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  West Highland Heraldry - The Meanings

The Descendents of Anrothan


The next group of clans is that which all claim descent from Anrothan, a prince of the O'Neills who, from his descendants later location would seem to have married the heiress of the Dalriadic dynasty who held Cowal, Knapdale and Glassary around the year 1000.

Chief among them were the remarkable MacSweens whose eponymus Suibhne, in the late 12c, built the first stone castle in Scotland, Castle Sween, on the Loch of the same name in Knapdale. He and his kindred seem largely to have escaped the notice of historians but in their day they equalled the most important of the sons of Somerled and far outstripped the nascent Clan Donald. But they got it wrong; they were already in decline by the time of Haakon's invasion of 1263 and they were on the wrong side in the Wars of Independence. Eventually they appear to have decamped to Ireland where they re-emerge as the powerful gallowglass clan of the MacSweeneys.  They themselves appear to have left no heraldry behind them but their cousins made great use of the Dalriadic Lion.

The MacNeils

Among them are the MacNeils - of Barra in the Outer Hebrides and of Taynish and Gigha, close to Castle Sween.  They both are listed as Members of the Council and both use West Highland Heraldry.  Their descent from Anrothan, however, rests on somewhat sparse oral tradition which is not recorded in the pedigrees and there is a case, competently put by Nicholas Maclean Bristol, for their being descended from a Neill Maclean who appears in the Exchequer Rolls at the time that Robert the Bruce was rebuilding Tarbert Castle.  But whatever their descent - and, indeed, whether the MacNeils of Barra and the McNeills of Taynish are of the same stock - the Barra Chiefs appear to be in little doubt of their O'Neill connections since they surround the Red Hand with nine fetterlocks in an obvious reference to Niall of the Nine Hostages.

The MacGilchrists

From the same stock come the MacGilchrists, later Lords of Glassary, who use the Dalriadic Lion. So powerful was the symbolism of this that when the lands eventually went in a financial deal to The Earl of Argyll, the sellers, the Scrymgeours of Dundee, were insistent that as part of the deal they should still be entitled to the Lion arms even though they only held Glassary through two removes of marriage.

The Lamonts and the MacLachlans


These notable clans descended from Anrothan are located in Cowal, a district which has never come under the aegis of the Lords of the Isles. This would appear to upset the theory that use of West Highland Heraldry was connected with membership of the Council of the Isles.


The Maclays/ MaeDunsleaves/ Livingstones and the McEwens

Their arms admittedly are relatively modem but the Border McEwens of Bardrochat claim descent from the MacEwans of Otter on Loch Fyne another of the clans descending from Anrothan as are the MacDunsleaves or Maclays.

These latter turn up again in a remarkable fashion as the Livingstones of Bachuil in Lismore. The strange choice of Livingstone as an anglicisation may be due to a Livingstone given a nineteen-year lease of Lismore by King Charles I in 1641 and the modem arms are clearly derived from the lowland earls of Callendar rather than the holder's Highland lineage which is perhaps a pity, handsome as they are, with the notable distinction of two croziers crossed in saltire behind the shield. These represent the Bachuil or Staff of Saint Moluag, contemporary of Columba, whose seat was in Lismore, later seat of the Bishopric of Argyll. The ancestors - presumably in the female line of the Livingstones, as they now are were given the lands of the same name for their role as dewars or keepers of the Saint's staff which they still possess.

Even though of minor extent their possessors have been ranked as Barons of Argyll. Of further interest is the reference to the representative of the family of the day who, in 1544 was Iain McMolmore Vic Kevir, who is addressed in the charter by the Earl of Argyl as "nostro signifero " . The late Lord Lyon Sir Thomas Innes of Learney opined that the word signifer here meant "Pursuivanf' and that the Keeper of the Bachuil was Argyll's Officer of Arms, Sir lain Moncreiffe going so far as to suggest he went by the title of Lorne Pursuivant. On the other hand Bruce is known to have summoned both the Keepers of the Brecbennoch, the shrine of the relics of Saint Columba and of the Quigrich, the staff of Saint Fillan, to be borne in the van of the Scottish Army at Bannockburn and personally, I have little doubt that the Bachuil was borne into battle by its signifer or, to use the normal translation of the word, its "standard-bearer" as an encouragement to the forces of Argyll, and before that, of the Lords of Lorne.  As a matter of fact there is one earlier example of Highland Livingstone heraldry in the district - in Kilcolmkill churchyard, in Morvern, where an 18c tombstone displays a quartered coat which includes the lion rampant.

