What is Heraldry?

Throughout Highland Games, there is always a vendor that sells “Family Coat of Arms” online to Scottish heritage and displayed them in thehome.   Unfortunately, there is no such thing a Clan or family Coat of Arms.  It is not surprising considering the complexity of heraldry with its own language and terminology that a fair amount of confusion exists within the North American members of the Clan Society on the subject of heraldry.  


First and foremost, we must understand that heraldry is not merely for the ultra-wealthy titled pretentious individuals.  Heraldry is in fact a genealogy tool and may be the oldest genealogy tool in the western world.  It may be thought of as the medieval version of Ancestry.com.  In the 12th century, when literacy rates were lowest, the invention of a symbolically displaying your family origins and thereby asserting you right to an inheritance would have been crucial.

Originally, a coat of arms began  as a tabard or surcoat of  knight to identify him battle that fit over the armor. [i]  In addition, the designs, or charges, were painted onto the shields.  At that time, like today, it didn’t belong to a family, but rather to an individual. Heralds, or people who work in Heraldry, would display this as a Shield or Escutcheon. (See Fig.  1)

In tournaments, knights would place a totem on the helmets, to further distinguish themselves in the crowd.  This totem would later become the crests (or Clan Crests) of today.  These crests are drawn by placing the crest atop a wreath, or torse,  which holds the mantling in place.  The mantling is shown as the draper attached to stave off the elements and deflect sword blows. Hence, the mantling is shown as being ragged. (See Fig. 1)

The torse can also be replaced by a crown, coronet  or chapeau depending on the owner’s rank and standing in the peerage. The torse then rest upon a helmet or helm.   Even this helm is symbolic of distinctions and standing of the owner.

Armour and land was expensive and when a Son inherited his father’s armour, he would use the same picture on the shield.  When more than one son existed, the common course was to alter the coat of arms slightly to show the position that person had to the founder.  In this way it could be used to show descent. 

For example, when a landowner passed it away, it could be quickly established who would inherit the land by a quick  glance of the coat of arms to see whose arms who the least different or “undifferentiated”  from the landowner to  find out the true heir.  Each person in the family, nephew, cousin, brother, or sister would have an individual coat of arms slightly different from the rest to show his/her position in the family.  In each case, when a father passed away, the eldest would inherit the arms as long as he/she retained the family name.

In certain cases, when marrying into a wealthier family, a person might be enticed to “quarter the arms” or divide the shield into four spots and take two spots for one family and two from another.  Those quarters might be quartered again in the next generation. This is seen in the Frasers of Findrack who kept the Bairds of Auchmedden in their Arms for political and financial purposes.

Fast forward to the 17th century and heraldry became important in Scotland.  The Scottish Parliament passed a law in 1672 requiring anyone using a Coat of Arms to register them with the Lord Lyon King at Arms and pay a fee.  If you didn’t pay up and register, the fine was bigger.  In addition, the court had the right to take “all moveable goods and gear upon which the said arms are engraved”.[ii]  Thus one of the strongest heraldic traditions was born in Scotland. The Court of the Lord Lyon transformed from a symbolic feudal court to an actual court of law within the Scottish Court System.  Specifically, it deals with issues arising in heraldic matters such as who inherits what arms and the granting of new Arms.  

The Lyon court has protected this duty fervently. Heraldic laws in Scotland are not a historical quirk.  In 2008, the Lyon court investigated Donald Trump for using a coat of arms as a logo in his new golf resort without matriculating them and threatened legal action. Trump, whose mother was born in the Western Isles of Scotland in the Gaelic speaking village of Tong, was forced to matriculate arms or face prosecution.