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Armoria familia

Scottish clans and crests

by Mike Oettle

PERHAPS the most widespread use of family crests in the world today is that of Scottish clan crests – but at the same time this usage also probably encompasses the greatest misuse of any one type of heraldic symbol.

bonnet badge of Clan Murray, bearing the crest the Duke of Atholl

That is not to say that the crests of Scottish clan chiefs do not have a wider currency – they are validly used by clansmen to indicate their allegiance to the head of their house. (People generally speak of Scottish chiefs as being clan heads, but in strict terms a clan is a family unit associated with the Highlands and the [Hebridean] islands. The Lord Lyon refers to Lowland chiefs as being chief of a Name.)

arms of Lady Saltoun, Chief of Clan Fraser

However, a great many Scots, and more particularly descendants of Scots in other parts of the world, misunderstand their rights. And remember that there are many Afrikaners who have Scottish surnames, and enjoy the right of expressing loyalty to the heads of their family in Scotland.

And not all of them are in Scotland. Indeed, the Chief of Clan Murray, the Duke of Atholl, is a South African, as is the Chief of Clan Laing. (The crest for Murray shown here is one of three used by the clan. See further down this page for another illustration, as well as the other two also in use.)

There is a widespread belief that the clan crest displayed in one’s home is one’s personal property. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Scotland has a thriving industry, part of its tourist complex, in the production of wooden plaques bearing crests.

These plaques assume various shapes – circular, oval, rectangular, square – but probably the most common (and most inappropriate) is in the shape of a shield. Since the object shown is not a shield, or even a complete coat of arms, the shield is not the most suitable background for it.

crest-badge of Lord Lovat, Chief of Clan Fraser of Lovat

The usage no doubt arises from the widespread belief (arising from the 19th-century success of Fairbairn’s Crests) that a family can possess a crest divorced from a coat of arms.[1]

Plaques of this type are sold not only in Scotland, but also at many outlets in England (particularly tartan shops) and in other parts of the English-speaking world.

In England, the Commonwealth and the United States they are frequently sold at so-called “bucket shops”, operations which purport to provide any and all customers with “their” family coat of arms. In this instance it is “their” crest that is similarly traded.

It is not solely in Scotland that the crest of an armigerous person can be found as the symbol of a wider entity. Many English and Irish lords have traditionally used their crest as a badge worn by their retainers, and crests appear as the badges of schools and sporting associations.

But it was especially in Scotland that the use of the crest in this role became widespread, especially in the mediæval usage where a lord’s retainers would wear a metal plate on the chest bearing that lord’s crest, suspended from the shoulders by a leather strap and metal buckle.

From this developed the characteristic bonnet[2] badge, stamped or die-cast in metal, which displays the crest surrounded by a symbolic “leather” strap and buckle, invariably bearing the chief’s motto (or if there is more than one motto, usually the slogan)[3] inscribed on the strap.

crest-badge of the Chief of Clan Mackay, worn by the chief with three eagle feathers

Any Scot, or person of Scottish descent, may wear a bonnet badge bearing the crest of the clan chief, the crest of the head of the clan sept that person belongs to, or his own personal crest.

a man wearing a tam-o’-shanter bonnet

When a man wears his own crest, it is not worn within a strap and buckle. The example is shown here of the bonnet badge of the chief of Clan Mackay, who has his crest within a metal circle and surmounted of a baronial coronet.

Behind the crest-badge, the chief wears three eagle feathers. A chieftain will wear two eagle feathers on his bonnet.

An ordinary clansman is not entitled to wear eagle feathers, but if his crest-badge shows his personal crest, he also will show it without strap and buckle. The bonnet badge of the man shown at right is unclear, but it seems as if he is wearing a hackle behind the badge, rather than an eagle feather.

The bonnet badges of Scottish regiments (that is, those wearing kilts or tartan trews), not only in Scotland but also in other parts of the English-speaking world, are not necessarily derived from crests, but in some cases they are.

