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Issue 71 - Chivalric devices

Scotland Magazine Issue 71
October 2013


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Chivalric devices

Roddy Martine delves into a world of arms, shields, emblems and flags

There is an enormous amount of selfindulgent excess on hand for those of us who live in Scotland's capital during the four weeks of the autumnal Edinburgh International Festival. It therefore came as a blessed relief for me to escape into the nave of St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral in Palmertson Place and to find an exhibition on heraldry.

Now there are some who might consider heraldry in itself a form of excess, but let me remind them that there was a time when it played an immensely important and practical role in everyday life. Moreover, for aficionados of the science, it still plays a critical role in educating each and every one of us as to who and what we are and , not least, from whence we came.

Originally a means to enable armour-clad medieval knights to recognise one another on the battlefield, heraldic devices were thereafter adopted by craftsmen, tradesmen and civic authorities to promote personal recognition. So the practice mushroomed throughout Europe, being regulated in Scotland by the Lord Lyon King of Arms, an Officer of State with direct authority from Her Majesty the Queen, and backed up against forgery by the full force of the Scottish legal system.

The exhibition, entitled The Pageantry and Heraldry of Scotland, comprised two significant themes. To begin with, it paid a tribute to the historic visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822, commemorating the first time that a reigning British monarch had set foot on Scottish soil since Charles II's departure in 1650. King George's visit, a massive public relations exercise to win the hearts and minds of the Scots, was primarily orchestrated by that great novelist Sir Walter Scott and his friend Major General David Stewart of Garth, and every prominent citizen in the land flocked to the capital hoping to catch a glimpse of their monarch..

Outstanding among the exhibits on show at St Mary's were therefore the White Rod of Scotland itself, Sir Patrick's Charter and Seal, his Chain of Office and Court Sword, and the outrageous pink and white cloaked costume he wore on horseback for the monarch's procession from Leith. It should also be noted that following Sir Patrick's own demise, and the deaths of his two sisters, the Walker Trust was established to preserve the Office of Usher of the White Rod in perpetuity, and to build and endow St Mary's Cathedral Cathedral, the Mother Church of the Scottish Episcopal Diocese of Edinburgh.

The second theme of the exhibition consisted of a display of the Bannockburn Heraldic Banners, a set of magnifcently coloured large flags designed by Dr Patrick Barden in the 1980s to identify the key participants at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Displayed at intervals, immensely bright and decorative beneath the lofty gothic arches and ceilings of St Mary's, these remarkable heraldic standards will next year feature prominently at the Trust's Battle of Bannockburn commemoration events taking place on 23rd and 24th July.

We need to have an element of tradition, historic fantasy and glamour in our lives and what particularly caught my eye when I attended the official opening of this treasure trove of antiquity at St Mary's was the appearance of the Rt Hon Donald Wilson, Lord Provost of the City of Edinburgh wearing the magnificent robes of his nineteenth century predecessors. I have since been told that back in the late-1990s, as the tide of local politics turned momentarily against pomp and ceremony, Donald was responsible for having all the city's ceremonial robes cleaned and safely stored away until the mood had passed.

Thankfully that mood has well and truly passed, and to witness Edinburgh's First Citizen resplendent in the full regalia of his predecessors was a potent reminder that the the trappings of our heritage have as profound and signficant a role to play in our contemporary world as ever they did in the past.