Just off Edinburgh’s bustling Princes Street sits a grand old building that houses hundreds of years worth of Scotland’s records. HM New Register House is well known as home to the General Register Office for Scotland but also houses the Court of Lord Lyon – Scotland’s centuries-old heraldic authority that can be traced back to at least 1388. The court regulates and has jurisdiction over matters relating to Scottish heraldry, which includes establishing and issuing Coats of Arms and maintaining the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings and the Public Register of Genealogies and Birthbrieves in Scotland.
Inside the first-floor office, bookshelves stacked full of leather-bound publications line the corridor that is also decorated with heraldic antiquities including tabards and carved coats of arms of past knights of the Order of the Thistle. Central to the Lyon Court is the Lord Lyon King of Arms and the Lyon Clerk and Keeper of Records, the latter from whom I’ve come to receive an introduction on all things heraldry. While the Lord Lyon is the judge responsible for determining and granting new arms, the Lyon Clerk puts the Lord Lyon’s instructions into operation and makes sure they are properly adhered to. The Lyon Clerk is also specifically responsible for the maintenance of the registers and records within the office.
The position of Lyon Clerk is currently held by Elizabeth Roads LVO, whose other quite separate hats include assistant secretary to the Order of the Thistle and Snawdoun Herald of Arms. Mrs. Roads started off as the then Lord Lyon’s assistant in 1975 on return to Edinburgh from overseas travel. She came from a fine arts background, and had no particular knowledge of heraldry other than how it related to art and decoration. “I’ve been here for nearly 39 years, which the then Lord Lyon is probably laughing at, bless his heart. I told him I didn’t think it was likely I would stay here more than five years.”
In 1986 Mrs. Roads was appointed Lyon Clerk, the first woman to be so, and said that the job hadn’t changed an awful lot during her 26 year tenure in the post. “The office has existed in its current form since at least the late 17th century. So 40 years isn’t a very long time in the court’s existence. I would like to think that if Colonel Lawson (Lyon Clerk 1929-1966) walked in now, he would be able to sit down at this desk and do exactly the same job as he did in 1929.” One thing that has changed is the amount of correspondence received from all over the world, as a result of the enormous quantity of genealogical information available online. Thus a large number of the court’s records have been digitised and archived online, available to view and download at £10 per record.
In order to apply for a new Coat of Arms, or marticulate older arms, Lyon Clerk recommends doing as much research as possible into heraldry beforehand. “Very often [applicants will] come and have a chat with us first about the process. It’s a formal process so you have to lodge a petition and give us such documentary evidence as is necessary for your particular case.” Information about applying is available on the court’s website, with petitioners increasingly using this avenue to begin their heraldic journey. In terms of designing a Coat of Arms, very often petitioners will come with only the broadest of ideas, in which case the Lord Lyon or Lyon Clerk will work out something that is simple, clear and appropriate. “For private individuals our starting point would always be their surname. If it’s an established Scottish surname then we’ll look at what the underlying arms of the chief are and use that as the basis.”
Perhaps the most common misconception among applicants is who a Coat of Arms belongs to. “A Coat of Arms belongs to a person, not a family. It’s a piece of personal property that will pass down an individual’s senior line. A family Coat of Arms just doesn’t exist”. Lyon Clerk likens it to saying that you have a family passport, or a family driver’s licence.
The application involves fees which go to the Exchequer and the heraldic artists and calligraphers who hand-paint the arms on vellum paper. The Exchequer’s fees are paid as protection so that if somebody misuses your arms, the Crown will take action at no cost to you. “Normally it doesn’t get as far as prosecution. In fact in my time only once has someone insisted on using arms to which they were not entitled, which resulted in prosecution. If arms are being used unlawfully then the Procurator Fiscal to the Court of the Lord Lyon will write to them saying they shouldn’t be doing so. They’ll then provide advice as to what they should do if they want their own Coat of Arms.”
Along with arms enquiries, the court also receives many queries from people asking about clans, with questions ranging from what their clan or family is, who their chief is and what tartan to wear. “We get a lot of these sorts of general queries very often because they don’t know where else to go. This office is sort of thought of as being the office that knows everything. Sometimes we do know the answer and can help and sometimes we merely direct them towards the answer.” In fact, the only relationship the court has with the clans is when a chief comes to record their coat of arms. “We’re only concerned with the heraldry of the clan chief. Lyon doesn’t recognise a clan chief as such. What he does is vest that person in what are called the Undifferenced Arms of the Name, showing they are the principle person of their name and the clan chief.” The Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs, the organisation that represents chiefs of clans and families in Scotland, will only invite chiefs to be members if they have been granted the Undifferenced Arms of the Name by Lord Lyon.
The majority of clans have a fairly clear succession down the senior line so the question of who is the rightful chief is usually straightforward. However, when the line has been lost it presents huge problems and a large amount of research must be undertaken. In order to assign a new chief, concrete evidence must be shown by the petitioner that the line has died out completely. “A particular instance would be Clan Gunn where we know what the principle line was. What we don’t know is what happened to [the many] descendents of that line. They undoubtedly will still be there, it’s just a matter of who they are and where they are now.” When a chief is missing, a commander can be appointed. The current commander of the Clan Gunn is Iain Gunn of Banniskirk who has been the clan’s leader for a very long time. Lyon Clerk added he is an efficient and effective commander. But there are an enormous amount of Gunn descendents and the search continues in determining exactly who is the senior descendent.
Commanders can go on to become chiefs, as in the case of Clan MacArthur, where the principle line was lost around 1820. “It took a lot of research but it was possible to show that actually those people all died without issue.” The resulting research showed that the commander was in fact the senior line of the surviving genealogical descendants. The Lyon Court is a court of law, therefore they are unable to undertake the successional research which then comes before them to be examined. Clan and family societies are very often the bodies who drive chieftainship petitions, with Lyon Clerk stating that it’s not their role to decide who should become chief, but rather to present research to the court.
One of the most enjoyable parts of Lyon Clerk’s job is providing genealogical records to those who are tracing their roots. “There is absolutely no classic person you can say is going to take an interest in heraldry or genealogy. People come from all sorts of backgrounds and there’s no rhyme or reason why people take an interest in it, so I get to meet an enormously interesting cross section of people.” For budding genealogists, Lyon Clerk says it’s easy to get back to the middle of the nineteenth century with no difficulty because birth, marriage and death records were statutory. Prior to that it helps if you’re tracing an unusual surname. She also adds to remember: “if you can’t find records, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist”. Genealogical websites have different records so it’s important to check out a few. Names were also sometimes spelt phonetically, so you won’t necessarily get the spelling you’re looking for. Lyon Clerk’s own genealogical journey has revealed such esteemed ancestors as Robert the Bruce and a 17th century Lord Lyon. “As one of my predecessors said, no individual has a longer genealogy than anyone else, they just happen to know more. I warn you now, it’s a complete drug. You always think – I wonder if I can just find that little bit more.”