Scottish Arms and Heraldry
Based on your Scottish surname alone, many websites these days will gladly sell you a coat of arms and crest, “meticulously” researched and delivered to you via e-mail within 24 hours. Please bear in mind that taking advantage of such a service doesn't mean you have a right to use what you have just purchased. Coats of arms and crests are a form of property, and while in Scotland, should you decide to use arms without first officially registering your right to do so with the Court of Lord Lyon (a process that assuredly takes much longer than 24 hours to complete), you may be subject to stiff fines and even imprisonment.
Armorial rights are not conferred upon all persons with a given surname; they are owned by and identify members of one individual family. For centuries now, some families have wrongfully adopted the crests and arms of like-surnamed families, without bothering to prove a blood relationship between the families. More often than not in these cases, no such relationship is found to exist. The only people who can legally use coats of arms and crests are the male-line descendants of the person to whom they were originally granted. Original grants of rights were made by heraldic authorities acting on behalf of a sovereign. These following heraldic authorities still exist today to ensure that those entitled to armorial rights can receive them (and to punish the guilty):
- For Ireland – the Chief Herald of Ireland, Genealogical Office, 2 Kildare Street, Dublin
- For England, Northern Ireland and Wales – the College of Arms, Queen Victoria Street, London
- and For Scotland – the Lyon Office, New Register House, Edinburgh
If you find yourself in Edinburgh, you can visit the Lyon Office to conduct a personal search for your ancestors; the records are open for public inspection.
Proving Your Armorial Rights
The Court of the Lord Lyon, which regulates the use of Scottish heraldry, requires proof that a given petitioner for rights is descended from an original grantee. To research whether an inherited right to arms exists, you must trace your male-line ancestry back as far as possible; at that point, you can search the official records of the Lyon Office for your ancestor's original grant. The Lyon Office holds records, dating back to 1672, pertaining to Scottish grants and matriculations of arms. If you need help with the basics of Scottish genealogical research, please refer to another CelticNetwork.com article, Tracing Your Scottish Roots.
The Heraldry Society of Scotland website at http://www.heraldry-scotland.co.uk/index.htm has all the basic information about petitioning for armorial rights. The Court of the Lord Lyon will require legal proof to back up all statements made in petitions; proof generally consists of a chain of birth certificates and marriage certificates that lead back to the original armorial grantee. It is your responsibility alone to provide this proof, and no one in the Lyon Office will assume a role in providing the proof necessary to support your petition. To streamline the application process, it may be advisable to retain an experienced genealogist to assist you in preparing your petition and proof. As you might assume, there are any number of charlatans and frauds eager to assist you in proving your ancestry; as a common-sense precaution, please investigate available genealogists thoroughly before retaining one and/or advancing any money or fees.
You've researched your Scottish family tree, proved an ancestral link to an armorial grantee, and your petition for arms has been granted. You have become what Scots in the know would call an armiger. Now what?
First, of course, there is the payment of fees. These fees, which are fixed by statute and are at the time of this writing in the neighborhood of £700-£1,900, are paid in return for permanent legal protection of your armorial rights and also cover the permanent registration of your arms in the archives of the Lyon Office. When your check clears, you will receive your Grant of Arms, an illuminated parchment certifying the pedigree as proved, and duplicates will be supplied to all the applicable registries of arms.
How Can I Use My Coat of Arms and Crest?
As an armigerous person, you can use arms in a near-infinite number of ways:
- Put your crest or shield of arms on your stationery or business card
- Commission a silversmith to engrave them on a silver dinner service
- Hang a replica of your coat of arms outside your front door
- Make emblazoned stained-glass windows or a flag
- Create custom-made jewelry, belt buckles, or other apparel accessories
The coat of arms may be displayed in as many ways as your mind can imagine, and there is no need to replicate the image exactly as it is reproduced on the Grant of Arms document. Only the blazon, the written description of the coat of arms, cannot be altered by law.
For Further Information
You can find more detailed information in the many authoritative books that have been written on the subject of heraldry. Many of the key reference works are more than a century old and are no longer in print, but you can utilize the website AnIrishChristmas.com to look for books on heraldry that remain in print and are available online.