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Scots Heraldry - The Heraldry Society of Scotland


Some Distinctive Characteristics of Scots Arms - By Alex Maxwell Findlater


To look today in the twenty-first century at a page of new Scottish arms, one would immediately see the similarity to arms of the mediŠval period. This would not be the case with, for example, new English arms, which tend to be much more adventurous and thus less traditional.

The reason for this is that in Scotland we have a system of family arms, whereby almost all arms granted to the same name are based on the arms of the chief of that name, even when no blood relationship can be proved. Our feeling of clan or family is so strong that we automatically accept the correctness of this approach, which has, of course, evolved slowly over the centuries.

The major consequence of this is that we have retained in our arms the traditional mediaeval charges and patterns of charges. This in its turn has meant that we have had to devise a system for differencing these newer arms from those of the chief. This is further complicated by the Scottish doctrine that one coat of arms can be borne by one man only.


In the earliest mediaeval days, differencing was often achieved by a change of tincture. Thus Home, which was a cadet of March (Dunbar), derives from March by substituting a green field for the red of March.  Again we know that the senior line of the ancient Comyns, Comyn of Badenoch, bore a red shield, while the cadet line of Buchan, ancestors of modern Comyns, changed their tincture to blue. The chevron was also often introduced into a coat as a difference, eg Brodie (probably) from Innes and certainly in the case of Nisbet of Dirleton.  Also a bend or ribbon, a thin bend, across the shield over all the charges was often adopted by a younger son, such as Sir John Lyon of Glamis, before he was allowed the double tressure, and the lords of Abernethy, who were descended from the earls of Fife.

Comyn of Badenoch
Comyn of Buchan
Nisbet of Dirleton

These differences by tincture, or by the addition of ordinaries such as the chevron and ribbon were perhaps sufficient in early mediaeval times.  However, as the number of armigers became greater, and because each armiger had to have his own distinctive, and thus differenced, arms, there developed the use of bordures to act as differences.  For example a bordure compony, ie of one row of alternating blue and silver squares. often elongated, slowly became a mark of bastardy, but was not so originally, eg Wallace of Ellerslie, from whom the famous Sir William Wallace sprang.  The bordures themselves were often dimidiated or even quartered and various lines of partition were used, so that the inside of the bordure might be engrailed or wavy. 

Wallace of Ellerslie

Wallace of Ellerslie
Lundin of that Ilk

Wallace of Ellersley: originally compony but changed in 18c. as compony had come to represent bastardy.


Hamilton of Bedhouse

Carmichael of Blackburn


In the last century a complicated system of differencing by bordures was propounded by Stodart to allow for cadet arms, but although it gives a conceptual framework, this has in practice been more honoured in the breach than in the observance.


Another way in which Scots arms differ from those of England in particular, is that in England another quarter will be added to the shield when another heiress brings her arms into the family, giving the possibility of quarterly of six (if there are only five coats to be marshalled the first quarter is repeated), quarterly of eight, nine, ten, twelve or indeed any number which will geometrically fit within the shield.  This can give rise to arms of the most extreme complexity, which can be seen in the book Armorial Families by Fox-Davies. 

In Scotland, this potential for confusion is contained by the use of Grand Quarters. Thus if a man with each of his four quarters occupied by a different coat marries an heiress, he has to either abandon one of his existing quarterings and substitute hers for it, or else place his arms in the first and fourth quarters, which now become Grand Quarters and place his wifeĺs arms in the second and third quarters.  If she already has quartered arms, then these will also be Grand Quarters. The only variant to this is that if there are five coats to be born, the paternal arms may be borne on a inescutcheon, or if there is a quarter which has been granted as an honourable augmentation, this may be placed on the inescutcheon. The two versions of the Hay of Yester, later of Tweeddale show how arms can be changed over time.  The same basic arms are retained, but order of the quarters have been changed and also the tinctures to conform to those most commonly met with in the Fraser and Hay arms respectively.




Hay of Yester




The most unusually complex arms of the family of Stirling-Home-Drummond-Moray of Abercairney show how this marshalling happened in only two generations.  In the first generation Henry Home of Kames, Lord Kames as a senator of the Court of Session, married Agatha Drummond, eventual heiress of Blair Drummond.  Their issue George Home Drummond took the name Drummond and quartered Drummond in the first and fourth quarters with the already quartered arms of Home, which were in the second and third quarters, thus creating grand quarters.  In the same generation, Charles Moray of Abercairney married the elder daughter and heiress of Sir William Stirling of Ardoch, Bart.  Again, these arms were both quartered already, so that they made grand quarters, Moray with its quartering of Strathearn in the first and fourth and Stirling with its quartering of Sinclair of Herdmanston in the second and third.  In the next generation George Home Drummond of Blair Drummond married Christian eldest daughter and heiress of Charles Moray.  Again in this case, the name Moray ousted Drummond, despite the equal antiquity of that name, so that their issue bore the name Moray as their principal surname and the Moray arms went in the first grand quarter.  Drummond, unquartered, went in the second, Home, with it four different quarters all within the bordure engrailed Gules for a second son went in the third and Stirling, although a baronetical name, went with its Sinclair quarter in the fourth.


Home of Kames


Drummond of

Blair Drummond-

Moray of Abercairney


Stirling of Ardoch



Henry Homes
Lord Kames
Agatha Drummond
heiress of
Blair Drummond

Charles Moray
of Abercairney


Eldest daughter
and heiress of
Sir William Stirling

George Home Drummond
of Blair Drummond


Christian eldest daughter
and heiress of
Charles Moray of

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ę The Heraldry Society of Scotland   last Update 27 Oct 2021