Symbols of Edinburgh

Our wee series of articles on Edinburgh continue today with a look at some of the symbols that have become synonymous with the city, their origins and what they represent and we’ll start off with what must be the most famous of them all, the Luckenbooth….


The story of the Luckenbooth begins on the Royal Mile, the famous street that runs from the Castle all the way down to the palace of Holyrood. This street became the only acceptable trade route to and from the castle and as such became a very important thoroughfare.

By the 16th century many parts of this route became dedicated markets and featured some of the cities first permanent shops. Many of which housed trades people who made and sold their small selection of wares, and amongst the most popular were the jewellers. These shops were known as locked booths, and from this derived the term ‘Luckenbooth’ used to describe one of their most popular designs. It featured the ‘heart and crown of Scotland’ and was romantically linked to the tragic Mary, Queen of Scots, as it was the brooch she had given to Lord Darnley.

The tradition that rose up around the brooch was that a young man would give his lady the brooch on their wedding day. Once their first child the brooch would then be passed on to the newest member to protect it from ‘evil spirits’. As such it had very similar connotations to the Irish ‘Claddagh’ ring, especially with the similar heart shaped theme.

The style of the Luckenbooth brooch became very popular throughout the UK. By the 18th century the trade in silver to the New World included the little brooch and many ended up being traded with Native Americans, Particularly the Iroquois of the Six Nations. As a result of this the Luckenbooth became a popular decorative symbol in their traditional costumes.

Edinburgh City Coat of Arms

Not a symbol of Edinburgh that you would see if you were not looking for it, the City Coat of Arms present version is a modified version of the arms registered by the Lord Lyon in 1732. This previous version had been used for centuries, but had not been officially recognised.

As with any Coat of Arms there is a fair amount of symbolism within the arms. The castle within the centre shield represents Edinburgh castle, it’s most prominent landmark. The anchor above this, or the crest, represents the Lord Provost’s position as the Admiral of the Firth of Forth. The sinister supporter, a doe, is a link to the city’s patron saint St Giles who, as the story goes, spent much of his life in solitude in the forests of Provence with only a doe for company. The dexter supporter, a “woman richly attired with her hair hanging over her shoulders” represents the fact that Edinburgh Castle was historically known as the “Castle of the Maidens” probably due to it being used to protect princesses and noblewomen in times of war.

Coat of Arms on a window in the City Chambers

Coat of Arms on a window in the City Chambers

The motto Nisi Dominus Frustra means “Except the Lord in Vain”, a shortened version of a verse from Psalm 127: “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”

There was some controversy surrounding the arms as in Scotland it is a statutory requirement to register register armorial bearing with the Lord Lyon, who is responsible for regulating the system of Scottish Heraldry, in a process known as “matriculation”. An action was begun against Edinburgh council in 1732, for failing to matriculate it’s Burgh arms. But the council received the following legal opinion ”that the town would not be bound in law to matriculat”. Unfortunately no record exists of any subsequent action, suggesting that the case was dropped.

The Lyon issued a general statement in 1771 that “all persons whether Nobility, Gentry, Towns or Bodies Corporate, bearing arms any manner or way which are recorded in terms of the Act…to give in or send to the Lyon Office an account of such Arms and of the title whereby they claim to wear the same”. Edinburgh Councils reaction wa smuch the same as before and refused to comply on the grounds that Scotland’s royal burghs ”had possessed the privilege of using seals and armorial bearings from a remote period which far outdated the Acts of 1592 and 1672, from which the Lord Lyon derived his jurisdiction, and that since neither of these Acts specifically mentioned the Burghs, they did not apply to them”.

It was only 3 years later that a document was discovered among the papers of an Edinburgh lawyer - a Certificate of Matriculation of “the Ensigns Armorial or Coat of Arms of the good town of Edinburgh” signed by the Lyon and dated 21 April 1732. It seems the Edinburgh City Coat of Arms had been matriculated years before!

Heart of Midlothian

The Heart of Midlothian is a heart shaped mosaic formed in coloured granite setts, built into the pavement near the West Door of St Giles on the High Street section of the Royal Mile.

Together with brass markers bearing building dates, it records the position of the 15th-century Old Tolbooth, demolished in 1817, which was the administrative centre of the town, prison and one of several sites of public execution. This is believed to be were the modern tradition of spitting on the Heart came from. The spot lay directly outside the prison entrance, and people would spit on the heart to show their disdain for the former institution. Others believe the tradition may have been started even earlier, with former occupants of the prison spitting on the Heart upon their release. These days it is done for good luck.

The mosaic is named after the historic county of Midlothian of which Edinburgh is the county town. This is not to be confused with the council area of the same name which covers a smaller area and does not include the capital. The crest of the Edinburgh football team Hearts of Midlothian is based upon this Heart.

Holyrood Stag

The stag with a cross between it’s antlers is a common site around the palace of Holyrood, found at the bottom of the Royal Mile. The tale of this intriguing symbol is believed to date back to the time of David I.

The son of King Malcolm Canmore and St Margaret, David was a keen hunter and there was nothing he liked better than to hunt stags in the forests of Drumsheugh. One day in the year 1128, he prepared to go hunting but he was approached by a priest who reminded him that it was the 14th September; Holy Rood Day. The term ‘Rood’ was at the time used as a term for the Holy Cross, and that day was considered to be a sacred one indeed, not a day for sport. King David ignored the rebuke and gathered together the hunters to saddle the horses ready for the hunt.

Holyrood Stag

As the party rode through the forest King David found himself separated from his companions when out of nowhere a large white stag burst through the forest and knocked the King from his horse. The stag lowered it’s mighty antlers and seemed ready to gore the King, whose lips were moving in silent prayer, and was sure his time had come. In a moment of bravery the King seized the stag by the antlers and grappled with the fierce beast. But to his amazement the antlers twisted and reformed in his hands to form the shape of a Cross, and the stag bounded away out of sight. Shaken by the experience the King returned home to Edinburgh castle and the comfort and safety of his court.

That night as King David lay asleep in his bed, he dreamed that a voice spoke to him, commanding him to have an abbey built on the spot he had wrestled with the magnificent stag. The next morning spurred on by what he believed to be a Holy vision he ordered the construction of Holyrood Abbey.His orders were carried out and a fine abbey was built to house a community of Augustinian Canons who flourished there fro many years.

The ruins of Holyrood Abbey can still be visited to this dayHolyrood Abbey



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