Nearly every country in the world has its cultural symbols. Each represents some aspect of a nation’s history, its people, and its self-image. The United Kingdom has its own national animals for virtually every country in the British Isles (save Northern Ireland) and each tells a unique story about originating from that nation’s lore. Follow along below as we cover each official (and in some cases, unofficial) national animal from the ordinary to the symbolic.
Some careful digging uncovered that there is a national creature in Northern Ireland’s history—a fish. While not necessarily meant to be a national symbol of the country, the northern pike. The pike is a carnivorous fish that can be found throughout North American, Europe, and Northern Asia. Northern Ireland also nearly had a national bird, the Eurasian oystercatcher, which was apparently unofficially selected in 1961.
Also known as the Welsh Dragon, the red dragon is the national animal with a symbolic meaning that dates back centuries. Tales of Anglo-Saxon invasions into Wales often compared the Welsh to a red dragon fighting off the white dragon. The first written mention of this symbolism comes in the 9th Century Historia Brittonum, which relates a story of the 5th Century King Vortigern who unintentionally frees the two dragons while building his castle, continuing the battle until the red dragon wins. King Henry VII adopted the Welsh Dragon as a symbol on his march through Wales to the Battle of Bosworth Field. Today, the Welsh Dragon can be found paired with virtually every national institution in Wales and cities such as Cardiff.
Scotland also incorporates a mythological symbol as its national animal—the Unicorn. While the Unicorn may not seem like the toughest national symbol for a country, Scotland’s history with the Unicorn is also centuries old. In Celtic mythology, unicorns represented purity, innocence, and power. King William I of Scotland adopted the Unicorn into his coat of arms in the 12th Century. When King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, the Unicorn was added to the Royal Coat of Arms. The Unicorn is typically depicted collared by a golden crown and chain, symbolizing the strength of Scottish kings to tame this powerful creature.
For as many years as Wales has claimed the fierce red dragon and Scotland has likened itself to the majestic Unicorn, England has associated itself with the fearsome lion. Always representing bravery, the Barbary Lion was first brought to English consciousness when Geoffrey, Duke of Anjou, included it in the heraldry for the Plantagenets. His son, who became King Henry II, was believed to have put it on his coat of arms. However, the animal found its strongest association with King Richard I, whose nickname was “The Lionheart” for his courage in battle. It was Richard who introduced the three lions to the heraldry of English kings and queen, turning the animal into a national symbol.
While the lion is also claimed by the whole of the United Kingdom, another, far cuddlier, animal also represents Britain—the bulldog. Bulldogs as a species are recognized as far back as the 17th Century but became a national symbol in more recent history. From the 1700s onward, artists often depicting bulldogs with tenacity and a strong fighting spirit from satirical character John Bull to propaganda posters during World War I. With the advent of World War II and Winston Churchill becoming Prime Minister, Churchill’s attitude of defiance against the Nazis (and possibly his physical appearance) earned him the nickname of “The British Bulldog”. This attitude transferred to the animal itself, which quickly became a national symbol during the war and afterwards.