The Story Behind the Crest: Clan Stewart

In the first or a new series ScotClans, Rodger Moffet looks at some of the most popular of Scotland’s clan crests and examines how they have come about. From daring deeds to religious symbols many well known clan crests have a fascinating back story…

Clan Stewart and the Pelican.

Clan Stewart

There are several crests associated with the surname Stewart or Stuart. Fairbairn’s notes several pages of recorded arms with associated crests featuring all manner of beasts. However, the most common crest associated with Stewart is the Pelican. So why would this exotic creature be chosen by one of Scotland’s best known clans to represent them?

Heraldic descriptions (blazons) featuring a pelican describe it variously as ‘in her piety’, ‘vulning’ or ‘feeding her young’. The pelican is depicted wounding her own breast with her beak and feeding the droplets of blood to her hungry chicks. This image of self sacrifice became a strong Christian symbol of self sacrifice. In Skelton’s “Armory of Birds” it is described poetically:

Then sayd the pellycane

   When my byrats be slayne

With my bloude I them reuyue (revive)

   Scrypture doth record,

   The same dyd our Lord,

And rose from deth to lyue.”

In the “Bestiarium” the explanation of what is going on is that when the young pelicans begin to grow they rebel against the male parent and in his anger he kills them and leaves the nest – after three days the mother returns and in her grief wounds herself, the precious drops or alternatively tears of blood fall on the young and they are reborn. The parallel with the Christian resurrection story is obvious.

Early heraldic depictions of the Pelican are quite liberal with the blood and gore and some show the poor bird literally tearing herself inside out. Unsurprisingly though, this comes from a complete misunderstanding of nature.

Like most other birds the pelican will prepare food before giving it to her small chicks. As a sea bird their diet is mostly fish and smaller fish would be fed to the young, even small fish would be too much for very young hatchlings so the pelican prepares the meal by macerating the fish in her beak and holding the pulped up meal in her pouch, unlike other birds who will swallow and regurgitate the food. The pelican, in order to push the food out to her young has to press her pouch against her breast in order to force it from her beak. To the untrained eye this would look as if she was wounding herself.

The Pelican is not a native species to Scotland, the closest habitats are found around the Eastern Mediterranean and Danube River. Its possible that Scots on crusade to the holy land or early merchants may have first seen this animal. Early heraldic artists sometimes show the pelican more like an eagle but this is down to a basic lack of knowledge regarding the animals they are being asked to represent. You can see the same thing in heraldic descriptions of Tigers and Dolphins which can at times be more like mythical beasts than real.

Its also interesting that over time the image of the pelican has become less bloody both in how the image is depicted and also in its description (blazon) on the arms. The current common crest for Stewart describes the crest as simply ‘feeding her young’ and most renditions of the crest show her simply dropping food into the youngling’s hungry mouths. However the Stewart motto gives away the more gory back story, Virescit vulnere virtus (Courage grows strong at a wound) is a clear reference to the truth behind the Stewart crest.

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About rodger moffet

Rodger is the Director of ScotClans. Expert in all things clan and tartan.

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One thought on “The Story Behind the Crest: Clan Stewart

  1. Kate

    I know there are different clans Stewart… My mother’s maiden name is Stewart, it is also my middle name… How do I find out which Stewart I am? I would really appreciate if you could help me figure this out… I’ve seen that there is Stewarts of Appin.,etc… I’m a bit clueless… Any help would be wonderful… Thx for your time and effort helping me with this…

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