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Notes on Heraldry

The origins of heraldry go back a long time in history. Leaders have always sought to impress their followers and terrify their enemies with bright colours and fanciful dress. The system of heraldry as a means to that end evolved into a distinct pattern in mediaeval times.

Since war was a hobby for the magnates of the realm as well as a means to make themselves rich, the science of heraldry was devised for the purpose of letting a leader be seen by his followers. He was the man expensively dressed in coloured clothing, unlike his men, who could not afford it.

He wore a coat over his armour emblazoned with his arms. this was the origin of the term coat of arms and the term came to be applied to the design rather than the garment, so it was a coat of arms even when it was painted on a shield or embroidered on a flag.

The vocabulary of heraldry was and remains Norman-French. Since it grew up in feudal times it was all about "Class", and had a rigid structure which did not allow anyone to invent his own coat of arms, or to presume to wear particular elements which belonged to a superior rank. To supervise the matter a Court was set up to grant and regulate the system. This Court still exists, and in Scotland it is presided over by the Lord Lyon King of Arms,directly appointed by the Crown. To strike the Lord Lyon is regarded as high treason. Under the Lord Lyon there are three Heralds and three Pursuivants. Usually these are lawyers and/or historians.

Anyone who has the means to have a coat of arms matriculated, or registered, can have it done so long as he does not have a criminal record. There is a scale of charges but this does not concern us here, but they are surprisingly moderate.

At the lowest level of importance arms consist of a shield, a helmet, mantling, a wreath or torse, crest and motto. Higher ranks may have supporters at the side of the shield, standing on a compartment

There are many more points less familiar than the above because they are less often seen, such as flags of various shapes and sizes.

The shield is usually shown as a heater but it is sometimes shown in other shapes, round, oval, square or whatever takes the artists fancy. It is painted with the arms in colours, called in heraldic jargon metals, tinctures and furs. the background is called the field, and anything painted on it is called a charge.

Metals are two in number:-

or-------------------------gold or yellow

argent-------------------silver or white

Tinctures are seven in number although others are recognised,

they should be bright and easily recognised.


Azure------------------ blue





Sanguine-------------Blood colour

Furs, or the painted representation of them, the most common being

Ermine--------------white fur, black spots

Contre-ermine----black fur white spots

Erminois-----------gold fur, black spots

Pean----------------black fur gold spots

It is the rule not to lay a metal on a metal, or a colour on a colour, for the sake of contrast.

A shield may be divided by lines of partition, or "parted". and this description does not wish to go too deep for the ordinary reader to lose interest, but as an example, if it is parted vertically through the centre it is described as "Per pale", if horizontally it is "Per fess". Another common device is Quarterly, often used when two families intermarry.

There are nine positions on a shield to help locate the design, such as chief, which is the top third or so, the chevron and the saltire are known to everybody, and these nine are known as the ordinaries and sub-ordinaries.

In heraldry, right and left are known as dexter and sinister respectively, but it is the dexter and sinister of the man who is holding his shield in front of him, so it is not your right and left but his, which is used, otherwise the whole coat is reversed.

Above the shield is the helmet. Again the helmet denotes rank, there being distinctions in the design and in the way it is garnished with gold and silver.

The cloth cape which hangs from the top of the helmet is called the mantling, and its function was to keep the inside of the helmet cool in hot climates. The colour rules require the outside colour to be the principal colour of the arms and the lining of the principal metal (or/argent). This is called doubling.

The wreath or torse covers the joint between the helmet and the crest and replicates the colour rule of the mantling. A cap of maintenance or chapeau is sometimes found, again indicating a higher rank.

A crest-coronet may be found, and this does not necessarily denote rank, but it can vary to indicate clan chief or a soldier or sailor. One variation has been awarded to a County Council.

The crest which surmounts the whole developed from the metal fin on top of the helmet which was an added protection from blows from a sword, and later took many elaborate and grotesque shapes in tournaments. Clergymen are entitled to a clerical hat, or, if entitled, a bishop's mitre.

The motto or mottoes are also shown.

Very senior ranks may also have supporters on either side of the shield, and they stand on a compartment, representing the territory of the holder.

This is by no means a complete description of the science of heraldry, for there are many more points that have not been mentioned. A grant of arms is to one person, not , as many people imagine to a family or a clan. The immediate members of his family may wear it with a suitable difference, which denotes their place in descent. On the death of the holder the heir removes his badge of cadency and adopts the arms of his father, as he is now the head of the family. This can be seen on the Crawfurd Gallery; on centre front are the arms of Sir John, as inherited by his son with the later modification of a Viscount’s coronet when the said son was created the first Viscount Crawfurd. The achievement at the top of the Gallery shows the same arms impaled with the arms of the viscount's wife’s father, as she was not herself armigerous.

There are a number of books which are easily available from any public library. Not all apply to Scottish heraldry, which prides itself in being the purest in Europe. Among the books to read are :--

Scots Heraldry   Sir Thomas Innes of Learney

The Observer's Book of Heraldry   Mackinnon of Dunakin

Discovering Heraldry   Jacqueline Fearn

Scotland’s Heraldic Heritage   Charles J Burnett & Mark D Dennis

The latter is probably the most informative and readable and can be obtained from Historic Scotland’s properties and many Tourist Board Offices.