as Rome,” says JP. “It is an exhibition that will surprise but, with the affection that seems to exist for the unicorn, it is an inclusive and welcoming choice for the opening.”

Unicorn, March 30 to September 22. Tickets £10/£8 or free to members of Culture Perth and Kinross Supporters Scheme.