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Lord Lyon

The Lord Lyon King Of Arms

Scotland's ancient registry of all things heraldic is – to the surprise of many
– very much a part of the 21st century.

BY JIM GILCHRIST

I walk into the imposing mid-19th century Italianate precincts of New Register House, off the east end of Edinburgh's Princes Street, and climb a stair, at the top of which a pair of uncompromising-looking red lions rampant brandish a shield bearing a saltire and topped by a crown. I'm about to enter the Court of the Lord Lyon, the supreme heraldic authority for Scotland and an institution dating back to the 14th century.

It is tempting to write at this point – for reasons of journalistic colour, perhaps – that the 21st century seems to recede along with the rumble of Princes Street traffic as I enter this inner sanctum of Scottish heraldry. However, as David Sellar, the Lord Lyon himself, takes pains to point out, far from being some quaint and colourful anachronism, his Court, which approves the granting of all new coats of arms and maintains what is almost certainly the oldest continuous heraldic register in the world, has never been so busy.

Nevertheless, there is an inescapable sense of history hanging heavy about the Court of the Lord Lyon, the official body that deals with all matters relating to Scottish heraldry and coats of arms. In its office and library, where some of his predecessors and their officers gaze down from their gilt-framed portraits, the present Lord Lyon pulls a large, bound volume from shelves crammed with more than 90 such volumes of the Scottish Public Registers of Arms and Bearings in Scotland, dating back to 1672. All arms displayed in Scotland must be in that register, by law.

"This is Volume 21, from 1912, so that's 21 volumes between 1672 [when the register was established by act of the old Scottish Parliament] and 1912. But we're now up to Volume 92, which suggests an exponential increase in entries over the past 50 years. There are far more arms being granted now than there were 50 years ago."

Sellar, a solicitor and lecturer in law at Edinburgh University who was appointed Lord Lyon in March 2008, opens the weighty tome to show some of the beautifully rendered coats of arms which adorn its pages. Their vividly inked symbolism glows across the centuries in the form of glinting helms and swirling mantling, blue dragons, bronze gryphons, lions, unicorns, shields supported by cudgel-bearing wild men...all delineated with artistic flair and precision, but also according to strict and long-established rules regarding the granting and displaying of such arms in Scotland.

The full text of this article is available in the Spring 2010 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photo © Court of the Lord Lyon.