The regiment First City, of Grahamstown, at various stages during the 19th and early 20th centuries had a Highland company which traditionally wore the tartan Graham of Montrose, in honour of the town’s founder, Colonel John Graham of Fintry. The bonnet badge showed the phoenix crest of Fintry.

bonnet badge of the Clan Graham

However in 1938 the regiment (having not worn any kilts since Union in 1910) went entirely into kilts, and in 1943 it invited the Marquess of Graham (heir to the Duke of Montrose, Chief of Clan Graham) to be its honorary colonel.[4]

Lord Graham, who was a farmer and politician in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was associated with Grahamstown, since his younger sons were educated at St Andrew’s College.

officer of First City wearing a balmoral bonnet

Graham accepted on condition that his crest be used for the bonnet badge, and went into great detail about proper Highland dress for the regiment. He insisted that the existing collar badge be retained, which it was – in fact, in the 1970s it was incorporated into the regimental coat of arms. Graham’s appointment was only officially approved in 1946.

Initially the badge used incorporated a strap and buckle, but since this implied that the men of the regiment were Graham clansmen, this was later changed: the badge was instead encircled with foliage.[5] This badge is shown on the headgear of the officer illustrated at right. On his collar is the regimental badge of a leopard on a stump, which was left unchanged.

officer of the Cape Town Highlanders wearing a glengarry bonnet

Shown at left is an officer wearing a glengarry bonnet, with the badge of the Cape Town Highlanders – this badge is in the Scottish military tradition.

The crest is also not the only badge used by many Scottish armigers. The great lords frequently had other badges which were also worn by their retainers in one role or another.

Moncreiffe and Pottinger[6] illustrate (on a page dealing with the badges of Drummond, Earl of Perth) Drummond’s plant badge (a holly leaf), the caltrap (a four-spiked device strewn on the battle field as a lethal deterrent to cavalry charges), and the sleuth-hound, another badge used by the Drummonds of Perth. These symbols are shown on this page.

bonnet-badge of Drummond

A crest-badge plaque for Clan Drummond will typically incorporate the crest (a goshawk in its natural colours, wings expanded, with red jesses [the bird is blazoned as being jessed gules], issuant from a crest-coronet) surrounded by the belt and buckle, the belt inscribed with the slogan Gang Warily.

This might appear in unpainted carved wood,[7] or as a painted carving, or otherwise painted on a flat background.

The crest-badge (as the assemblage of crest, strap and buckle is called) will often appear against a background of the clan tartan.

Occasionally it will also be accompanied by the other badges associated with the clan, or even (in a very elaborate arrangement) by the chief’s armorial standard.

The term standard is widely misunderstood, chiefly because of the Royal Navy’s irregular borrowing of the term to cover the royal banner (the so-called Royal Standard) in its unheraldic naval proportions of 1:2.

An armorial standard is a tapered flag, a type used in mediæval times as the headquarters flag of a particular lord’s contingent in the royal army.

standard of Drummond, Earl of Perth

In Britain it always included, at the hoist end, the royal cross badge – in Scotland the white saltire on blue (St Andrew’s cross) of the King of Scots, and in England the red cross on white (St George’s cross) of the King of England.

Armorial standards were little used in recent centuries, but in the 20th century this flag type has been brought back into use, with a significant difference: instead of the royal cross, the area nearest the hoist or spear end is now usually (but not invariably) filled with the arms of its owner.

The flag is, as mentioned, tapered, but it is more a trapezium than a triangle, and its fly end is usually rounded – either a single rounded end, or two roundings.

standard of Lady Saltoun, Chief of Clan Fraser

The main part of a standard comprises the owner’s livery colours in horizontal stripes (the livery colours can be the principal colours of the shield, or they can be entirely different colours specifically chosen) – usually there are two colours, but occasionally it is three.

The stripes of livery are decorated with the owner’s badge or badges, including the crest, as well as the wording of the motto (or mottoes).

The standard is also fringed, either in plain yellow or in alternate bands of the livery colours.

Shown on this page are the standards of Drummond, Earl of Perth, and Lady Saltoun, Chief of Clan Fraser.

If a standard appears in a crest-badge arrangement, it ought to speak eloquently of its being owned by the clan chief or the chieftain whose arms, crest and badges are featured . . . yet even in such instances ordinary clansmen have been known to lay claim to these devices as personal property.

