Achieving a Coat of Arms

Increasingly, in both my professional practice and in teaching, I am asked about the possibility of acquiring an official and legal Coat of Arms in Scotland. Some enquiries are from Scotland (or recent Scottish emigrants) but many are from Americans, Australians and others whose ancestors left centuries ago. No doubt, part of this is the legacy of Homecoming Scotland 2009 and 2014, when many Diaspora Scots returned – or visited for the first time – and would like to display their proper armorial bearings. This whole area, until quite recently, was shot through with misconceptions and viewed with some suspicion, and the questions I tend to get are along these lines:

Q. Isn’t it just for the great and the good?
A. Actually, in Scotland, arms are for the ‘virtuous and well-deserving’ and take no account of social class or noble ancestry (because, let’s face it, everyone in Scotland is of ‘noble ancestry’!)

Q. Isn’t it difficult, and expensive?
A. Frankly, yes. It is certainly complicated, and does take time (which is why professional help is necessary) but the cost is remarkably inexpensive for something which can be passed on in perpetuity down the generations to come, and less than many families would spend on an annual holiday for example.

Q. Can’t I just get a Coat of Arms from a website?
A. The message has finally got out that the many “Here is your Family Crest” websites are misleading at the very least, and that the answer is to apply properly, which we’ll deal with below.

Q. Why not just download a ‘Family Crest’ from a website?
A. There are three major reasons.

1. Those are not ‘crests’ but ‘arms’, or at least the shield component of the full achievement – the crest is a different element, and can be worn by anyone of the surname (Figure 1).

Figure 1. A Crest Badge can be worn by anyone who wishes to express a connection to the name

2. There is no such thing as a ‘Family Coat of Arms’ in Scotland – any arms you see are almost certainly not yours, but those of someone of a similar surname, dead or living; Scottish heraldic law makes a Coat of Arms the property of one person at a time and the lineal descendants of that person. People with similar surnames, including those in cadet branches, will have similar arms differenced according to a set of rules. That make arms a bit like a pictorial family tree, but which branch would you be in? If you share a surname with the arms you have seen on a website or elsewhere, you MAY have a claim to them, or a derivative of them, but you cannot just assume them without the permission of the heraldic authority.

To assume and pretend to someone else’s arms is not just bad form, it is illegal in Scotland, backed up by the full power of statute going back to the 1500s and still in force – of course, these laws are not enforceable outwith Scotland, but are you the sort of person who would steal a bicycle in Quebec and happily ride it around in Illinois, on the basis that Canadian jurisdiction doesn’t apply south of the border?

Getting arms properly

Strictly speaking, arms can only be granted to someone within The Lord Lyon’s jurisdiction.

1. If you normally live or have property in Scotland, you can apply for a new grant of arms in your own right, or re-matriculate those of an armigerous (arms-bearing) ancestor.

2. If an ancestor of yours had arms granted in Scotland, these can be re-matriculated in your name if you are the lineal descendant, or with a difference (Figure 2) if you descend from a collateral branch.

Durie arms-all-sm

Figure 2. The arms of various Durie armigers are clearly similar to but individually different from those of the Chief

3. If your ancestor came from Scotland, arms may be granted retrospectively, with a cadet matriculation to you and your heirs; even if not of direct armigerous descent.

4. Foreigners of Scottish descent may be able to have a relative in Scotland (or a Commonwealth country) obtain arms from The Lord Lyon and thereafter obtain a cadet matriculation, in which case both parties will have arms.

In all these cases you will require an application to the Lyon Court in Edinburgh, establish a pedigree and present a properly-constructed set of proofs.

Submitting a petition to the Lyon Court

Lord Lyon is three people rolled into one —-Minister of State in the Scottish Government, the Queen’s representative in matters heraldic and ceremonial, and head of the heraldic authority as a judge in his own court. In this capacity, Lyon matriculates existing arms and grant new ones, entering the details in the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland.

