Heralds of Scotland
“Heraldry…is the mysterious signs, deeper than art or language, by which a family or a tribe pass on their most precious secrets, their lore of a kingdom lost….. Heraldry is the fury of history - made wise and formal. From its hands we take at last the wholesome images – the heart’s bread – that our ancestors sowed for us in passion and blindness.”
-‘Orkney Tapestry’ by George MacKay Brown.
Hidden away in womb-like caves in France are humanity's earliest images of the animal world. These drawings of ancient horses, bison, mammoth, deer and large felines were used in rituals to ensure a successful hunt and the fertility of the herds. In the act of our ancestors creating this elegant art, the predator or prey’s power and spirit was projected within the tribal family. As time unfurled, families, clans, tribes and even whole nations adopted symbolic plant and animal badges to represent them and set them apart from other tribes or peoples.
Following the decline of Rome, rough elements of proto-heraldry is recorded in 7th century Ireland. An account of the Battle of Magh Rath (in County Down) describes the heraldic battle standards of the Gaelic Irish chieftains: “the whole host was wont to be placed under the command of one captain-in-chief, and that, under him, each division of his force obeyed its own proper captain… every captain of these bore upon his standard his peculiar device or ensign.” In ancient Alba, Pictish symbol stones featured Z and V rods, discs, crescents, boars, salmon, wolves and bird designs. These symbols possibly identified family or tribal groups.
Sailing their dragon ships off the wild coast and isles west of Scotland, the Scandinavians also used household colours and totemic animals to decorate their ships, shields and clothing. On the continent, civil seals or personal marks of the Flemish descendants of the Emperor Charlemagne date back to the 8th century. Such devices were hereditary and common to families or groups linked by blood or feudal tenure. This use of ‘monomarks’ also spread to the Scandinavian Normans in the years prior to the Conquest of England in 1066. Continental and Norman spiritual and cultural influence was brought to Scotland by the Hungarian Saxon Queen Margaret. Primitive military heraldry was also imported by Norman mercenaries and friends of Margaret’s older sons, Kings Edgar and Alexander. Their brother David, King of Lothian and StrathClyde, was also under the sway of Norman religion, language and culture. When he became King of Scots in 1124, he too invited his powerful Norman friends north.
Inherited from the Picts, the Irish, and the now Gaelic Norse, 12th Century Scotland had a rich tradition of visual representation of individual persons or common membership in a family or clan. Whether wearing the traditional Saffron War-Coat and fringed chequered bratt of the Highland Chief, or the chain mail and helmet of the Norman Knight, military necessity dictated that Scottish warriors of Highland and Lowland families of noble blood adopted individual insignia on their surcoat, shield and trappings. Colliding with Celtic artistic expression, in Scotland Continental heraldry quicky evolved into two distinct and contrasting cultural categories : that of the simpler and noble style of the Norman and Saxon influenced families in the south and east, and the cheerfully chaotic armory of the more insular Celtic clans northwest of of the Highland Line.
Characterized by the use of quartered arms and the repetition of natural or totemic charges, West Highland Heraldry features the Galley, the Red Hand, the Salmon and the Lion Rampant. The late Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk writes that the Blue or Black Galley or Lymphad in West Highland Heraldry derives from the crescent moon symbol of the old goddess-spirit Nerthus - worshipped by the Norse PeaceKings of Uppsala. As the military instrument of Norse royal power on the west coast and Celtic Sea for almost 600 years, the Galley had a very significant meaning. Its most famous appearances are used by the lines of King Somerled as the Galley of the Isles and of Lorne. As the original Clan Chattan lands and familial influence touched and melded with that of the Clan Donald, the Galley is quartered in the arms of Clan Chattan, Mackintosh of Mackintosh, Shaw of Tordarroch, MacBain of MacBain, MacThomas of Finegand, and in the arms of MacPherson of Cluny and various MacGillivrays.
