THE LORD LYON KING OF ARMS
Protecting the heraldic tradition in Scotland
An interview with Sarah Powell
Public records have been kept officially in Scotland since the late thirteenth century - an important duty for those involved, although standards of "keeping" have varied tremendously, with hungry rodents and damp being constant threats in earlier centuries. Until the mid-sixteenth century Scotland's records used to be kept in the royal treasury in Edinburgh
Castle where a clerk "bred up a cat" to keep the rats at bay.
Conditions have improved since, fortunately, with the National Archives of Scotland housed in the decidedly grandiose General Register House opposite the Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street in Edinburgh. Designed by Robert Adam and opened in 1788, the classically-styled building boasts 3-ft thick walls and a 76-ft high central dome with an elaborate plasterwork ceiling.
Set slightly behind General Register House stands a much smaller but nevertheless striking building. Its nineteenth-century design mirrors that of its older and grander neighbour, having a domed central search room surrounded by high-ceilinged corridors and offices which face outwards, giving a welcome impression of space and light. This is New Register House, built to house the records of civil registration in Scotland, and also home to a rather different and particularly colourful branch of record-keeping: that of The Court of the Lord Lyon, the official body charged with protecting and recording the heraldic tradition in Scotland.
The offices of The Court of the Lord Lyon, although remarkably small, are anything but ordinary. Tall glass-fronted bookshelves housing collections of heavy tomes line one corridor; cabinets display intricately embroidered tabards worn by previous Lord Lyons; hand-painted crests of past knights of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle* adorn cabinet tops; and leather bound registers conceal genealogies incorporating coats of arms, hand-painted on thick vellum paper. Hand-painted coats of arms and accompanying descriptions &endash;; the work of members of a team of freelance artists and calligraphers who come in on demand &endash;; are carefully stored in a plans' chest.
So what exactly goes on at The Court of the Lord Lyon?
Robin Blair, 34th Lord Lyon, explains that "in the earliest times, the principal function of the Lord Lyon in Scotland was to confirm the correct heir to the Scottish throne, satisfying himself that the genealogy of the claimant was honourable and accurate. The significance of this role was, and still is, reflected in the royal coat of arms worn by the Lord Lyon. This identifies him as 'high sennachie', the officer responsible for identification of the heir to the throne. The name 'Lyon' was adopted because the royal coat of arms for Scotland principally depicted a lion rampant."
Robin Blair relates that "the history of the Lord Lyon dates back several centuries. Early historical information is incomplete, but we know that there was a Lord Lyon appointed by King Robert the Bruce in 1318 or thereabouts, and from 1388 onwards there are records of all the subsequent Lord Lyons.
"Heraldry itself dates back far earlier than that, reflecting the custom for knights in armour, when fighting on horseback, to wear a distinctive 'coat' on top of their armour to enable their followers to identify them on the field of battle. That is why we speak of a 'coat of arms', the more popular name for armorial bearings. The custom of wearing such coats of arms was widespread across Europe, notably at the time of the Crusades when armies were making long journeys and the soldiers were unfamiliar with the territory on which they were fighting."
The Lyon Office in the twenty-first century
Today, the responsibilities of the Lord Lyon are threefold: one is to exercise what is called the "royal prerogative" in granting coats of arms in Scotland; the second is to operate a judicial function as a court to ensure that arms are used lawfully and to make judicial decisions in relation to the right to arms, titles and dignities; the third is a responsibility for state ceremonial such as the opening of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and related service in St Giles' Cathedral.
The Lyon Office in Edinburgh differs from The College of Arms in London in that
unlike the English College of Arms, it is in effect a court of law and operates daily as such under an Act of the Scottish Parliament which, in 1672, established a register of arms called The Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in
Scotland, which is still maintained today. While the court rarely hears evidence in person, its role is to handle as a judicial process any application made to it for the grant of arms. That said, from time to time, it does process cases where evidence is heard in front of the Lord Lyon sitting as judge.
