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Issue 20 - A call to arms

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 20
April 2005


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A call to arms

Heraldry was the way you identified yourself in battle. James Irvine Robertson looks at its significance

Heraldry is about who you are. In the midst of battle a thousand or more years ago, it was no use putting on a name tag because only priests could read and not many of them were fighting.

It was no use relying on your face being recognised because you had a helmet over your head and, besides, few knew what you looked like for there were no photographs, portraits or television.

So you painted your personal logo – coat-ofarms – on your surcoat and shield and placed your crest on your helmet. You could not write either, so the arms would go on your seal and this served as your signature on documents. But it must be unique. Yours must be different from everyone else’s and so registration of arms was born.

Described by Sir Iain Moncreiffe as ‘the floral garden of history’, heraldry in Scotland is recognised as the purest and best regulated in the world. It is not another quaint social fossil but a living, thriving institution controlled by the Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms.

This has real legal teeth since the Lord Lyon is a judge, regulated by Act of Parliament. Ignore his rulings, abuse or use the Arms of another and you can be in contempt of court and, although extradition is unlikely if you flee the country, you can face a fine.

In a way heraldry is like quantum physics - a subject taken very seriously with no known practical function, which is nonetheless an astonishing human achievement and great fun for those who can participate in it.

Scots heraldry starts from the premise that each ‘achievement’ or coat of arms is the personal property of its owner. Its use by anyone else is identity theft.

For example the arms of the clan chief cannot be used by clan members although a custom has grown up, now legalised, which permits the use of the crest of the chief surrounded by a strap or circlet by others of the clan, but for any more than this you must register your own arms. Corporate and public bodies can also be granted arms.

Lord Lyon has his helpers – the Albany Herald,the Rothesay Herald, the Ross Herald, the Unicorn Pursuivant, the Carrick Pursuivant, the Bute Pursuivant, the Orkney Herald Extraordinary and the Linlithgow Pursuivant Extraordinary. All are members of the Royal Household.

The Lord Lyon is also Secretary to the Order of the Thistle, the premier order of chivalry in Scotland. He and his heralds parade in their tabards which show the Royal Arms of Scotland on state occasions. He decides on claims for clan chiefship, peerages and associated matters of rank and precedence. He organises public ceremonies in Scotland.

Scots heraldry, which is the Lord Lyon’s principal jurisidction, commands a language and pictorial alphabet of its own. The full achievement consists of a shield, helmet, mantling, wreath, crest, motto and sometimes supporters and decorations. Only the heir of someone already granted their arms may inherit them.

Other members of the family must apply for their own arms which will differ in precise ways. Anyone, in fact, of Scots descent, provided they are ‘virtuous and deserving’ may apply, with the appropriate fee, to the Lyon Court in Edinburgh for their own arms.

The blazoners will prepare these, probably deriving from the family from which the applicant descends, which allows cognoscenti a good guess at your origins when they examine the whole achievement or just the crest which you hang on your wall, engrave on your spoons, emboss on your writing paper or flap from your battlements.

The flower garden of history is not only visual but verbal. Over the centuries a beautiful vocabulary has developed so that the subtle variations and complications of each item in each achievement can be precisely defined in words and thus reproduced and that reproduction can reflect the fashion and graphic styles of its era.

And who could fail to be charmed when the great heraldic expert Oswald Barron pointed out in 1929 that ‘the notable achievement of the English writers on heraldry is that they should have allotted to the lozenge when borne voided the name of Mascle’?

An innocent might think a line was just a line. In heraldry a line may be engrailed, embattled, indented, invected, undy, nebuly, dancetty, raguly, potente, dovetailed or urdy.

Colours are not colours; they are tinctures - azure, gules, vert, purpure, tenny, sanguine and sable. Another two tinctures are or and argent which are termed metals.

It becomes more complicated. Roundlets, which tend to be small and round, vary in their name dependent on their tincture. Aroundlet that is vert in hue is termed a pomy whilst a bezant roundlet is actually coloured or. The list of the other roundlets are plate, hurt, torteau, golpe, pellet, orange and guze.

A sample of the definitions is irresistible: Allumee – when the eyes of a boar or any other beast are sparkling and red. Baillone – a lion rampant holding in his mouth a baton. Clymantwhen a goat is standing on his hind legs. Cross- Grincollee – when the extremities of a cross terminate in the heads of snakes. Marcassan – a young boar whose tail hangs down when that of an old boar is turned round in a ring on his back. Pelican in Piety – in her nest feeding her young with blood which issues from her breast.

Naturally the most simple symbols of identity were the first to be snapped up and a very general rule is that such simplicity shows great antiquity.

The sensation of the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, aside from Wallace’s defeat and a few thousand dead, was the outfit of the French knight Amaneu d’Albret. His banner and surcoat were all red, sorry, gules without any differentiation. That’s as cool as it got.

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