Some Distinctive Characteristics of Scots Arms by Alexander 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 mediĉval period. This would not be the case with for example, 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 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 born 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, 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.
These differences by tincture, or by the addition of ordinaries such as the chevron 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 counter-compony, ie of two rows of alternating blue and silver squares. often elongated, slowly became a mark of bastardy. 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.
In the last century a complicated system or differencing by bordures was propounded by Stoddart to allow for cadet arms, but although giving a conceptual framework, this has in practice been more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

        March Home Comyn of Badenoch Comyn of Buchan

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 into the family her arms, 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 coats and substitute hers for it, or else place his arms in the first and fourth quarters, which now become Grand Quarters and place his wife's 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.

So what are the characteristics of Scots arms? Firstly the use of the lion rampant in many ancient coats. The ruddy lion ramping in his golden field is well known as the coat of the King of Scots, but we must also note this lion rampant as the principal, often only charge, in the ancient earldoms of Fife and March, in Duff, Dunbar, Moncrieff, Home, Dundas, Gray, MacDowall, Buchanan, Wemyss, Moubray, Spens, Wallace, Abernethy, Crichton, Lyon, Lamont, Scrymgeour, also in Maitland, where he is dismembered, in Ross, where he is triplicated and in many of the Celtic coats, where the lion occupies the first quarter of a shield composed of four indivisible quarters.

Fife Abernethy Crichton

The national arms of Scotland are Azure a saltire Argent. This gives rise to many arms which use a saltire as the principle charge, eg Maxwell, Lennox (from which derive Napier), Haig, Colquhoun and Dalrymple.

Maxwell Lennnox Napier Colquhoun Haig Dalrymple

The most famous family and one of the widest spread is Stewart. The arms of Stewart, Or a fesse chequy Argent and Azure, have been mirrored in those of a number of other famous families, including Boyd, Azure a fesse chequy Argent and Gules, and Lindsay, Gules a fesse chequy Argent and Azure. Also derived from Stewart is Menteith, Or, a bend chequy Argent and Sable. Menteith is in fact a scion of the Stewart earls of Menteith.

Stewart Boyd Lindsay Menteith

Another curiosity is the number of arms composed of black and white, one of the simplest, but arguably one of the least appealing combinations. This group would include Erskine, Cunningham, Maxwell, Sinclair, Armstrong, Balfour, Colville, Colquhoun and Haldane. Campbell was also anciently blazoned Argent and Sable. It has been suggested by Beryl Platt, in her books Scottish Hazard, that this combination might imply an origin in the province of Alost in Flanders, the colours of Alost being black and white.

Erskine Cunningham Maxwell Armstrong Auchinleck Balfour Colville Colquhoun

We should also note the occurrence of geographical families of arms, so that in the south west we often find the saltire combined with a chief, a combination which is peculiarly Scottish and rarely occurs elsewhere in European arms, thus with the famous arms of Bruce we find Kirkpatrick, Johnstone, Jardine, Boyes and Moffat.

Bruce Kirkpatrick Johnstone Jardine Boyes Moffat

In the north east lowlands, we see many sets of three stars, as in Innes, Murray, Sutherland, Brodie, Kirkaldy. From these may derive arms no longer associated with that area, such as Douglas, Mure, Weir, Kerr, in each of which the stars are placed on an ordinary, also Arbuthnot.
Then again in the Celtic arms, mentioned above, which are almost all found in Argyll and the western isles, we find four quarters combined, not to show dynastic inheritance, but rather symbolic associations. These quarters usually include a rampant lion, a lymphad, or galley, a hand holding either a dagger, a cross or a heart, a salmon swimming, and a castle. The lymphad is associated with the lordship of the Isles (and thus adopted by the Hamiltons), and the salmon is symbolic in Irish and Scottish mythology of the wisdom of the king. In Irish prehistory the salmon pools of a defeated king were ritually destroyed. These Celtic arms often have more than one charge in a quarter, as eg in Farquharson. They are treated as indivisible, thus the four quarters can only be transmitted as a unity.
Another Scottish characteristic is the comparative rarity of furs, so that we see ermine only occasionally, as in Hamilton, Douglas of Hawthornden, Crawfurd, Fotheringham, McCulloch, and in the famous chief of Moncrieff. Vair, so common in English mediaeval arms, hardly appears at all, and other less common furs even less so. We frequently see three charges, two and one, as the many boars' heads, Nisbet, Swinton, Gordon, or the stars of Moray. When combined with a chevron, these retain their position, but when a straight ordinary, bend, chief, fesse, is introduced the three charges are usually placed on the ordinary, as in Pringle, Mure, Douglas. Thus we see the (probably) ancient arms of Scott still carried by the Scotts of Harden, now Lords Polwarth as Or, two stars and a crescent Azure (compare ancient Kirkaldy Gules, two stars and a crescent Or), while the chiefly line of Buccleuch carries Or on a bend Azure a star between two crescents of the first.
The other particular charge born in Scotland, by the most highly honoured and by their descendants, is the tressure flory counter flory, otherwise known as the Royal Tressure. It is known that the daughters of the House of Charlemagne were accustomed to were a 'tresson' which framed their hair. It is a curiosity that the tressure seems only to be common in the arms of Flanders and of Scotland. In fact the tressure probably derived from the influx of Flemish blood into Scotland in the early twelfth century. The tressure was adopted by the King, probably denoting his descent from Charlemagne, and was granted by the monarch to those who had served especially well, as an honourable augmentation, although doubtless not thus known at that time. It is also borne by many of the Scottish families who have roots in Flanders, perhaps because they also bore the blood of Charlemagne, or possibly because they have intermarried with the royal family.