Prior to the 1672 Act, the Scots already had coats of arms. "Indeed," says Robin Blair, "if you owned land in Scotland, you were expected to have arms. But there was no proper control of the system. It was only in the sixteenth century that legislation was passed giving the Lord Lyon the right to prosecute people who had arms which were not officially approved. The register was subsequently set up to serve as a complete record of these.
"The maximum fine we can levy today for a breach of the legislation is £100," explains the Lord Lyon. "This is pretty small but what is important is that we can have the arms removed. While I am not sure that we would be entitled to demolish a whole building, we could certainly insist on arms being removed and flags being taken down. At one time the Lord Lyon had the power to put people in prison &endash;; although I am not sure that this power still exists and it certainly has not been used for a long time!
"The situation is rather different in England. There the Earl Marshall of
the College of Arms is entitled to convene the Court of Chivalry to deal with any abuse. However, this has only met once in the last century, just after the Second World War and, on that occasion, the proceedings were supervised and heard by Lord Goddard, a judge of
the High Court in England. The College and the Earl Marshall did not hear the case themselves. Unlike the Lord Lyon, the Earl Marshall has no legal right to prosecute. Scotland, by comparison, is fortunate to have a system with the power to ensure that arms are used correctly. In countries without this authority, it is far less easy to 'police' heraldic use.
"Illegal use of arms often arises from ignorance of the system; people will put up a coat of arms because they think it looks rather nice, not realising that they haven't got the right to do so. Usually, as soon as this is brought to their attention, they immediately stop. If awareness of the system were more widespread, these sorts of cases would never occur."
A major part of the work of The Lyon Office relates to the handling of applications for arms. These come either from individuals, companies, clubs or other organisations that want new ones or from people who are claiming descent from someone who has had arms in the past. In the latter case, applicants normally seek either to use the same version or a different version of those arms because of the relationship that they have with the original holder.
Less frequently, the Lyon Office receives applications from people who wish to register their genealogical details on the Public Register of Genealogies maintained there. The office also receives myriad queries relating to use of coats of arms and of clan insignia and badges, flags and protocol, traditional Scottish dress and so on.
The volume of queries is challenging for such a small office. Robin Blair hopes in the future to move the register of arms on to an electronic database, which would be a tremendous asset to researchers while easing the pressure on staff. The availability of such an official website might also help steer researchers away from the burgeoning number of heraldic websites which claim, often falsely, to match coats of arms to family names.
Clan chieftainships are another area of activity for the court. The Lord Lyon explains that a number of clans that are without chiefs &endash;; some for hundreds of years &endash;; are now keen to find one. Interestingly, much of the litigation coming to
the Court of the Lord Lyon over recent years relates to clan feuding because more than one person claims descent from an original chieftain. In such cases the Lord Lyon must decide who is the proper person to assume chieftainship. Many of these cases have been the subject of appeal from the Lyon Court to the civil courts and ultimately to the judicial committee of the House of Lords for a final decision.
In cases of granting of arms, meanwhile, it is the Lord Lyon who makes the final decision. Here he exercises the royal prerogative, which means he speaks on behalf of the Crown; his decision in relation to the form of any particular arms is final and there can be no appeal.
Establishing a coat of arms
So who can use arms and how are the designs determined? The answer is that anyone wishing to have a Scottish coat of arms must have a connection with Scotland, either through an ancestor or through ownership of property in Scotland. To prove Scottish links, applicants must submit birth certificates or other such evidence. In more complicated circumstances, many are referred to professional genealogists who will search for information for them.
Applicants then present a petition, requesting that the Lord Lyon grant them arms. In the case of a first-time application, that is, from someone who has no connection to anyone with arms, the petition is fairly straightforward, simply recording details of the applicant, with reference to immediate forebears, parents or grandparents for example, if such details are to be recorded in the register. Where there is no link to an existing coat of arms, the Lord Lyon agrees with the applicant what form the arms will take.
