We’re all well aware of logos, trademarks, advertising gimmicks and slogans used to promote companies, organisations and goods. We’re bombarded with them wherever we look. Some are trusted household names, a few may carry disliked baggage, others may be brash new kids on the block. But life without them is difficult to imagine.
A few writers and actors have even been made brands with companies under their own names.
But what many of us don’t possess, unless of aristocratic stock, is our own historic brand, our own ancient trademark (though in Scotland royal burghs and cities proudly own them) – a Coat of Arms.
A Coat of Arms is a heraldic design that, in Europe, applied to a family and can be inherited, new generation from the previous. They originate from mediaeval times when knights wore them on their surcoat, or tabard, to identify the wearer.
The Bayeux Tapestry of the 11th century depicts coats of arms, crosses on shields, providing early evidence of their use. They came into general use a century later when feudal lords and knights in battle displayed them. It wasn’t long before the newfangled fad became popular amongst others, a bit of one-upmanship, and soon became a kind of logo for families in the European elite.
Wives and daughters were of course not in the same league, so the arms had to be changed in some way, often a change of colour, to indicate women were not the full deal when it came to status.
In Scotland coats of arms apply to a person rather than family, so can be passed from family head to succeeding family head, only one at a time using it.
Although coats of arms can now be bought free on the internet, in Scotland the Lord Lyon King of Arms strictly enforces all matters referring to Coats of Arms and things heraldic. His office dates from the 14th century, although it may incorporate the much older Celtic office of royal Seanchaidh or of King’s Poet who had responsibility for keeping the royal genealogy (that must have proved tricky at times!) and attending the King’s crowning. Today such matters are still taken seriously with the gold embroidered tunic-wearing Lord being Judge of the Court of the Lord Lyon.
On ceremonial occasions the Lord Lyon, who is responsible for all State Ceremonial in Scotland, is accompanied by Her Majesty’s Officers of Arms – at present (their titles are derived from place names where powerful lords held sway) Rothesay Herald, Snawdoun Herald (title derived from part of Stirling Castle) and Marchmont Herald, Ormond Pursuivant (from Ormond or Avoch Castle on the Black Isle), Dingwall Pursuivant and Unicorn Pursuivant. In heraldry the unicorn is known as the symbol of Scotland and two unicorns supported the royal arms of the King of Scots. Since the Scotland/England union of 1707, the UK royal arms have been supported by a unicorn along with an English lion. I had to consult the dictionary for the Pursuivant bit, it seems they are juniors who may follow in the footsteps of one of the Heralds.
A 1592 Act of the Scottish Parliament gave the Lord Lyon responsibility for prosecuting as a criminal offence anyone who uses unauthorised Arms, and in 1672 a further Act authorised the creation of the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland. This Register is maintained by the Lyon Clerk and Keeper of the Records and contains an official copy of every Coat of Arms granted in Scotland since 1672 right up to the present.
So if it’s more than an interesting souvenir you crave, then the Lord Lyon is the man to contact – http://www.lyon-court.com.
The Coat of Arms above the entrance door to the administrative office of the National Library of Scotland in the Royal Mile, Edinburgh.
Fascinating. Love how the coats of arms have been incorporated into so much architecture, and I especially like that door decoration. Is that a lock?
I remember my grandfather aquired a plaque with the coat of arms for our family surname sometime in the fifties.
Old buildings across Europe tend to have their share of carved Coats of Arms. I suppose those historic knights got around on their travels to the Holy Land. In Scotland sandstone tended to be used for building castles and other important structures and, being soft, it’s easier to carve than harder stones. Yes, the metal plate with the crown and thistle is part of the door lock. Much more interesting than its modern versions.
An uncle of mine also has some Coats of Arms made up for members of the family. I think everyone thought it a rather weird thing to do, but he was happy. But, as I said, in Scotland such things are meaningless unless you go through the whole rigmarole of the Lord Lyon.
Fascinating..I believe my family came from working stock…we where probably smacking or chipping the coat of arms out of a block on behalf of our resident knight. I must say though, I find these old pieces to have far more ‘depth’ and interest than the big ‘M’ and others of today’s branding giants.
Those who carved these Coats of Arms would have been highly skilled, and highly regarded masons whose work has lasted for centuries, so you come from people who shaped buildings in the world we live in. I’m sure these have depth because they are full of history. Each Coat of Arms has images full of meaning. I don’t know enough about it, but books on heraldry explain what many of them mean – usually something connected with the family. So those in the know can read the family story. Certainly more depth than a modern advertising logo which can be fairly meaningless.
In my childhood I liked to read about heraldry. Encyclopedias that my mother bought had much information and illustrations about this matter. I also like to read about the meaning of the flags and shields of the Nations. Thank you for this posting.
That sounds like a great idea for a blog post, Walter. Look forward to reading it.