of Arms & Tartans
study of genealogy has seen a resurgence in interest in Heraldry
(Armorials) and in the case of the scots Tartans
and Clan Badges, interestingly the rules surrounding these two forms
of family identification are very different. There are even different
rules of eligibility between England, Scotland
and Ireland. In Scotland the difficulty of
these issues is compounded by that of eligibility for Clan and Sept
There are a great many sites on the internet which sell
mounted family arms and histories and other forms of heraldic memorabilia.
Surprisingly few people who display these coat of arms and crest
today have any actual right to do so. Over the centuries, many families
have simply assumed arms and crests belonging to other families
of the same name, usually without authority and without demonstrating
any relationship between the families. This is especially common
in the America and British colonies, however mere usage of a coat
of arms, even over a long period, does not necessarily indicate
a descent from the family for whom it was first recorded. Indeed,
more often than not, there is no such connection.
is deplored by strict heraldists as it detracts from the basic purpose
of coats of arms and crests, which is to provide hereditary symbols
by which particular families may be identified.
Going back in
time, to the 17th century, there was a group of lawyers who became
famous for their “intellectual achievements and barbaric behaviour”.
One of these, Sir John Nisbet, Lord Dirlton (1609-87) was recognised
by his peers as being accomplished in the law and also an authority
on heraldry and he wrote as follows:-
purpose of heraldry is not merely show and pageantry as some are
apt to imagine, but to distinguish persons and families; to represent
the heroic achievements of our ancestors and to perpetuate their
memory; to trace the origin of noble and ancient families and
the various steps by which they arrived at greatness; to distinguish
the many different branches descended from the same families and
to show the several relations which one family stands to another.”
are not available for use by all persons of a given surname, but
rather belong to and identify members of one particular family.
of new arms have been made to worthy applicants, on payment of fees,
since the fifteenth century. The practice continues to this day,
and in addition grants of honorary arms are occasionally made to
foreign citizens of British male-line descent. Coats of arms and
crests are a form of property and may rightfully be used only by
the male-line descendants of the individual to whom they were first
granted or allowed.
There is no
complete printed list of families granted arms in England prior
to 1687 but an index of many surviving grants from that early period
will be found in Grantees of Arms (Harleian Society, vol. 66, 1915).
For the period
1687-1898 the great majority of persons to whom grants of arms were
made are listed in Grantees of Arms II (Harleian Society, vols.
67 & 68, 1916-17). These do not describe the arms granted. Records
of original grants are kept at the College of Arms, though the reason
for a particular grant and the rationale behind a design of arms
are not normally recorded.
of families using arms in the period 1530-1687 established their
heraldic rights at the Visitations made by heralds from the College
of Arms who toured the country at intervals for that purpose. The
office copies of pedigrees recorded at Visitations are at the College
of Arms. Many of them have been printed, often from unofficial (and
sometimes inaccurate) copies in the Harleian Manuscripts preserved
at the British Library. References to printed pedigrees of Visitation
families will be found in G W Marshall, The Genealogist’s
Guide (1903), J B Whitmore, A Genealogical Guide (1953), and G B
Barrow, The Genealogist’s Guide (1977). All three works need
to be consulted. In the years since 1687, many pedigrees have been
officially registered at the College of Arms, sometimes in order
to establish a right to arms by descent and sometimes for purely
The best known
published armorial is Sir Bernard Burke’s General Armory (last
edition 1884), which lists families in alphabetical order and describes
the arms they used. It is unofficial, incomplete and often inaccurate;
though a useful general guide it should be used with the greatest
care. A W Morant’s additions and corrections to Burke’s
list are to be found, edited and augmented by C R Humphery-Smith,
in General Armory Two (1973). It may also be instructive to consult
earlier works such as William Berry, Encyclopaedia Heraldica (4
vols. 1828-40), and the armory in Joseph Edmondson, A Complete Body
of Heraldry (1780), vol. 2. Many families with an established right
to arms in the period 1890-1929 are detailed in the various editions
of A C Fox-Davies, Armorial Families (last edition 1929).
