Nils Olav, at first glance, is a very unlikely military leader. If anything, Nils looks like he might be more at home in the sea. And yet Nils is unquestionably a soldier like no other.
Sir Nils Olav III is not only a fully-fledged Brigadier in the Norwegian Army, he is also the colonel-in-chief and official mascot of the Royal Norwegian Guard and nominally commands around 1,000 men. It’s just that Nils is also a king penguin who lives at the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland.
How on earth does a king penguin from Scotland get to be a Norwegian guardsman? Well, this might sound like a fishy tale but it’s true.
It all started back in 1913 when Edinburgh Zoo first opened its gates and was presented with a king penguin by the Norwegian shipping magnate Christian Salvesen.
Nearly five decades later, the Norwegian King’s Guard were invited to perform at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. A guard officer, Lieutenant Nils Egelien, became fascinated by the penguins at Edinburgh Zoo with their hereditary ties to Norway. When he returned to Scotland in 1972, Lt Egelien arranged for the regiment to adopt a penguin as their mascot. That penguin was named Nils Olav – Nils after Lt Egelien and Olav after the then King of Norway, Olav V.
The original Nils Olav was a lowly lance corporal but he was soon promoted to Sergeant. With each subsequent king penguin slowly moving up the ranks as they passed the baton on after retirement.
Nils Olav II was was made the guard’s Colonel-in-Chief in 2005. Three years later, with the consent of King Harald V, Nils Olav II received a knighthood. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was the first penguin to be so honoured by the Norwegian Army. Or any army anywhere, come to that.
Nils II retired from public life shortly after to a well-earned retirement, and Nils Olav III took on the baton, receiving his most recent promotion, to Brigadier, in 2016. Unsurprisingly, he is the highest-ranking penguin in the world, according to the Guinness World Records.
There’s a statue of the penguin in both Edinburgh Zoo and at the King’s Guard compound in Oslo, Norway. And while this all sounds like a jolly bit of fun, there’s some serious authority attached to the Brigadier and his rank. Whenever Norwegian soldiers or sailors visit Nils in Edinburgh Zoo – and many do – they are required to snap out a smart salute to their superior officer as a mark of respect.
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