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Issue 81 - A Coat of Arms... What an achievement

Scotland Magazine Issue 81
June 2015


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A Coat of Arms... What an achievement

There is an increasing demand from citizens of the USA and other countries who want to acquire an official and legal Coat of Arms in Scotland. Dr Bruce Durie explains the process

You may have seen ‘Your Family Crest’ adverts in magazines, on websites and booths at Fairs, Expos and Gatherings. These are, at the very least, misleading and in some cases downright duplicitous. The only way to acquire arms is to apply properly to the correct Heraldic Authority.

This whole fascinating area is filled with misconceptions, including,
‘We have a Family crest’.

Anything on a Shield is not a Crest, but the Shield component of the full achievement of arms. The Crest is a different element.
‘OK, we have a Family Coat of Arms, and I can get it from a website’.

There is no such thing as a ‘Family Coat of Arms’ in Scotland – any arms you see are almost certainly not yours, but those of someone of a similar surname, dead or living. In Scottish heraldic law (yes, ‘law’ as in ‘statute’), a Coat of Arms is the property of one person at a time and inheritable.

If you share a surname with some arms you have seen on a website or elsewhere, it may be that you have a claim to them, or a variant, but you are not justified in simply adopting and using them, any more than you could drive someone’s car or live in their house because your surnames are the same.

‘But everyone with the same surname has the same arms’.

Not exactly – it’s an accepted practice that people with similar surnames, including those in cadet branches, will have obviously similar arms. That makes arms a bit like a pictorial family tree, but which branch would you be in?

‘You can’t get Scottish arms unless you live in Scotland’.

Well, there are ways around that – read on!

‘Heraldry is just for the great and the good’. No, in Scotland, arms are for the ‘worthy and well-deserving’, irrespective of wealth, social class or noble ancestry.

‘It’s difficult and expensive’. Frankly, it is usually not straightforward and does take time. Professional help from an experienced genealogist and heraldist may be necessary. However, the cost is comparable to an annual family holiday, for instance, and the arms can be passed on down the generations.

But if you decide to go ahead, you will be joining a tradition that stretches back reliably to the time of Robert Bruce and possibly a century before that.

Getting Arms Properly

The Heraldic Authority in Scotland is the Lord Lyon King of Arms, backed up by the full power of statute from the 1500s and still in force. Lord Lyon is three people rolled into one – Head of the Heraldic Authority as a judge in his own court; a Minister of State in the Scottish Government; and the Queen’s representative in matters heraldic and ceremonial. The Lord Lyon matriculates existing arms and grants new ones, the details added to the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland. The Register in its present form goes back to 1672, although the granting and recording of arms is far older.

Strictly speaking, arms can only be granted to someone within the Lord Lyon’s jurisdiction. If you normally live or have property in Scotland, you can apply for a new Grant of Arms in your own right, or re-matriculate those of an armigerous (arms-bearing) ancestor.

If an ancestor of yours had arms granted in Scotland, these can be re-matriculated in your name if you are the lineal descendant, or with a difference if you descend from a collateral branch.

If your ancestor came from Scotland, arms may be granted retrospectively, with a cadet matriculation to you and your heirs; even if not of direct armigerous descent Foreigners of Scottish descent may have a relative in Scotland (or a Commonwealth country) who can have arms granted by the Lord Lyon and thereafter obtain a cadet matriculation, in which case both parties will have arms.

In all these cases you will require an application to the Lyon Court in Edinburgh, establish a pedigree, and present a properly-constructed set of proofs.

Petitioning The Lyon Court

If you decide to petition for arms, it will be necessary to construct a proven pedigree back to someone from Scotland. If you are looking to re-matriculate the arms previously granted to an ancestor, you will have to prove that you are a descendant, and whether in the senior line or a cadet branch. If you wish to have a new grant of arms on behalf of an ancestor, you will have to show the birth, marriage, death and other details of that ancestor, and proofs of your descent.

Proofs are not:
‘I found a family tree online...’ or ‘our family has always said that...’ or ‘I read it in a book’. You have to prove everything to a judicial standard, and present legal documents to back it up.

Let’s Take a Real Example

John Kerr was born and lives in California. His grandfather, James Kerr, was born in Perthshire, Scotland. and emigrated to New York in 1921, where he married and had John’s father, Walter, in 1934. James died in New York, and it was Walter who moved west, married, and had John in 1950. Walter Kerr is still alive.