The formal description
or ‘blazoning’ of a coat of arms proceeds along certain
well defined lines, and an unknown coat of arms on a signet ring
or monument, for example, may be identified by using an ‘ordinary’,
which indexes arms by design and gives the names of families to
whom they have been attributed. The best known of these is J W Papworth,
Ordinary of British Armorials (1874), but a knowledge of heraldic
terminology is needed to consult it, and it is not in any case a
complete index of British coats of arms. Other references include:
Book of Crests (4th edition, 2 vols. 1905). A more extensive collection
of manuscript volumes at the College of Arms, known as Garter’s
Ordinaries, enables the heralds to check whether any coat of arms
or crest is to be found in their official records. The Dictionary
of British Arms - Medieval Ordinary (Vol.1 1992, Vol.2 1996) edited
by T Woodcock et al. are the first volumes of a project to revise
Papworth’s Ordinary by concentrating on pre-visitation arms
recorded prior to 1530, and with the addition of sources and name
index; thus acting as a combined ordinary and armorial.
often associated with heraldic devices and may provide a useful
clue in the identification of arms. However, there is no monopoly
on the use of a particular motto, and the same motto may therefore
be used by many different families. Numerous mottoes are listed
and identified (and foreign ones translated) in C N Elvin, A Handbook
of Mottoes (1860, revised edition 1971). Indexes of mottoes also
appear in the Burke and Fairbairn volumes mentioned above.
An Ulster King of Arms was first appointed in 1552, and
records of grants in Ireland exist from that date. Heraldic jurisdiction
over Northern Ireland was transferred to the College of Arms in
1943, the office of Ulster King of Arms being joined to that of
Norroy King of Arms. In the Republic of Ireland, an official Genealogical
Office was established in Dublin, with the Chief Herald of Ireland
at its head, and his authority is the primary one in Eire. Photocopies
of the old records of Ulster King of Arms are deposited in the College
of Arms, the originals being retained by the Chief Herald.(1)
Heraldry - Arms, Crests and Badges
The regulation of Scottish heraldry differs considerably from the
system in England. No Visitations were made in Scotland, and the
records of grants and matriculations of arms commenced only in 1672
following a series of Acts of Parliament which culminated in the
establishment of The Public Register of all Arms and Bearings in
Scotland and these have been maintained ever since. The records
are kept by the Lyon Clerk and cover matters of Genealogy, Heraldry
and Tartans. All persons using arms are required to register or
‘matriculate’ their right to arms in the Court of Lord
Lyon King of Arms.
Since the passing
of the Acts the wrongful assumption of arms in Scotland is punishable
by fine and imprisonment.(1)
The shields of arms (but not the crests) are all listed for the
period 1672-1973 in Sir James Balfour Paul, An Ordinary of Arms
contained in the Public Register of all Arms and Bearings in Scotland
(2 vols. 1903 and 1977).
The Lord Lyon
Clerk has issued a number of public statements about the use of
arms and crests, from which the following is an extract(2)
coat of arms fulfills within the clan or family the same purposes
as the Royal Arms do in a Kingdom. There is no such thing as a
"family crest" or "family coat of arms" which
anyone can assume, or a whole family can use.
Bearings, of which the Crest is a subsidiary part, are a form
of individual heritable property, devolving on one person at a
time by succession from the grantee or confirmee, and thus descend
like a Peerage. They indicate the Chief of the Family or Clan,
or the Head of each subsidiary line or household descending from
members who have themselves established in the Public Register
of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland a right to a subsidiary version
of the arms and crest, containing a mark or difference indicating
their position in the Family or Clan. This is not a "new
coat of arms; it is the ancient ancestral arms with a mark of
cadency, usefully showing the cadet's place within the family.
not only illegal, but a social crime and error of the most grave
character, to assume and purport to use your Chief's arms without
a due and congruent difference. Anyone who does so merely publishes
their own ignorance, and lapse into bad manners, and use of such
on seal or notepaper will close the doors of all the best families
against the presumptuous upstart.
is no such thing as a "Clan coat of arms". The arms
are those of the Chief and the clansmen have only the privilege
of wearing the strap and buckle crested badge to show they are
the Chief's clansmen.