The usual argument will run: “I bought this at ____ and they told me it was mine. They even gave me this certificate to say so.”

But as the pages of Armoria point out in other instances, the issuing of a certificate by a bucket shop is no guarantee of anything.

Only a diploma, certificate or other legal document issued by a heraldic authority – the Lord Lyon in Edinburgh, the College of Arms in London, the Chief Herald of Ireland in Dublin, the Canadian Heraldic Authority in Ottawa, or the Bureau of Heraldry in Pretoria[8] – can in fact certify that the person named on it is actually the owner of any armorial bearings.

bonnet badge for followers of Macdonald of Sleat, Chief of the Clan Donald

If you have bought a plaque bearing a crest-badge – with or without any other of the badges and armorial symbols that go with it – what you own is that particular rendition (probably mass-produced) of the crest in question.

Ownership of the crest itself resides with the owner of the coat of arms it belongs to.

bonnet badge of Macdonnell of Keppoch bonnet badge of Macdonnell of Glengarry bonnet badge of Macdonald of Clanranald

In the instance of a clan with only one chief, it will be the arms of the chief himself (or herself – many clans now have female chiefs).

Where a clan has more than one chief – for instance Clan Donald, which now has as its principal chief Macdonald of Sleat, as well as subsidiary chiefs commanding the allegiance of a great many clansmen – there are four different crests.

The principal chief was, until 1498, Macdonald of the Isles, but the title Lord of the Isles has since passed to the royal house and is borne by the Heir Apparent.

Other branches with their own chiefs or chieftains are Macdonald of Clanranald, Macdonnell of Glengarry and Macdonnell of Keppoch.

crest of Lady Saltoun, Chief of the Clan Fraser bonnet badge of the Clan Fraser, showing Lady Saltoun’s crest

Another clan with more than one chief is that of the name Fraser. The Chief of the Clan Fraser is Lady Saltoun (her arms appear at the top of the page), and her followers wear a badge of her crest, which shows a “flourish of strawberries”. The strawberry crest is shown here at left, and the bonnet badge derived from it at right. Note that while Lady Saltoun has a second crest, an ostrich biting a horseshoe, this is not used as a bonnet badge.

Those who follow Lord Lovat, Chief of the Clan Fraser of Lovat (the Highland branch), wear his crest, which is a buck’s head erased (also illustrated at the top of the page).

Here is another difference between English and Scottish practice:

bonnet badge of the Clan Fraser of Lovat

In England the heralds try, as far as possible, to ensure that every individual who obtains a grant or recognition of arms has a different crest, even if it is the same as the original crest with the addition of a single mark of difference, often the marks of cadency (also called brisures) indicating younger sons, for instance the crescent which marks a second son. Victorian heralds were especially notorious for adding wavy charges to deface the crests of bastards.

However in Scotland several members of a family will bear the identical crest, a new crest often only being introduced when a new matriculant feels it necessary to adopt an entirely new helmet device.

bonnet badge of Campbell of Argyll

At the same time, only the holder of a peerage title may display the crest on a coronet appropriate to his rank (as in the bonnet badge of the Chief of Clan Mackay shown above). Other bearers of the same crest must dispense with the coronet and use a crest-wreath or torse (or some other appropriate base for the crest).

Three different crests are given for Clan Campbell:

bonnet badge of Campbell of Breadalbane bonnet badge of Campbell of Cawdor

The clan chief, Campbell, Duke of Argyll (who has the Gaelic designation MacCailean Mor) bears: A boar’s head, fesswise, couped, or (the boar’s head is gold and is cut cleanly; it lies horizontally).

His near kinsman, Campbell of Breadalbane (Earl of Breadalbane) also bears a boar’s head for a crest, but it is proper (in its natural colours) and erased (roughly ripped from the rest of the carcass, and so having a jagged line of partition which should show partially just above the crest-wreath).