The Clan Chattan

The Clan Chattan are also users of West Highland heraldry although at first sight they are geographically unlikely to be so. They are in fact a confederation of families from different sources. The original Clan Chattan itself is given various origins although the one favoured by the family itself is that which derives them from a 11c Gillechattan - Servant of Saint Cattan whose name appears in various locations including that of Ardchattan Priory on Loch Etive in Argyll. From a younger son of this line came the Macphersons.


The heiress of the senior line, one Eva, is said to have married Angus Mackintosh - son of the Thane - said to have been of Royal lineage as a descendant of the earl of Fife. From them descend the Shaws and the Farquharsons and others while yet other unconnected clans like the Macleans of Dochgarroch and the MacGillivrays attached themselves to the confederation.  The earliest recorded Mackintosh seal is that of 1467 which quarters the lion rampant (contourne) with the galley. This is repeated in 1490 and 1505, before, in 1543, quarters displaying a boar's head and the Hand are added. This last is the same as the arms of today except that from 1680-7 the hand has clasped a heart.

The early seals of the Chiefs of Macpherson and MacGillivray both display single charges; a Lion rampant for Macpherson in 1535 and a stag's head cabossed for MacGillivray. Both later appear to have taken a gold galley on blue with a gold chief with on it, for Macpherson a red Hand holding an upright dagger and a cross crosslet fitchee and MacGillivray the stag's head in black with red horns, between two similar crosses, this time in black.


Gillechattan is claimed to have descended from Loarn; Angus Mackintosh from the marriage of Crinan, lay Abbot of Dunkeld, who was of the kindred of Saint Columba, with Bethoc whose line went back to Kenneth MacAlpine. So if these claims are correct, the Mackintosh Chiefs of Clan Chattan had plenty of West Highland connections.


But the tales are not unquestioned; may there not have been a connection with the Pictish tribe of the Catti from Caithness whose wild cat is used so extensively as a crest by members of the confederation.  Another possible connection is that the Lord of the Isles was styling himself Lord of Lochaber and in 1447 made Mackintosh Bailie of his Lordship there.


Once again we seem to be back with the Lordship of the Isles and its Council.  Incidentally, much is made today of the Clan Chattan Galley being blue rather than black. I am pretty sure this derives from the difficulty known to have been experienced in early times in producing a black pigment that would last. There are several cases I have come across where a coat which should be sable is rendered as azure.



So where are we left ? - Given the spasmodic nature of the evidence we lack as good a picture as we might wish for BUT.


(a) There appears to be widespread use of this form of Heraldry in the north west on either side of the North Channel.

(b) But the usage is by no means universal.
(c) It is in frequent use by those connected to the Lordship of the Isles.
(d) But by no means universally so - some Council Members do not use it; some not on the Council do.
(e) Clearly there is no single blood line involved.
(f) But there is an identifiable totemic reference to several.
(g) In several cases there is evidence of the earlier use of single charges later replaced by a quartered coat.
(h) Most, but not all usage of quartered coats occurs after the Forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles in 1491.

There are two main questions - "What is the significance of the four charges?" and "What led to the adoption of this distinctive form of Heraldry?"  We are reasonably happy with the origins of the Lion, the Galley and the Hand but the meaning of the Salmon remains a mystery.

Whatever it is, I would suggest that it is a reference to something very ancient and that it is a reference to a specific person or dynasty rather than to an abstract idea.  As to the adoption of West Highland heraldry one is drawn to the Forfeiture and breakup of the Lordship even though some of the usage appears to predate it.

Can the users be putting out a message that they have the necessary qualifications of birth to assert their position after the disappearance of the former dominant power in the area - perhaps even in some cases staking a claim to taking over the leadership itself ?  But the Irish, as ever, remain a problem.


St Andrews Day Lecture, 1996


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The Heraldry Society of Scotland   last Update 27 Oct 2021