have a crest without first having a shield of arms, because the
crest was a later addition. Misuse of crests arises from misunderstanding
of the badge rule under which junior members of the family may
wear in specified manner their Chief's crest as badge.
of the Chief is worn by all members of the Clan and of approved
Septs and followers of the Clan, within a Strap and Buckle surrounding
the Chief's motto. This is for personal wear only, to indicate
that the wearer is a member of the Clan whose Chief's crest-badge
is being worn. The badge or crest is not depicted on personal
or business stationery, signet rings or plate, because such use
would legally import that the tea-pot etc., was the Chief's property.
summarize, unless you are a male who descends in an unbroken male
line from a person who rightfully possessed a coat of arms and you
can prove the relationship generation by generation back to the
original grantee of the arms, you have no right to claim it as your
family coat of arms on the basis of the surname alone.
If you're a
female descendant, it is even more difficult. Daughters have the
right to use their father's coat armour as long as they remain unmarried
or they may combine [by impaling or escucheon of pretense] their
father's arms with those of their husbands. If their spouses have
no arms, daughters may continue to use their paternal arms for life,
but this right is not inherited by their children and expires with
If a person
[an armiger] who has the right to bear heraldic arms has no sons
but only daughters, the daughters are heraldic heiresses and their
children may quarter the arms of their mother with those of their
father. If their father has no arms, the right is lost unless the
arms are regranted to them as heirs of their maternal grandfather.
In order to
discover whether an inherited right to arms exists, it is necessary
to trace one’s male-line ancestry back as far as possible
and then to examine the official records of the heraldic authority
concerned. These authorities grant and record grants acting under
the sovereign. These authorities are:
- The College of Arms, Queen Victoria Street, London EC4V 4BT
- The College of Arms, Queen Victoria Street, London EC4V 4BT
Ireland - The College of Arms, Queen Victoria Street, London
- the Lyon Office, New Register House, Edinburgh EH1 3YT
(The Republic of Eire) - Chief Herald of Ireland, Genealogical
Office, 2 Kildare Street, Dublin 2, Eire
and Dublin the records are open for public inspection, and personal
searches can be made.
The tartan is the ultimate symbol of Scottish nationalism,
it is both a uniform and an icon. And the tartan is ancient.
talked of the Celtic tribes wearing striped clothing One of the
earliest examples of tartan dates back to the 3rd century AD, where
a small sample of woollen check - known as the Falkirk tartan -
was found used as a stopper in an earthenware pot to protect a treasure
trove of silver coins buried close to the Antonine Wall - near Falkirk.
It is a simple two-coloured check or tartan, which were identified
as the undyed brown and white of the native Soay Sheep. Colours
were determined by local plants that could be used for dyes.
closely identified with the Highland tribes who used the form of
dress out of convenience. The modern kilt - feileadh beag - is a
stylized version of the ancient belted plaid - feileadh mar -- which
was belted at the waist and had the ends coming back over the shoulders.
Highlanders used the plaid as protection from the elements and -
being pure wool - as a blanket for sleeping. In battle they used
to throw off their long plaids and fight in their shirts.
By the 15th
and 16th centuries the word tartan was being widely used for distinctively
woven cloth coming out of the Highlands. The term referred to the
type of the cloth, rather than colours. In 1538 King James V purchased
"three ells of Heland Tartans" for his wife to wear. And
in 1587, Hector Maclean (heir of Duart) paid feu duty with sixty
ells of cloth "white, black and green"-- the tradition
colours of the Maclean hunting tartan. An eyewitness account of
the Battle of Killecrankie in 1689 describes "McDonells men
in their triple stripe".
of Old" was divided into two distinct social systems:
clan, with a blood or marriage relationship, and
feudal land-rent society.
Despite a romantic
preference for the clan, feudalism predominated and eventually prevailed.