An entirely different crest is borne by Campbell of Cawdor (Bain gives Calder as an alternative spelling): A swan, proper, crowned, or (a swan in its natural colours, with a golden crown – the illustration does not include the crown).

bonnet badge of Clan Chattan

In the Dark Age a group of clans came together as the confederative Clan Chattan. However, following a dispute over the chiefship of Clan Chattan, the chiefs of both Clan Mackintosh and Clan MacPherson have claimed the leadership and bear the same motto: Touch not the cat bot a glove (Don’t touch the cat without a glove).

bonnet badge of Macpherson bonnet badge of Mackintosh

However, their crests differ slightly: Robert Bain’s The Clans and Tartans of Scotland[9] lists the crest of the chief of Mackintosh as: A cat salient gardant, proper, and that of the chief of MacPherson as: A cat sejant, proper.[10] In the badge for Clan Chattan, the cat is shown looking to the dexter, but in the similar badge for Clan Mackintosh the cat has its head gardant (turned to face the viewer).

Bain also notes that since 1938 the claim to the chiefship of Clan Chattan has been separated from that of the chief of Clan Mackintosh, although the title is still held by a member of that clan.

bonnet badge of Clan Stewart, showing the crest of the Earl of Galloway

For Clan Stewart, Bain illustrates the crest of the Earl of Galloway with the Royal Tartan (mentioned in brackets as the “Royal Stewart”), but also the crest of Stewart of Appin with that tartan.

bonnet badge of Stewart of Appin

In some instances the crest shown is that of a chieftain, because the chiefship is in abeyance or in dispute.

And in yet others only a shield of St Andrew’s cross is shown, because the family in question has not matriculated arms. One such family is that of MacColl, a branch of Clan Donald, and another is that of MacAlpine, a widely dispersed clan without a chief, descended from King Alpin († AD 834).

Bain lists a tartan for the family surnamed Duncan, and gives the crest of the Earl of Camperdown[11] as its clan badge. The family (which has several branches) is reckoned part of Clan Robertson (Clann Donnachaidh), but a group of Duncans in Scotland is now attempting to gain the Lord Lyon’s recognition as a distinct clan.


St Andrew’s cross badge for clans whose chief does not have a coat of arms (including a crest)

Clan badges: the theory

bonnet badge of Clan Robertson (Clan Donnachaidh)

As a restatement of the general principles mentioned above, here is the final section of Margaret O MacDougall’s chapter on “The dress of the Highlander” in her revised edition of Bain’s book:


“The wearing of crest badges as a symbol of kinship with some Highland Clan or Scottish family is a survival from an old and interesting custom recognised in heraldic law.

“In former times many chiefs gave to their followers a metal plate of their crest to wear as a badge. This crest badge was affixed to the Clansman’s clothing or accoutrements by a strap and buckle and when not in use the strap and buckle were coiled round the crest badge. This custom is still observed by some chiefs, and is legally competent.

“The modern conventional representation of the old metal plate crest badge takes the form of a metal representation of the chief’s crest encircled by a metal strap and buckle and having the chief’s motto cut or engraved on the strap. This is the only form in which a clansman is permitted to display his chief’s crest and its use, in the correct and approved manner, indicates that the wearer is a kinsman or follower of the chief whose crest is thus shown. Only the chief and his heir wear the crest without the strap and buckle.

bonnet badge of the Duncans

“A coat-of-arms, and the crest which forms part of it, is the personal property of the individual in whose name it has been recorded in the Public Registers of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland. It must not be used, in part or in whole, by any other person, and misuse of another’s coat-of-arms is an offence liable to action and penalties in Lyon Court.

“The Chief’s coat-of-arms and banner derived from it indicate the authority, identity and/or presence of the chief just as the Royal Arms do for a sovereign.

“As symbols of Clan or family kinship crest badges are an ever-present reminder of an old custom and a means of showing our pride of heritage. If we value these things we must not misuse them, as their use in conformity with the Scots heraldic laws gives unity and efficiency to the clan.”

These principles are also spelt out in detail in a document issued by Lyon Court which can be found on the internet here.

[1] The belief that a family can have a crest but not a shield (a coat of arms) arises not from the text of Fairbairn’s Crests, but from the common usage of the book in simply looking up a particular crest and associating it with every member of the family named.

