The Science of Heraldry

Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, in his book "Scots Heraldry", says "Heraldry is a simple and practical science, invented and used for the convenience of everybody, in days when few could write, and education was of an elementary standard. The science is, indeed, so simple and straightforward that anyone can grasp it in the course of an afternoon, though a few days may elapse before some of the terms are fixed in the mind."

There has certainly been a marked revival of interest in Heraldry in our modern times and unfortunately this has given rise to organisations misrepresenting the true meaning of "Coats of Arms" and "Family Crests". Often the question is heard "Do you have a family coat of arms?" rather than "has anyone in your family ever petitioned for a Coat of Arms?" or "Do you have a copy of the Brownlee Family Crest?" rather than "are the Brownlees associated with a Scottish Clan and can they therefore use that Clan Badge?". You see Heraldry is all about ownership. A person owns a Coat of Arms, not a family, just as you own your clothes. How would you like someone else rocking up at your house and going through your wardrobe and saying, I'll wear these? Or perhaps someone saying I like your signature, I am going to copy your signature and use it on all my documents. A signature is your mark and it declares that you have used that mark as your seal of approval on whatever it is that you are signing for. No-one else can use that signature to say they are you or they will be in contempt. It says that you and only you are the rightful person to sign that particular document.

There have been many books written on the Science of Heraldry and as it is with any subject, it is important to find the reliable sources. There would be none better than to go to the Court of the Lord Lyon, keeper of records in Scotland. The main reference used here is the well written, Sir Thomas Innes of Learney’s, “Scots Heraldry”. Thomas Innes of Learney was Lord Lyon King of Arms, and considered one of the greatest authorities on Heraldic law. Sir Thomas’s son, The Right Honourable Malcolm R. Innes of Edingight, C.V.O., W.S., F.S.A. Scot is the current Lord Lyon.

The Court of the Lord Lyon, is one of only two Courts of Chivalry in Europe which is a court of law in daily session, dealing with Heraldry and Genealogy; where cases are pleaded in wig and gown, and where real protection is afforded to the owners of coats-of-arms, and redress is available for their wrongful assumption, in other words, it is very different from the English Court of Chivalry.

Heraldry is medieval in origin and is concerned with identification. Its definition is a simple system for identifying individuals by means of hereditary devices placed on a shield, which system developed in Western Europe, in medieval times. Markings on an Heraldic shield comprise a very exact and precise system of identification, and these marks are hereditary and pass from father to son, and so identify the individual in relation to the family.

Our old Scots laws required every landowner to possess a coat-of-arms. Those who had none applied to the Court of the Lord Lyon, who exercising the Armorial prerogative of the Crown, assigned such arms as the applicant “might lawfully bear”, and an ancient manuscript says that The Lyon “refuses arms to none who are able to maintain “a horse with furniture” (armour and trappings) for the service of the Sovereign”. Both the Lord Lyons Commissions and Statute of 1672 expressly authorise him to grant arms to ‘Virtuous and Well Deserving Persons”, “who are in all places of honour and worship among other noblemen to be renowned, reputed taken and accepted by shewing certayn ensignes and demonstrations of honour” and “noblesse” persons deserving of being raised to the nobility, and who in virtue of the grant of arms, become the root of a “noble stok” as described in 1592, cap. 125, established as a family organised in “stem and branches” as a Noble Community.

In Scotland, not only Peers and Lairds, but professors, lawyers, merchants and businessmen have continually registered arms as a matter of course, by descent if proved, otherwise under new grants. Our Scottish Burgesses did not hesitate to decorate the picturesque old houses in which they lived and carried on their trades with their armorial symbols, and at long last were not ashamed to inscribe both their arms and their trade description together on their tombstones, and would have scorned to conceal the latter under the title of “Esquire”. The Lord Lyon says “Any man who says he is a gentleman may just as well have the courage of his convictions and affirm it with Heraldry, which establishes that the Crown has accepted him as such”. Whether his coat-of-arms once registered becomes romantic, famous, or historic, depends entirely on himself and his successors. The aim of every Clansman is, as Bishop Leslie says to “shawe themselfes worthy of the hous they are cum off”, and “to decore their hous by a worthy and distinguished career”. With that aim the first step more often than not has been to obtain a suitably differenced version of their chief or chieftain’s arms. Upon this honourable ambition to sustain the credit of the Clan or House, much of the picturesque romance and strength of Scotland depends.

The development of Scottish Heraldry has indeed differed from that in most other countries, due to the small number of Clans or families in our nation each with numerous members all virtually claiming to be of noble descent. In consequence of this, all the salient features of Scottish Heraldry is that; as compared with England and other countries, the basic coats of arms are relatively few in number, but numerous different versions of each shield exist. The basic or simple un-differenced arms and crest, are the property not of the family; but of the chief of each Clan or House. The whole bent of Scottish Heraldry has been to develop a system of ‘differencing’ designed to distinguish Chief, Chieftains, and Cadets of such noble and organised name, in order to give practical identification to the numerous Chieftains, to prevent cadets from assuming arms inconsistent with their actual position in the family. In no other country has Heraldry even approached the splendid scientific system of individual differencing which has been carried out in Scotland from the middle ages to the present time.