The Red Hand (of Ulster) is the heraldic device of Neil of the Nine Hostages and his descendants, the O'Neill High-Kings of Ireland. When the red hand is holding a cross, it implies a connection with Saint Columba, a prince of the O'Neill line. In the case of the Clan Chattan Confederation, the red hand is evident in the arms of MacBain of MacBain, MacGillivray and Maclean of Dochgarroch. In the arms of Mackintosh of Mackintosh, the red hand holds a red heart. MacPherson of Cluny armorials brandish a red sword upraised with a red cross standing opposite. In the arms of MacThomas of Finegand, Shaw of Tordarroch, and Farquharson of Invercauld we find the red hand and dagger ominously descending.
With their cyclical return from the outermost oceans of ‘Tir nan Og’ to their birthplace in the rivers and streams of Eire and Alba, early Celtic mythology used the symbol of the royal Salmon to indicate eternity and knowledge. We find the Salmon in the MacGillivray arms as well as other coastal clans including Maclean of Duart and the Campbells of Argyle and Inverawe.
The fierce Lion Rampant was the totemic beast of the Royal Line of the Sons of Erc, Fergus, Lorne and Angus. These intrepid warrior kings sailed across the North Channel from Irish Dal Riada around 500 AD and established a colony in what is now Argyll. Their descendant, King Kenneth MacAlpine inherited the throne of the Cruithne/Picts through his mother or grandmother, a noble Pictish Princess. This centralized the newly combined power and royal bloodlines of Pict and Gael. When Kenneth moved the capitol of Dal Riada eastward to the Pictish Capital of Scone, he took not only the Stone of Destiny, but the Lion Coat. Also descended from an alternative royal line of the Kings of Alba, the MacDuff Kings and later Earls of Fife also bore the red lion rampant on gold in their arms. Their heraldic scions can still be found today in the arms of the Chiefs of the Clan Chattan, Mackintosh, Shaw, MacThomas, Farquharson and MacBain of MacBain.
Like the caves of Lascaux, many other totemic beasts snarl defiantly in protection of our confederation. From quarters, supporters, crests, mottos, slughorns and strap and buckles, the Wildcat warns all aggressors to back off. Symbolic of the Celtic pre-Christian Mother Goddess, we find the sturdy and defiant Boar in the Arms of Mackintosh of Mackintosh. A majestic Deer watches the treeline in MacGillivray and Davidson of Davidston arms. Not limited by the animal kingdom, there is also frequent use of rocks, castles, mounds and trees. These can be traced in nearly every case to the actual ownership or keepership of identifiable sites like the Doune of Rothiemurchus, the strategic hillfort guarding a crossing over the Spey that was the cradle of Clan Shaw
Scottish heraldry is about history, clan and kingdom. As it is passed down through the generations, it is a symbolic representation of the entwined life forces of fertility, and love of family and land. In a dark and brutal world full of battle, struggle and blood spilled, heraldry also evoked the heartwarming light of courage, loyalty, friendship and honour. In roaring red war and in gentle green peace, four hundred years ago the communal clan system entwined all levels of family society - both rich and poor, into one great Celtic Knot. As a symbolic expression of that great united clan family, the arms of each clansman proudly reflected that of his or her Chief. Today, this same vital tribal unity remains steadfastly reflected in our modern Scottish heraldic tradition. Part of our duty in honoring our ancestors and our Highland culture and history is also to continue and strengthen these noble symbols of clan family unity : the ancient traditions of Scottish heraldry. As such, I strongly urge those that are able to consider petitioning and matriculating personal Arms in Lyon Court.
The literal Gaelic translation of Herald is Teachdair, both “Messenger” and “Ambassador”. I believe being a Scottish armiger is in a small yet sturdy way, being a Herald of Scotland. It is in word and deed our individual duty and responsibility to bring the majesty of history and tradition, and the strength of fire and steel into today’s worldwide Scottish community, to our own clan family and, as it was four hundred years ago - in support our Chief.
William G. A. Shaw of Easter Lair