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Tartan Ferret
The Lord Lyon and Tartan

The Lord Lyon and Tartan

Lord Lyon

Lord Lyon

An updated extract from 'District Tartans' [Gordon Teall and Philip D Smith, 1992]

A great deal of confusion arises concerning the precise role fulfilled by the Lord Lyon King of Arms, with regard to tartans. Statements such as "... the Lord Lyon's office ... controls the use of authentic Scottish tartans" appear from time to time in even well-regarded journals. Such misleading comments arise from partial knowledge or misunderstanding of the true position.

The Court of the Lord Lyon is primarily an office of heraldic jurisdiction. Tartans, per se, are not heraldic devices, although they can become so if incorporated in armorial bearings. One suspects the hand of Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, late Lord Lyon, in the following observation:

During the past few years, ..., whenever a person or limb attired in 'the proper tartan of clan X . ..' occurs in armorial bearings, Lyon Court takes evidence, and defines such tartan, the system of definition adopted being .. . the Logan system of one eighth inch proportions ... A record of authentic clan tartans is thus being gradually built up on legal evidence and statutory authority, in the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland, one of the National Public Registers of the Kingdom.

This statement, though true in itself, is possibly the source of many present day misconceptions. It is perhaps not generally realised that relatively few heraldic achievements depict tartan. Indeed, only twenty-eight tartans are defined in the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland, whilst a further two are mentioned but not defined. Nevertheless, it is the custom of Scotland to regard the use of a clan or family tartan as being the heritable prerogative of the respective Chief or head. Though this prerogative is not enshrined in the law of Scotland, the customary privileges of Chiefs relating to clan tartans are recognised by the Lord Lyon.

It is also the prerogative of the Lord Lyon to record upon application, the thread count of a tartan in the Lyon Court Books. This book is used also for placing upon public record such matters as Change of Name when this is authorised by the Lyon Court. Precisely which tartans are recorded in the Lyon Court Book is entirely a matter of discretion for the Lord Lyon. Accordingly, therefore, since the practice was initiated in 1951, the  criteria has varied according to the views of the incumbent of the office. The Lord Lyon seeks technical advice with regard to the inclusion of tartans in the Public Register of all Arms and Bearings in Scotland and in the Lyon Court Book from his Tartan Committee which comprises individuals having a specialised knowledge on tartans.

Between 1951 and 1992, thirty-nine separate entries were made in the Lyon Court Book in respect of the thread counts of specific tartans. Two of these entries also included a hunting tartan and two a dress tartan, bringing the total of tartans so recorded to forty-three. Of these, thirty-three were applicable to personal surnames, and nine to Provinces of Canada and one to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Apart from Nova Scotia, the arms for which have been matriculated by the Lyon Court, the registration of the tartans of the remaining provinces and the West Point Military Academy has been a matter of some controversy.

The last Lord Lyon, Sir Malcolm Innes of Edingight, who succeeded to his office in 1981, stated that with regard to tartans, he would only consider Petitions from Chiefs of the Name as they are the only people who can determine clan or family tartans. In certain exceptional cases, where a significant local authority or government authority has - by legislation - determined a tartan, he will also consider a Petition from them either before a tartan has been determined by such legislation or after. He is not prepared to accept Petitions from individuals for tartans and has suspended the former practice of recording tartans of those with matriculated arms who are not also Chiefs of the Name.

New Register House, Edinburgh

Many of those who have considered the matter in depth hold the view that the Lord Lyon should never have become involved with the recording of tartans other than those appertaining to individuals or corporate bodies possessing arms matriculated by the Lyon Court. They reason that it is difficult to understand the constitutional grounds for the Lord Lyon recording tartans of public authorities outwith Scotland other than Nova Scotia, which has arms granted by the Lyon Court.

In respect of armorial bearings, the Canadian provinces for example, were formerly under the jurisdiction of the Earl Marshal and Garter King of Arms in London, though they are now the responsibility of the Chief Herald of Canada. Unlike Canada, however, the United States has no connection with the British Crown, of which the Lord Lyon is a judicial officer. Presumably, the assumption was made at the time that tartans are quintessentially Scottish and this in itself was justification.

© Scottish Tartans Authority
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