The family is the most important community in the world; and Scottish Heraldry is the most scientifically perfected heraldic system for operating the family, because it came under statutory control and administration at a time when official control was slackening in other realms, where it, therefore, never acquired such scientific and practical perfection. To be strong the family must use heraldry as Scots do, to maintain tradition, pride in, and loyalty to the family and to the chief, who represents the family. It is the machinery, which makes his or her rule and representation effective. However small the chiefly home (and remember many Baronial Towers had but 3 rooms), the arms should appear above the door and fireplace. In addition to the annual Clan gatherings each branch should hold an annual branch gathering under its own Chieftain.

According to Lord Lyon Innes of Learney:- The Chief or Chieftain should use his arms on notepaper, invitation cards, marriage and other invitations, and also on Christmas cards from the Chief or Chieftain, which should contain portraits or prints of family seats, not caricature snow scenes. The genealogy of the family should be narrated along with a display of arms or banner at christenings and marriages. Thus is the family made a living and functioning entity whose existence embodied in the Chieftain, is ever before its members with its inspiration of tradition, heraldic colour, and sense of unity and strength, is so kept steadfastly before its children.

Learney also says that Heraldry should therefore be used lavishly as colour with purpose (about which there need be no vulgar squeamishness). Heraldry is the symbol of the noble patriarch, the glory and strength of a well-knit house and Clan. No one need ever be afraid of over-doing heraldic display. Our ancestors never hesitated to display it freely, and the rich satisfaction of these schemes is largely due to the variety and interest created, as the eye flits from one historic shield to another, each telling it’s own tale and recalling different romantic memories.

It must be remembered that armory was invented for the purpose of identification and those who wish to use it, should bear in mind that this is the acknowledged object for its display; and wherever it is honestly and correctly used for that purpose it’s use is not only Justifiable, but honest and pleasing. No more splendid form of decoration exists, for it is at once artistic and interesting and affords a pleasure which meaningless tracery and “stock patterns” can never supply.

In the middle ages there was none of the modem snobbery which makes conceited democratic plutocrats humility enjoy being “honoured” in bowler hats and tweeds, and makes lesser folks self-conscious and ashamed of their callings. Medieval dress and heraldry alike were designed to tell at once who you were and what you were, and people were straightforward about both. Dress no longer tells us that, but nevertheless, heraldry still tells precisely who and what the user is, whether male or female, married or single, gentleman, chief, baronet or peer. Those who wish to be honest and correct should always remember that when one uses heraldry at all, one really uses it for identification. The object then should be to make that identification as instant and complete as possible for medium of display.

For successfully affecting this purpose there are certain quite definite heraldic customs, and those who abide by these needs never fear that it’s use will be either snobbish, aggressive or out of place. Indeed the absence of heraldry in certain places and on certain occasions is much more noticeable than its presence, and if a man be a gentleman at all, one is led to wonder why his arms are not being used in certain places where they would normally be expected. There is one further point that I should make - while on this subject it is this:

Knighthoods involving Knight bachelors die out with the recipient; but arms once granted by the Court of Chivalry are hereditary and descend like a peerage, from father to eldest son.

Birth-briefs (or lineage pedigrees of the grantees or matriculants) confirmed by the Lyon Court are held in that Courts records, and are available for public scrutiny. These briefs are expected to be brought up to date by the addition of marriages, birth records etc., as they occur.

Illustrations of Grants and Matriculations of arms to members of the Brownlee family are shown in the Genealogical chart of Brownlee in Blackburn. The arms of Angus Alan Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, His Grace the Duke of Hamilton and Brandon are also depicted in this book. Readers should note that the Hamilton arms display on a chief (the top third of the shield) “three cinquefoils ermine”. The Lord Lyon King of Arms when granting arms to the author explained that he had granted a cinquefoil ermine in the centre of the shield to indicate a “Feudal Fief” to the ducal Hamilton family from whom the Brownlees received their tenancy, and to whom the family of Brownlees owed a military allegiance.

In Scotland pedigree is still a matter of moment, for these days as in the past, Scots as a nation take inordinate pleasure in noble birth, even though the descent has come through humble channels, for in practice, the younger branches of chiefly lines sank easily through farm and croft to the cotter house or tradesman’s bench. Still the old ties remain, the kinship acknowledged and treasured on both sides, while chiefs and lairds are expected to sustain tribal dignity and form a rallying point for their kin. It is important to recollect that the King formally recognized that honours held by the chief of the House of Douglas were given as a reward to the whole surname of Douglas, not to the chief alone. The Clans’ genealogy, the exploits, civil as well as military, of the chiefs and chieftains of each house, have in Scotland ever been as in olden times, the main subject of family conversation, and thus a source of inspiration to future generations.