By 1704 the Chief of Clan Grant could pointedly direct that his
tenants named "Mac Donald" were required to wear the Grant
the 1600's the majority of Scots lived in non-Gaelic speaking areas
with territorial or land-rent obligations more important to them
than a mythical common ancestry. They were expected to follow their
lord, whatever his name might be. On the Borders, men were required
by the March Law to identify with one of the major families and
be a "clannit man" no matter what their own surname The
alternative was to be an "outlaw", so tartans became associated
with manorial lines, and their people - septs in the highlands.
were not established and named until towards the end of the 18th
century. Prior to that time, whilst it is a pretty myth that people
in one glen wore red and blue kilts and those in the next wore yellow
and brown the idea of a single uniform clan tartan had not yet emerged.
it is reasonable to assume that any tight knit community would wear
the cloth produced by the local weaver in quantities that would
limit the variety of patterns and colours - determined by the availability
of specific plants and minerals for dying - and that when they went
to war, many would be dressed in the same material, so it became
that clan, district and tartan were closely associated and people
in past centuries could recognise a person's area and likely allegiance
by the colours and way his apparel was worn.
After the battle
of Culloden (1746) laws were passed forbidding the wearing of tartan
- except in the military, which is why there are so many Highland
regiments - tartan manufacture survived only in the hands of the
military and their Lowland suppliers. When the laws were repealed
in 1782 there was a resurgence in Scottish nationalism and efforts
to restore the spirit and culture of the Highlands after this lengthy
period of repression, were encouraged by the newly formed Highland
Societies in London (1778) and Edinburgh (1780).
After the removal
of the bann William Wilson - a major weaving manufacturer - took
a great interest in documenting the tartan patterns and started
collecting samples. By 1822, Wilson had over 200 setts recorded
in the firm's pattern books, many of them tentatively named, and
the Highland Society of London had persuaded the majority of the
clan chiefs to account for their clan tartans. After this the chiefs
of the clans were commanded to attend the king at Holyrood Palace
in Edinburgh wearing their Highland dress. This Royal patronage
was later continued and extended by Queen Victoria in her passion
for all things Scottish.
Here are a few
guidlines to help you sort out terms that you may run across when
selecting which type of tartan to have a kilt made in.
tartan - The regular sett of the clan or family.
tartan - A ground-colour (or colours) is changed to white.
tartan - Strictly speaking, these should only be worn by the
chief and his family unless general sanction has been given
or there is no extant chief.
tartans - Setts that apply to certain geographic areas connected
with a residence or family’s place of origin.
- These should only be worn by the Royal family, their staff,
or groups given special permission such as pipers in some Highland
wearing of Tartan
It is not unusal to hear people of Scots heritage say ‘my
great-grandmother was a Douglas therefore I have the right to wear
the clan tartan’. This statement has no basis in fact. No
such ‘right’ exists. Scottish heritage is primogeniture
- that is a man takes his father’s identity only - and any
claims made through the female line are not, strictly speaking,
It must be understood
from the outset that a person may wear any tartan of his or her
choice -- the exceptions being personal tartans, tartans restricted
by copyright or trademark, and those reserved for members of the
Royal Family. The term "suggested tartan" is exactly what
it says, a tartan suggested as appropriate for a person with a given
surname. There is nothing to stop someone from wearing any pattern
of tartan they wish.
There are however
some accepted rules of the Scottish clan system:
the "District", "Caledonia" and "Jacobite"
tartans, no one should wear a tartan to which he is not by name
or descent entitled. To do so is foolish and ill-mannered, invites
scorn, and is contrary to the whole principle of the clan system.
Nor does one "select" tartans from this or that "line"
of ancestors. The vital question is, "To which Clan
do I belong?"
"belong" to the clan of which you bear the name
or sept name.
have no real right to wear your mother's tartan unless you
have taken her name.
cannot belong to several clans at once.
(cliathe) of non-clan names are, as followers, sometimes allowed
to wear the tartan (usually a hunting set if any) and to become
members of a clan society
Some clans and
families encourage friends and admirers to adopt and wear their
tartan. It is an old Highland custom to so honour your host. Other
families wish their tartan to be worn only by persons bearing or
related to a specific name or spelling. For example, the Fleming
family wears the Murray tartan in recognition of a long friendship
between the two families while the Johnston(e)s and the Boyds prefer
that their tartan be worn only by those who bear the name or are
associated by marriage.
