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Coat of Arms & Tartans

The 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 membership.

Heraldry (Arms)(1)
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.

This practice 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:-

“The 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.”

Armorial bearings are not available for use by all persons of a given surname, but rather belong to and identify members of one particular family. Grants 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.

The majority 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 genealogical interest.

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:

James Fairbairn, 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.

Mottoes are 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.

Irish Heraldry
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)

Scottish 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)

The Chief's 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.

Armorial 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.

It is 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.

There 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.

You cannot 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.

The Crest 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.

To 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 their death.

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:

  England - The College of Arms, Queen Victoria Street, London EC4V 4BT
  Wales - The College of Arms, Queen Victoria Street, London EC4V 4BT
  Northern Ireland - The College of Arms, Queen Victoria Street, London EC4V 4BT
  Scotland - the Lyon Office, New Register House, Edinburgh EH1 3YT
  Ireland (The Republic of Eire) - Chief Herald of Ireland, Genealogical Office, 2 Kildare Street, Dublin 2, Eire

In Edinburgh 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.

Early Romans 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.

Tartans were 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".

"Scotland of Old" was divided into two distinct social systems:

  the clan, with a blood or marriage relationship, and
  the 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 Colours. By 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.

Clan tartans 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.

Nevertheless, 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.

  Clan tartan - The regular sett of the clan or family.
  Dress tartan - A ground-colour (or colours) is changed to white.
  Chief's 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.
  District tartans - Setts that apply to certain geographic areas connected with a residence or family’s place of origin.
  Royal tartans - These should only be worn by the Royal family, their staff, or groups given special permission such as pipers in some Highland regiments.

The 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, valid.

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:

Excepting 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?"

1)   You "belong" to the clan of which you bear the name or sept name.
2)   You have no real right to wear your mother's tartan unless you have taken her name.
3)   You cannot belong to several clans at once.
4)   Adherents (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.

District Tartans 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:

a)   The “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
b)   Caledonia Tartan
c)   Jacobite Tartan – for those with ancestors of Jacobite proclivities;
d)   Black Watch or “Government” Tartan in its exact regimental form, or one of the modified forms, for those of Hanoverian or Whig ancestral proclivities.
e)   a host 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:

  wearing 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.

Another concerns the ‘correct’ fashion in which a lady should wear her tartan sash over her evening dress.

The Clan 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)

Clan Membership
The issue of Clan membership is a very touchy subject. According to the Lord Lyon of Scotland:

  Anyone with the Clan surname who can trace their lineage into the Chief’s lineage is a clan member.
  Anyone with the Clan surname but who cannot trace their lineage into the Chief’s line is an “indeterminate cadet.”
  Anyone (not of blood or surname) who is adopted into the clan/family by letter from the Chief is a clan member.
  A woman 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 clan/family.
  Just joining 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 society.

(1) : Information Sourced from "Society of Genealogists Information Leaflet No. 15 - The right to arms"

(2) From the "Court of the Lord Lyon, H.M. New Register House, Edinburgh, EH1 3YT, Scotland".


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Page Last Updated: June 13, 2006

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