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Tartan Ferret

Scotland's Heraldry

Order of the Thistle


by Gordon Casely, Herald Strategy Ltd

The Quest for Identity
Heraldry is an ancient and exact science, a straightforward method of identifying individual people and the communities they live and work in. Systems of this formalised identity are used worldwide by nations and individuals. In Scotland we live among one of Europe's larger sources of coats-of-arms. Heraldry identifies people and organisations - and in doing so, heraldry marks, decorates and informs. From the dawn of civilisation, people have used symbols to explain their existence, beliefs and culture. The armies of the Romans carried symbols and marked flags to identify themselves and their various legions, while the 9th-century forces of Charlemagne showed equal enthusiasm for icons of identity. The Bayeux Tapestry of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 shows that specific forms of personal symbols were evident at the time of the Norman Conquest, and there is speculation that the tapestry points to the earliest notion of heraldry as we would accept it today.

The Arms of the Office of The Lord Lyon

Forward with the Past
Heraldry is a 21st-century growth business. There has never been a greater number of people and organisations pursuing arms as identity. According to the number of participants in the Olympic Games, there are some 197 countries in the world. Few of these nations do not possess heraldry of some sort along with a presiding heraldic authority. Here in Scotland, the number of new coats-of-arms given by Lyon Office over the past 30 years equals the number of grants and matriculations over the previous 300 years. There is no indication of any let-up in demand, with the result that a new coat-of-arms appears every working day of the year.
Multinational organisations such as British Airways, Tesco, Marks & Spencer, the BBC, Bank of Scotland and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority use heraldry for everyday identification. Bluebird Buses display the Royal Arms on the sides of their vehicles because they have the Royal Warrant to carry the Royal family's luggage. Heraldry is positively flaunted by the cities of Glasgow and Aberdeen, each exuberantly parading their arms on signs, stationery, street furniture, buildings, badges, banners, bollards, books, buttons, vehicles, insignia, uniforms, furnishing, theatre tickets and even litter bins.
Former burghs such as Galashiels in Selkirkshire and Duns in Berwickshire have gained versions of their old town coats-of-arms, while community councils in the tiny villages of Aberchirder in Banffshire and Braemar and Methlick in Aberdeenshire now use heraldry where previously there was none. Since 1999 the former burghs of Keith, Peterhead, Kilsyth, Moffat and Ellon have held major ceremonies to mark the formal handover of their Letters Patent, with the Royal Burgh of Wigtown following suit in 2003.

Dressed to Kill
For all its colourfulness, heraldry is an ancient and exact science. A practical function of heraldry was the identification of friend or foe on the battlefield. Dressed to kill, men in fighting clothes were virtually unidentifiable. The invention of a method of marking men and their leaders started the creation of heraldry. Since the shield was a universal tool of offence and defence, it on the shield that heraldry first appeared in simple charges such as colour, cross and creature.
The origins of Scotland's system of heraldry are more definite, for we can both date and identify our oldest extant example. This is the seal of Alan, High Steward of Scotland (1177-1204), and it is shown on a charter dated at Melrose in 1190. The shield depicts the familiar fess chequy of the Stewarts, a blue-and-white chequered band across the middle. These arms, heraldically described as Or a fess chequy Azure and Argent, are still used to this day in the 2nd and 3rd quarters of the coat-of-arms of Prince Charles as Duke of Rothesay. More familiarly, a police hat shows this fess chequy, remembering that an early Stewart monarch was closely associated with the pioneering town watch.

That He Who Runs May Read
Heraldry is a method of visual communication, giving identification without the use of letters. Heraldry creates an instant message both to the highly informed and the illiterate. To be effective, heraldry is best used in simplest form. In ancient times, a banner had to be simple enough to be read by a man astride a galloping horse. So the Saltire, Scotland's national flag, incorporating a white diagonal cross on a blue ground, is one of the simplest heraldic devices anywhere in the world, perhaps rivalled only by the Rising Sun of Japan or the flag of St. George of England.

At the Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms
The control of heraldry in Scotland is vested by law in the Lord Lyon King of Arms, currently W. David H. Sellar. He holds an ancient office descended from the Seannachie of Celtic times and is 34th in line when an unnamed Lyon was inaugurated with the rank of knight at Arbroath Abbey in 1318 by King Robert Bruce. As Lord Lyon, Mr. Sellar, is a judge and Scotland's greatest Officer of State, and controls the granting and use of coats-of-arms. He is assisted in his duties by three heralds and three pursuivants.
Arms in Scotland are heritable property. So using the arms of another person, community, company or organisation is theft, and is an offence seriously pursued by Lyon Court. Scotland governs its heraldry by the strictest laws in the world.
Scotland's Lyon Office is a court of law in daily session, one of only two in Europe with executive power. In granting and matriculating arms, the Lord Lyon ensures that no one coat-of-arms is like any other, for in Scotland every coat-of-arms must be different. Each coat-of-arms is very individual property: there is no such thing in Scotland as a "family coat-of-arms". Several people of the same name showing the same coat-of-arms would not only cause confusion, but their actions would devalue the system, and dodge identity.
The need to guard individual identity was recognised four centuries ago when Parliament - that is, the Scots Parliament - passed an Act requiring the Lord Lyon King of Arms and his heralds to difference the arms of separate persons, and to record them in their books. This Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland has been maintained non-stop since 1672.