It is the duty of the father to encourage the estimation of the family and sense of duty, it pertains especially to the mother to bring up the children from their earliest years to love and honour their family and its traditions, which she should learn to impart to them along with her own, for each alliance brings fresh inspirations, and traditions, to mingle with, and build up, the history and traditions of the paternal house. In this vital duty, recourse to family charters and to Lyon Court certificates and family manuscript histories is the parental standby for handing on from generation to generation the glory of Noblesse and Chieftainship and spirit of race. Read them regularly and also the family history, memorising the important parts, and thus, obtemper[1] the fifth commandment.

Compulsory registration of births, marriages, and deaths was introduced into Scotland in 1855 and an extract of entry made in the registers maintained since that date may be obtained personally, or by letter, from the Registrar General, General Register Office, New Register House, Edinburgh 2, on payment of a fee.

Prior to 1855, records of births, deaths and marriages, burials, proclamations of banns, were recorded for each separate parish by the session clerks of the Church of Scotland. These old Parochial Registers, some of which go back into the 16th Century are held in the General Register Office, Edinburgh.

The most important printed work on elementary Scottish genealogy is Margaret Stuart’s Scottish Family History (1930). The first part of the volume, which should be digested thoroughly before any research is undertaken, is a contribution by Sir James Balfour Paul on how to write a family history and this contains a brief account of the Scottish Public Records with notes on other relevant sources of material. The second part is an alphabetical list of Scottish families with suitable reference works for each family. Two other general reference works should not be ignored:- George F. Black, “Surnames of Scotland” (New York, 1946), which provides notes on origins, meaning and history; and “Scottish Family Histories”, held in Scottish Libraries (Edinburgh 1960), compiled by Joan Fergusson; this volume acts as a useful up-to-date supplement to Margaret Stuart’s work. The location of copies of these family histories in particular Scottish libraries being indicated throughout.

The Scottish Genealogy Society in Edinburgh also has a comprehensive library of family biographies. The address is 9 Union Street, Edinburgh.


Donna L. Baker, M.A., B.Sc., in her book A DEMOGRAPHIC STUDY OF ILLEGITIMACY IN CERES, PARISH, FIFE, 1841-1861 states inter alia “George Seton, Secretary to The Registrar General of Scotland,” shocked many Scots into a realisation of the problem of illegitimacy when in 1860, he wrote that for drunkenness and illegitimacy, the country maintained an unenviable notoriety among the Kingdoms of Europe. He went on to say that during the two years 1858-1859, the average annual number of illegitimate births in Scotland amounted to nine percent and of eight other countries studied, Scotland was placed third. Seton would have been more surprised had he conducted his national survey fifteen years earlier as by 1858 the wave had taken a definite downward turn.

The long-term of bastardry in England shows a wave-like motion in which, between 1540 and 1960, reached a climax in the 1840’s. The very high levels for the individual years 1842 and 1845 interested the social historian and student of industrialisation. Studies conducted by two leading historians in the field, Peter Laslett (England) and Michael Finn (Scotland), indicate that the bastardry trend in Scotland paralleled that of England.

It is necessary at this point to determine what illegitimacy was. Defining marriage in Scotland is not an easy task. The law of Scotland recognised two kinds of marriage - regular and irregular. A regular marriage was one performed by a minister of the Established Church of Scotland. Irregular marriages consisted of many types. Marriage vows taken in the presence of a witness, “Marriage by public declaration”, marriages performed by Catholic or Seceding clergy, promise of future marriage followed by intercourse, marriage by “habit and repute”, and local customs such as “handfasting” were considered binding under Scottish law. It is notable that under Scottish law a bastard was legitimised by subsequent marriage of its parents.

Illegitimacy was not merely a matter of establishing whether the parents were married or not. It was a complex phenomenon dependent on many things. Laslett provides the best list of circumstances that had to be met in order for modern historians to study the rate of “spurious”, “base” or “natural” children born at any given time. Donna Baker goes on to say that in the era before official registration the child must have been taken to the church for the ceremony of baptism. When it came to making the entry in the register, the minister or parish clerk must have felt obliged to set down the teltale description of the baby's social and legal status. After Civil Registration began, the official responsible must have got this information out of the reluctant mother.

From an heraldic point of view the “natural” child, perhaps on account of the old Scottish custom of handfasting, is favourably treated. On proof of his paternity he matriculates like any other lawful cadet and obtains some form of the specific “bordure compony” the purpose of which is to show that he is not actually in legal line of succession. Far from being treated as a “filius nullius”, he is treated as a member of his father's clan. A female bastard in whose name arms have been matriculated becomes an “heiress”. See Sir Thomas Innes of Learney’s “Scots Heraldry”. A most enlightening study can also be made of Kirk-Session Records which provide an excellent picture of “scandal” and “penitence” in cases of bastardry, and Registers of Corrected Entries, which record the change of status from illegitimate to legitimate upon the subsequent marriage of the child's parents.

[1] Ob`tem'per v. (Scots Law) To obey (a judgment or decree)