[2] The word bonnet is traditionally used to describe a variety of headgear worn by Scottish men, and frequently also by women.

Bonnet types in common use include the characteristic tam o’shanter (named for the bonnet worn by the principal character in Robert Burns’s poem Tam O’Shanter), the Balmoral bonnet and the Glengarry bonnet (from which the widely used forage cap would seem to be derived).

The Kilmarnock bonnet (a type of pillbox hat) and the feather bonnet have had some military use, but are not regarded as civilian headgear.

The civilian bonnet badge can take any of a number of forms, but the commonest is the stamped metal badge of crest, strap and buckle, and motto.

It is usually worn with a backing of a piece of the clan’s (or the chief’s) tartan.

Other badges used might be carved in wood, or enamelled. The plant badge is often encountered in one or the other of these forms.

[3] The word slogan (from the Gaelic slughorn, or battle-cry) is used for any motto derived from a battle-cry. A Scottish lord or laird will frequently have two armorial mottos, one of which is usually a slogan.

The slogan is often in Gaelic, but can be in any language, such as English (frequently in a Scottish dialect form), Latin or French (in Britain, frequently Norman French).

The commercial use of the word slogan is a debasement of this usage.

[4] Reginald Griffiths, writing in First City: A Saga of Service, quotes a letter from the marquess (whom he calls the “duke”) in which he accepts the invitation to become “colonel-in-chief” – however, this appointment is one reserved for royalty, and was in fact held between the wars by the Duke of Kent.

In 1954 James Angus Graham (known as Angus) inherited the title Duke of Montrose, but continued to be known in Rhodesia as Lord Graham. He served as a Cabinet minister under Ian Smith.

The title Marquess of Graham is held by the heir to the dukedom as a courtesy title.

[5] Since the Graham clan’s plant badge is laurel, a laurel wreath might be expected, but the wreath actually has an entirely different appearance.

[6] In Simple Heraldry, Cheerfully Illustrated, by Iain Moncreiffe of Easter Moncreiffe, Kintyre Pursuivant, and the Herald Painter Don Pottinger (Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1953).

Moncreiffe later became Sir Iain Moncreiffe of Moncreiffe, Baronet, chief of the clan Moncreiffe, and Albany Herald.

[7] Unpainted carvings are not especially heraldic, as they lack the element of colour, but are favoured by many people.

[8] Other heraldic authorities are to be found in Sweden, Spain and The Netherlands, and other heraldic registries are to be found elsewhere in Europe, but they will usually have little bearing on Scottish emblems.

[9] Originally published by William Collins Sons & Co Ltd in 1938. This edition was revised in 1968 and reprinted 1971.

It is credited to Margaret O MacDougall who “enlarged and re-edited” the book, and to P E Stewart-Blackie as heraldic adviser.

[10] In both instances the cat in question is the Scottish wild cat, not the ordinary domestic cat (Felis domesticus or Felis catus).

[11] The earldom (originally a viscountcy) of Camperdown recalls the naval Battle of Camperdown, fought off the Dutch coast at Kamperduin in 1797.

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Sources: Robert Bain’s Clans and Tartans of Scotland; Simple Heraldry, by Moncreiffe and Pottinger; and the website FraserChief, maintained by Lady Saltoun, Chief of the Clan Fraser.

Images of the arms, standard, crest and bonnet badge of Lady Saltoun from FraserChief; picture of man wearing a tam-o’-shanter from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language; portrtaits of officers from First City: A Saga of Service, by Reginald Griffiths; standard of Drummond from Simple Heraldry; other illustrations from Robert Bain’s Clans and Tartans of Scotland. The image of St Andrew’s cross is from the Bain book, but the shield has been coloured using MS Picture It! and lengthened to more appropriate proportions.

The officer shown wearing a balmoral is Commandant A J Westaway, JCD, Officer Commanding First City 1963-65; the officer in a glengarry is Lieutenant-Colonel Sholto Douglas, MC, ED, Officer Commanding the combined battalion known as First City/Cape Town Highlanders in Italy from April to October 1945. The identity of the man shown wearing a tam-o’shanter is unknown.

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