A Curious Tongue
Heraldry is nothing if not exact. So a language based on a curious mixture of English, Latin and Norman French has evolved called blazon, a form of words which may baffle the uninitiated. In reality it is no more difficult to learn than, say, staff notation in music, or the rules of football. Blazon precisely describes a coat of arms in a way that there is no room for doubt or confusion. It avoids the near impossibility of trying to describe, for example, the familiar lion rampant of the Scots sovereign in concise everyday English; whereas blazon leaves no room for doubt: Or, within a double tressure flory counter flory, a lion rampant Gules, armed and langued Azure.
The shield of the Royal Burgh of Peebles is blazoned as Gules, three salmon counternaiant in pale Proper, heraldically describing a red (Gules) shield on which there are three salmon in their natural colours (Proper) seen horizontally, those in top and bottom facing left, with the middle one swimming to the right. Colour being the essential part of heraldry, colours or tinctures are always given capital letters. An item Proper, such as a Peebles salmon, indicates that it is shown in natural colours.

Heraldry in Use
From prehistoric times, tribes and communities have rallied round totems embodying their unity and symbolising the authority of their chiefs. From the ancient earldoms such as Mar and Buchan grew counties like Aberdeenshire. All of Scotland's ancient 33 counties and 197 of our 201 burghs had coats of arms.
Companies have been quick to use heraldry as a means of corporate identity. The Bank of Scotland has employed its arms in daily use since they were granted in 1701, and is perhaps our oldest commercial user of heraldry. In 1998, Aberdeen Harbour Board delineated the boundaries of its property by putting up street names showing the arms of the Board (and in the process receiving a commendation from the Heraldry Society in London). Spot the BBC arms on Breakfast News, where thanks to television, heraldry has a daily audience of millions. GNER, the Great North Eastern Railway, displays its coat-of-arms on every carriage.
The hallmark of heraldry gives identity to schools (The High School of Glasgow and Harris Academy, Dundee); churches (St Nicholas Kirk, Aberdeen and Lochgilphead Parish Church); universities (St Andrew's, Glasgow Caledonian); societies (Braemar Royal Highland Society); learned bodies (Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scottish Tartans Authority); sport (Scottish Football Association and clubs such as Hibs and Queen's Park FC; Scottish Bowling Association and some two dozen clubs); and 30 of our 32 local authorities.
Heraldry, the mediaeval survivor, has become a potent modern symbol.

Gaining Arms
The process is not complicated. A person petitioning the Lord Lyon for a coat-of-arms is assumed to be virtuous and well deserving, and the petitioner can be female or male, for Scotland has always maintained sexual equality in heraldry.
Since the Court of the Lord Lyon is a court of law, applications are made by petition or formal request. This can be done by the person wishing to gain arms, by providing proof to the Lord Lyon who he or she is and asking for arms to be granted. The petition sets out the petitioner's ancestry as far as can be proved (as little as the current generation may be enough), showing each step of ancestry in the form of certificates of birth, marriages or certified extracts from documents such as census records or wills.
A grant of arms is heritable property and will be inherited by the petitioner's heir, usually the eldest son, and by his eldest son in turn, and so on. A daughter or younger son inherits the right to matriculate the arms with a slight difference added (for under Scots law no two people may bear the same arms), and he or she must petition separately for this to be done.
The petitioner should carefully consider design and content of the arms before becoming permanently committed to them, since a grant of arms is for all time. Arms are based on surname, so if you are a Campbell, for which a chief's coat-of-arms already exists, then your personal Campbell heraldry will be visibly based on the chief's to show that you also bear his name, but with a difference to indicate that you are the particular Campbell you are, rather than the chief. It is the Lord Lyon who judges what difference is appropriate.
When this has been settled, the fee is payable, currently £1285, and a herald painter from Lyon Office creates the beautiful Letters Patent. This colourful document displaying your arms is actually a formal deed from the Crown making you armigerous. The process from first application to final Letters Patent takes around six months.
Scotland is a small country, and one of the delights of our national scale is that Lord Lyon David Sellar and his staff maintain a tradition of extending a personal welcome to every petitioner.
Qualifications for gaining a coat-of-arms vary widely throughout Europe, and frequently depend on family lineage or nobility. In England, which heraldically is a foreign country, gaining arms may depend on position achieved within society such as public office or a military commission. Scotland is the only country where the system is absolutely egalitarian.
Nor does a petitioner have to be Scots. He or she may be of Scots descent, resident or domiciled in Scotland, married to a Scot, hold property in Scotland, or be a graduate of a Scots university. Thus there are current armigers from North America, the Far East and mainland Europe.
Gordon Casely is a journalist who runs Herald Strategy Ltd, the Aberdeen-based corporate communications and heritage consultancy. An honorary member of the Heraldry Society of Scotland (founder member 1977), he writes, lectures and broadcasts on heraldry and takes a particular interest in the promotion of heraldry within a 21st century context.
For more information about heraldry and further links, see www.heraldry-scotland.co.uk













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