A person has
the right to wear the tartan associated with his or her name. If
you can established that you do qualify for a Clan tartan, and you
know which one it is, the choice begins to narrow. In a large clan
which has split into several subsections (and some of these can
be large enough to have its own Chief) by all means lay claim to
that particular variation – if you have the genealogical proof
to show the connection. There are, for instance, eight different
MacDonalds but if you can’t show a direct connection to a
specific one then you would be better to take the Clan MacDonald.
Clan MacDonald covers all MacDonalds.
It is important
to remember that it is entirely possible that there is no tartan
for your family or clan. It may be that your surname is a SEPT of
another clan, in which case you are quite entitled to wear the tartan
of that other clan. If it is not a sept of another clan you may
still be able to lay claim to a District Tartan.
are those which are worn, or wearable, by persons belonging to or
descended from ancestors belonging to these Districts. These Districts,
however, only cover certain small areas of Scotland. Tartans originally
came from a weaver supplying a district and because the Clan System
meant that nearly everyone in the district had the same name, that
name became associated with that pattern. However, some district
tartans have survived in their own right which means that when looking
for a tartan you may be directed to a district tartan rather than
a clan tartan.
Those not entitled
to wear a Clan, Family or District Tartan have no right to wear
any Royal Tartan, and particularly not the so-called “Royal
Stuart Tartan”, which is the tartan of the Royal House, and
accorded to the Pipers of The Sovereign’s Royal Regiments.
If that fails,
there are tartans which every person of Scottish descent - with
no Clan, Family or District Tartan (may) - has the right to wear:
“Hunting Stewart” - this was originally a general
Scottish hunting tartan and only named “Stewart“
until about 1888; the Hunting Stewart in ancient colours is
particularly attractive. This is a tartan which is rather old
and was in popular use long before the Stewart dynasty produced
their Royal Stewart, Dress Stewart, Black Stewart etc
Tartan – for those with ancestors of Jacobite proclivities;
or “Government” Tartan in its exact regimental form,
or one of the modified forms, for those of Hanoverian or Whig
of new designs like Flower of Scotland, Pride of Scotland, Isle
of Skye etc.
There are, however,
shibboleths which exist over the wearing of different tartans at
the same time:
two different tartans of your clan may be defensible, but wearing
the tartans of two different clans is possibly one of the biggest
taboos. It has been suggested in the past that a man could wear
a tie in his mother’s clan tartan, but this is not correct.
concerns the ‘correct’ fashion in which a lady
should wear her tartan sash over her evening dress.
Chief wife wears her sash over her left shoulder with a badge,
otherwise it is worn over the right should. A lady of Scottish
family, married to someone not entitled to a Clan, Family
or District Tartan, shall continue to wear her own tartan
in skirt, etc, but wears her sash over the right shoulder
and tied in a bow over the left hip (not pinned)
The issue of Clan membership is a very touchy subject. According
to the Lord Lyon of Scotland:
with the Clan surname who can trace their lineage into the Chief’s
lineage is a clan member.
with the Clan surname but who cannot trace their lineage into
the Chief’s line is an “indeterminate cadet.”
(not of blood or surname) who is adopted into the clan/family
by letter from the Chief is a clan member.
who marries out of her clan/family is no longer a member of
her surname clan/family.
||But a woman
who marries into the Clan surname becomes a member of the clan
through marriage. However, her children have no claim to her
a clan/family society or lineage society that bears the surname
does not make someone a member of that clan.
The late Lord
Lyon, Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, in his book Scots Heraldry, suggests
that the Chief of a Clan present a qualified member of the clan/lineage
society with a numbered membership certificate bearing his title,
heraldic arms, and signature, as a sign that the individual is an
accepted member in the clan/family, not just a member of the clan
(1) : Information Sourced from "Society
of Genealogists Information Leaflet No. 15 - The right to arms"
From the "Court of the Lord Lyon, H.M. New Register House,
Edinburgh, EH1 3YT, Scotland".