Unchained unicorn

yes scotland unchained unicorn martin scott laird 2014
Unchained unicorn. 910 x 605mm. Oil on hardboard, 2014.


This painting of a unicorn was created for a poster competition organised by Bella Caledonia in 2014. The brief was extremely vague, with the goal of creating an image that the people of Scotland would find inspiring in the run-up to the referendum on Scottish independence.

I chose oil paint as a medium as it seemed appropriate given the disproportionate amount of coverage being given to the oil industry in the media. In 2014 oil made up around 15% of the Scottish economy. The case for independence did not, and still does not, rest on oil. The Scottish economy is broad-based, consisting of food and drink, renewable energy, tourism, technology, amongst other things.

The unicorn is an obvious choice of symbol for Scotland, and I was not the only entrant to focus on it. It is undeniably appropriate, however. It represents Scotland on the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom, where it is depicted in chains. A free unicorn is a dangerous thing, apparently.

When I began painting this picture I did not believe that the Yes campaign had any chance of winning the referendum. I chose to include a Burns quote from “A Man’s A Man For A’ That” partly because I thought the song reflected the hopes some of us had of building a better, fairer society, and partly because it would remain relevant when we inevitably lost.

As the 18th of September 2014 grew nearer, and the polls narrowed, I began to think the people of Scotland might actually have the courage to attempt to run their own affairs. This proved not to be the case. The location of Scotland in the moon is indicative of the fact that it was only a dream. I invested quite a bit of emotional energy into this painting, and have been sorely tempted to burn the original on more than one occasion.

The design made the shortlist for the final of the competition, and was shown in Edinburgh and Glasgow prior to the 2014 referendum. The other great entries can still be viewed online here.

In February 2018, Modern Academic Publishing released “Colonised by Wankers:” Postcolonialism and Contemporary Scottish Fiction by Jessica Homberg-Schramm, which features this painting on the cover. The book is open access and may be downloaded for free as a pdf at the following link. Print copies are also for sale.