John will be applying for posthumous arms for James, in the name of Walter, and so will need:
• John’s own American birth certificate
• Walter’s American birth and marriage certificates
• The American marriage and death certificates of James
• James’s birth certificate in Scotland, and his parents’ marriage certificate
• Any other documents that are relevant and provide evidence – wills, etc.

Other documents may add colour to the story – ships’ passenger lists, census records, naturalisation papers, passport applications, evidence of military service and so on – but are not usually necessary if the basics are in hand. However, it is not enough to download images from a website, however official (such as John has the originals of his own birth certificate, and Walter’s birth and marriage certificates (or perhaps visits his local courthouse in California to get copies). He then hires a local genealogist in New York to obtain a legal extract (copy) of the marriage and death certificates of James.

John also needs certified legal copies of the Scottish certificates pertaining to James. He gets these from Register House in Edinburgh – not a complicated or costly process (roughly £10 – 15 / $15 – 25 per document) but some people find it easier to have a Scottish genealogist obtain these.

As it happens, James Kerr’s grandfather did have Arms – so legal copies of the relevant birth, marriage, death and testamentary records, linking James to the original grant of arms, will also have to be acquired the same way.

Making the Petition

Once the proofs are in hand, John constructs a petition written in a particular format, ‘praying’ that Lord Lyon will grant (or in this case re-matriculate) arms. This is accompanied by a ‘schedule of proofs’, listing and describing the documents, plus the documents themselves, which will be returned. While all that is going on, John has made a preliminary request, costing £200 ($320) as a deposit against the full eventual fee, if arms are granted.

The current statutory fees are given in a reference at the end of this article, but there may be other costs – it is usually a good idea to have someone experienced to amass the schedule of proofs, construct the petition, deal with queries and so on. Therefore, count on spending at least £3,000 (US $5,000) in total, and be aware the process can take a year or more depending on complexity, the number of requests already in the queue, and so on.

What will John Receive?

It transpires that James was not the eldest grandson of the original armiger, his grandfather, so he will get the original arms, differenced appropriately. Ultimately, the Lord Lyon will decide, but is open to discussion about what to include, subject to heraldic law, precedent and matters of taste and propriety – James was a blacksmith, so John might feel a horseshoe would be appropriate, or he may decide on a more conventional indication of cadency (indirect descent) such as a crescent.

Incidentally, it is not obligatory to request a crest and a motto, but most applicants do. Supporters, however, are only granted to certain individuals and corporate bodies.

If John had been starting from scratch (no armiger in the ancestral family), he would get arms incorporating typical Kerr elements, with an appropriate difference. When the arms are granted (and there is no guarantee of that!) John will receive Letters Patent – a vellum parchment, with a beautifully painted depiction of James’s arms and accompanying calligraphy .

During Walter’s life, John (if the only or eldest son) may bear these arms, with a ‘label of three’ indicating his father is still alive. On Walter’s death, John inherits the arms.

What about England, Ireland and Canada?

If your ancestors are from England, apply to the College of Arms in London in writing or in person ( services/granting-arms). This is more expensive than Scotland, and has extra strictures (which includes demonstrating that you are a person of ‘eminence or good standing in national or local life’, but that may just be having a university degree, holding political office or being prominent in your community).

Likewise, those with Irish ancestors should apply to the Chief Herald of Ireland in Dublin ( Canada has its own Heraldic Authority, to which anyone living in Canada, or of Canadian ancestry, should apply there (

The First Step

Have your pedigree assessed by a professional genealogist and heraldist in Scotland, who will be able to advise further and pull together the various proofs. You may find you are descended from an armigerous ancestor, or related to someone who has Arms, or that you are starting afresh.

Of course, you could simplify the whole thing by deciding to move to Scotland and live here, or just buy some land – but make sure it’s more than five acres, and not some ‘souvenir plot’! The Lyon Court website has more information on the process, the current fees and more at Do also consider joining the Heraldry Society of Scotland,

Further Information
Dr. Bruce Durie BSc (Hons) PhD OMLJ FSAScot FCollT FIGRS FHEA is Shennachie to the Chief of Durie; Shennachie to COSCA, and Recipient of the Fulbright Scottish Studies Award.