The Register in its present form goes back to 1672, although the granting and recording of arms is far older, but any registers there were have been lost or destroyed. There is other evidence, though – in older armorials and other documents, on seals and carvings etc.

If you decide to petition for arms it will be necessary to construct a proven pedigree. If you are seeking to re-matriculate arms of an ancestor, you will have to show proofs that you are a descendant, and whether in the senior line or a cadet branch. If you are applying for a new grant of arms on behalf of an ancestor, you will have to show the birth, marriage, death and other details of that ancestor, and proofs of your descent.

What are the proofs?

Among the things they are not: ‘I found it on Ancestry’, or ‘the family story always was…’, or ‘I saw it in a book’. Let’s take a real (but anonymised) example:

James McTumshie was born and lives in Florida. His grandfather, Allan McTumshie, was born in Edinburgh and migrated to the USA in 1920, where he married and had James’s father, Angus. In 1925, Angus moved West, married and had James in 1950. Angus is still alive.

James will need his own American birth certificate, the American birth and marriage certificates of Angus, the American marriage and death certificates of Angus, plus Angus’s birth certificate and his parents’ marriage certificate in Scotland, plus any testamentary documents (wills etc.) that are relevant.

Other documents may add to the story – passenger lists, censuses, military service records and so on – but these are usually the basics. It is not enough to download images from a website, however official (such as It is necessary to obtain a legal extract (copy) of the original, or the original itself.

Allan has originals of all but one of the required American certificates, and can contact the relevant County Courthouse to get that sent. But he needs certified legal copies of the Scottish ones, from Edinburgh. This is not a complicated or costly process (roughly £10-15 /$15-25) per extract at the time of writing) but someone will have to find and request these.

As it happens, James’s grandfather did have arms – in this case, extracts of the relevant birth, marriage, death and testamentary records, and details of the original grant will also have to be obtained the same way.

Once these are in hand, a petition is written in particular form, praying that Lord Lyon will grant (or in this case re-matriculate) arms. This is accompanied by a Schedule of Proofs, listing and describing the documents, plus the documents themselves (which will be returned).

Making the petition

You can make a preliminary request while all the above is going on. This costs £200 (about $320) as a deposit against the full eventual cost, if arms are granted. The current fees are given in the reference at the end of this article, but, someone will have to amass the legal proofs of your descent and construct the petition, deal with queries and so on. Count on spending at least £3,000 (US $5,000), and be aware the process can take a year or more depending on complexity, the number already in the queue etc. There is no guarantee arms will be granted, but a properly-presented petition goes a long way.

What will be included in the arms

The convention is that arms follow surname, so the arms of someone called Brodie will be recognisably Brodie, and will incorporate any differences already in the arms granted to someone in the particular branch. If starting from scratch, the new arms would have Brodie elements, with an appropriate difference. Ultimately, Lord Lyon will decide, but is amenable to discussion and negotiation about what goes in, subject to considerations of taste and propriety – a metalworker might ask for an anvil, a writer for a quill pen, a sailor for an anchor, for example. Incidentally, it is not obligatory to request a crest, and supporters are only granted to certain individuals.

The first step

Have your pedigree assessed by a professional genealogist and heraldist in Scotland, who will be able to advise further. You may find you are descended from an armigerous ancestor, or be related to someone who has arms, or that you are starting anew. In any case, you will be joining a tradition that stretches back reliably to the time of Robert Bruce and at least a century before that. Quite a legacy to leave your heirs.

Further information

Dr Bruce DurieThis information was kindly supplied by:
Dr. Bruce Durie BSc (Hons) PhD OMLJ FSAScot FCollT FIGRS FHEA
Genealogist, Author, Broadcaster, Lecturer
Shennachie to the Chief of Durie
Shennachie to COSCA
Honorary Fellow, University of Strathclyde
Member, Académie Internationale de Généalogie