The Lord Lyon is permitted to grant arms to any "virtuous and well-deserving person" with Scottish connections and he has the final word on what form the arms should take. Under the Scottish system, if an applicant's name is Scottish or resembles that of an 'armigerous' person (i.e. a person with arms), the Lord Lyon first looks at the designs granted to people with similar names; this reflects the importance of the clan system of identification with a particular family. Afterwards features personal to the applicant are incorporated in the design. In all cases the Lyon Clerk drafts the text of what is to be recorded in the register including the description of the arms. Then an artist paints the arms and the text is inscribed by a calligrapher. Finally, the artist and calligrapher produce a duplicate for the register, a record which is kept for posterity.
"After we have provided the official version of arms," explains Robin Blair, "applicants are perfectly free to make whatever use of this they wish &endash;; they can have flags made, glass or signet rings engraved, knives, forks or china decorated &endash;; and, of course, they can use any artists they wish to do this."
There is no family coat of arms as such in Scotland. A coat of arms is granted to an individual and belongs uniquely to that person, being passed down from that person to the eldest son, and then to that eldest son's eldest son and so on down the male line. In such cases, the arms usually remain unchanged. While the father still lives, an eldest son can use the father's arms with what is called a "label": a small three-pointed sign which goes over the top part of the shield to indicate that he is an heir apparent. The younger sons can use another "label". A system of different coloured and shaped borders also distinguishes one member of the family from another.
A limited number of colours is used heraldically. Among the principal colours, called tinctures, the principal ones are "gules" for red, "vert" for green, "azure" blue, and "sable" black. Less frequently used are things like "purpure" for purple, "murrey" for mulberry and one or two others. Finally there are the metals, gold and silver, called "or" and "argent", and occasionally furs like ermine. There is no restriction on the colours chosen for particular items and, of course, the shades of individual
things themselves can vary quite considerably.
The combination of shapes and colours used in the design is important but the individual features can be depicted in various ways - a lion's head, for example, can be painted in many different ways, that is up to the artist. Looking through the registers of arms, it is clear that since 1800 there has been a huge variation in artistic taste and styles.
Scottish heraldry has been rather appropriately described as "historical shorthand", heraldic decoration providing uniquely colourful and evocative clues to the past, whether through crests adorning buildings, insignia on flags and banners, badges on uniforms or inscriptions on rings or cutlery. The increasing interest in it reflects a strong loyalty to Scotland and a widespread desire to establish or maintain links with particular families or communities. This, coupled with a widespread appreciation of Scotland's heritage and pageantry, means that today the historic Court of the Lord Lyon is as busy as it has ever been, protecting and promoting the country's rich heraldic tradition.
Contact address: The Court of the Lord Lyon, H.M. New Register House, Edinburgh EH1 3YT.
Tel: +00 44 (0)31 556 7255
Useful books on Scottish Heraldry:
Scottish Heraldry: An Invitation, by M D Dennis. The Heraldry Society of Scotland, Dunfermline, 1999. ISBN 0 9525258 2 8. Available generally in Scotland and from: Mrs Elizabeth Sharp, The Heraldry Society of Scotland, 44 Seaview Terrace, Edinburgh EH15 2HE (£2.50 plus postage).
Scotland's Heraldic Heritage: The Lion Rejoicing, by C J Burnett, the Ross Herald, and M D Dennis. The Stationery Office, Edinburgh, 1997, ISBN 0 11 495784 3. Available generally in Scotland and from: James Thin Ltd, 53-59 South Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1YS (£9.99 plus postage).
*The Thistle Chapel in St Giles' Cathedral was built for Scotland's order of chivalry, the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle. Each knight's stall is crowned with the crest from his coat of arms.
Sarah powell is a regular contributor to Burke's online magazine "Atavus"