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Scotland Magazine Issue 3
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The Lyon King
Robin Blair, controversial new Lord Lyon King of Arms talks to Scotland Magazine. Words and pictures by James Carney
With a pedigree dating back to Robert the Bruce, the post of Lord Lyon King of Arms is more than just a job, it’s an institution and arguably one of Scotland’s most venerable. The nation’s supreme authority on all matters heraldic and (almost) the last word on hereditary succession, Lyon – to give him his less formal moniker – is also responsible for organising the pomp and pageantry surrounding the Queen’s Scottish summer jaunts. But the Lyon has teeth and in recent years Marks & Spencer and Mohammed Al Fayed, among others, have been subject to his judicial wrath for misusing heraldry on their property.
Having arranged to interview Robin Blair, the new Lord Lyon, I was half expecting to be ushered in to a latter-day Camelot, resplendent with the trappings of rank and tradition. Imagine my disappointment then when I was shown into a rather spartan office in Edinburgh’s New Register House. There’s little to differentiate it from senior executive offices anywhere, save for the ostentatiously large golden lions on either side of the fireplace, looking for all the world like regal wally dugs fallen on hard times and waiting for a grander mantelpiece to sit on.
Having risen rapidly to the rank of Minister of the Crown and Judge of the Realm, Robin Blair has no obvious airs. Greeting me with a firm handshake and the precise diction of the educated Anglo-Scot, he directs me to a seat across an expansive desk like a friendly bank manager who’s invited me for a chat about my overdraft. It’s hard then to believe Blair’s appointment as Lord Lyon provoked such controversy when it was announced last February. The transfer of power between holders of the Lyon office is normally handled efficiently, without fuss, the new incumbent appointed by the monarch from the ranks of the heralds and pursuivants who comprise the officers of the Lyon Court. Until now, that is.
Blair’s predecessor, Sir Malcolm Innes of Edingight, was standing down after 20 years and for the first time in its 700-year history, the post of Lord Lyon was advertised in the jobs section of (appropriately enough) The Herald and other broadsheets. Given the stature of the position, reducing it to the Situations Vacant columns was always going to raise eyebrows. “We are genuinely looking around for someone who might be right for this unusual post,” David Stewart, Head of Judicial Appointments at the Scottish Executive, explained. “The only real stipulation is that applicants must have a law degree.” It’s a bit like the Catholic Church advertising for a new Pope: ‘Wanted: Holy Father. Experience of religion preferred’.
Blair, newly retired from a corporate legal career in Edinburgh, was immediately interested although he acknowledges his was a speculative application: “I didn’t have a great deal of experience in heraldry or of the operations of the Lyon Court and assumed there would be a great many other people interested in the position who would have much more experience than me.” In the event, of 57 applicants, five were interviewed by a panel of distinguished peers and Blair was duly appointed. ‘It came as quite a surprise,’ he admits.
The appointment of someone from outside the heraldic establishment not only surprised but outraged those who felt several of the other interviewees were better qualified to act as the country’s most senior heraldic authority. Cries of ‘foul’ went up, a flurry of letters to the press followed and Jim Wallace, the justice minister, was asked to raise the matter at the Scottish Parliament. Blair won’t be drawn on why he thinks he was chosen and is quick to play down the furore. “I had a tremendous amount of co-operation from everybody when I was appointed,” he says. “My predecessor couldn’t have been more helpful so it was all made very easy for me.”
Blair is not a rank outsider to this world. For 25 years he was Secretary of the Royal Warrant Holder’s Association which regulates the use of Royal Arms by businesses supplying the Royal family. Since 1989, Blair has been Purse Bearer to the Lord High Commissioner, the Queen’s representative to the General Assembly. Since this is a personal appointment by the Commissioner (in recent years, Prince Charles and the Princess Royal) to act as their chief-of-staff, he is clearly a trusted courtier and familiar with the logistics of large-scale royal ceremonial.
Perhaps Blair’s strongest card was his business management skills. Much of his career was spent as Managing Partner at Edinburgh’s Dundas and Wilson CS, during which time he also held non-executive appointments across a variety of different industries. The phenomenal increase in the public interest in genealogy has meant the Lyon Court has never been busier, granting new coats of arms, investigating claims to titles and in general, trying to keep pace with a seemingly inexhaustible range of queries from around the world about family histories. Given this, Blair’s hands-on experience of running a modern office may have counted heavily with the interviewing panel. Ironically, given the controversy that arose, the fresh perspective that a career outside the Lyon Court could bring to its operation may also have been a deciding factor.
Blair doesn’t deny modernising the Court is a priority. “It is to some extent a business, and it’s important to look at how it runs, to see whether it’s efficient and whether we operate in an appropriate way.” Talk like that is likely to be viewed with some alarm by critics but he is keen to stress his awareness of the heritage attached to the office. “You couldn’t do this job without being constantly aware of the historical legacy that you’re inheriting and which you’re operating. But,” he continues, “it would be a mistake for someone to come into this job and not have new ideas about how things could be done or to question why things are done in a particular way.”
And this is where being an outsider brings advantages. “Because I haven’t spent my life at the Court, I can ask the questions others might not think of asking which then makes people question why we do things in a particular way.” Does he have an agenda? “A limited one,” he concedes, “mostly concerned with how we can improve things or change them to provide a better service.”
For Blair, increased computerisation and accessibility is the way forward. “At the moment, the only way a member of the public can see the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland (the magnificent manuscript volumes containing a sumptuous visual record of every Scottish coat of arms since 1677) is to come into the office and physically look at a volume containing pages of original vellum. What I want to do is devise a system to let them call it up on their computer at home and look at it on the internet instead.” Not only would this provide a new revenue stream but an official Lyon Court website would help counter the vast amount of bogus heraldry and genealogy the internet has spawned in recent years.
As the internet has done so much to fuel interest in family pedigree it seems sensible to Blair to harness modern technology to ease the burden it has caused him. “We are bombarded by calls from all over the world from people asking for information and it’s difficult to handle these over the telephone. It would be much easier if we could communicate through a website.”
With interest in family history increasing exponentially the greater openness and accessibility proposed by Blair will go some way towards rehabilitating the public view of heraldry. It may help people appreciate the Lyon Office as an essential part of the nation’s heritage and something worth preserving.
Unlike some who wore the Lyon’s tabard for almost 50 years, Blair doesn’t think he’ll carry on much beyond his 70th birthday. The legacy he hopes to leave is a Lyon Court that is more user-friendly, accessible and widely known, generating more interest than at present. “I think it’s fascinating to be responsible for something which has been running for 700 years but at the same time make it work in the 21st century and make it relevant. It’s a big challenge but I’m confident we can do it.”
If Robin Blair achieves only part of what he is setting out to do, he will have more than answered his critics.