The Court of the Lord Lyon, as the authority on all matters heraldic in Scotland, is among the most ancient, and important of Scottish national institutions, and one which occupies a unique position in the national life of the kingdom. Scots heraldry has long enjoyed a high reputation, and preserved to a considerable degree through the centuries the standards of simplicity in design, and scientific accuracy of medieval armory. This is partly because heraldry has developed as a branch of the law, and also because interest in the subject is embedded in the national character.
Unlike the English Kings of Arms, the Lord Lyon is not subordinate to the Earl Marshal, but is himself a Great Officer of State, responsible for many of the functions which in England are shared between the Earl Marshal and the Lord Chamberlain. In Scotland, the Lord Lyon is responsible for the preparation, conduct, and record of all State, Royal and public ceremonial. To him has been entrusted the whole of the Crown‘s jurisdiction in armorial matters, and he is the official adviser to the Secretary of State for Scotland on many aspects of Scottish honours and ceremonial. As controller of Her Majesty‘s Messengers at Arms, he is also head of the executive Department of the Law of Scotland. In addition he holds the appointment of King of Arms to the Order of the Thistle whose chapter and ceremonials he attends. No herald in Europe is vested with such high dignity, exercises such powers of jurisdiction, or is possessed of so high a rank. In his armorial jurisdiction, Lyon stands in the place of the Crown.
The Lord Lyon is not only a Minister of Crown, but also a judge of the realm, and almost all Scottish heraldic business is today conducted on judicial lines through the machinery of the Court of the Lord Lyon, which exercises both civil and penal jurisdiction under Scottish common law, and a series of Acts of Parliament. In this, the Lyon Court differs considerably from the English College of Arms. The Lyon Court was, and is, a part of the Scottish judicial system, and functions entirely as a court of law. It is not, and never has been, a corporate body like the English College of Arms.
Lord Lyon, like the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, is entitled to use the prefix 'Right Honourable', which has been borne by holders of the office since 1554, and it is considered high treason to strike or deforce the person of the Lord Lyon.The title 'Lord Lyon' indicating a member of the Scottish Government, appears as early as 1371 at the coronation of Robert II. At an earlier coronation, that of Alexander III at Scone July 1349, no mention is made of Lord Lyon. The first legislative enactment which directly bestows on Lyon a jurisdiction in questions of armorial bearings was a Statute of 1592 which empowered him to

  • 1. Inspect arms of noblemen, barons, and gentlemen.
  • 2. To distinguish them with proper differences.
  • 3. To matriculate them in his register, and to put inhibitions to all common sort of people,p> not worthy by law of arms to bear any sign armorial.

    The Court of the Lord Lyon operates like any other court of law, with lawyers pleading a case before a judge ( Lord Lyon ). The judicial duties of Lyon Court fall into two categories.

  • 1. To establish rights to arms and pedigree.
  • 2. To protect the rights of individuals and the crown in heraldic matters.

    Much of Lord Lyon‘s peculiar importance in Scotland is due to his incorporating the pre-heraldic Celtic office of High Sennachie of the Royal Line of Scotland, and in this capacity, as guardian preserver of the Royal Pedigree and Family Records, his certificate was requisite for the coronation of each Scottish King whose genealogy it was his duty at each coronation as 'Official Inaugurator' to declaim in Gaelic - latterly for seven generations, but originally through all the Scottish Kings back to Fergus Mor MacErc, founder of the Royal Line.
    To Lyon has been conveyed the whole of the Crown‘s jurisdiction in armorial matters, as pertaining to his sphere of duty, to his functions as High Sennachie, the Heraldic 'Visitations' being analogous to the Bardic cuarit, and in terms of the statutes, no grant of arms is effective except when made by him. Since at least 1542, the King of Scots has never granted a coat of arms or augmentation, the invariable practice being a Royal Warrant ordering 'Our Lyon' to 'grant and give' the specific honour. This ensures that all grants go through the official channel, thereby saving the crown the possibility of making a grant which might conflict with some exercise of the prerogative. It should be noted, that a Royal Warrant does not become effective until presented in Lyon Court, so that Lord Lyon may act upon it and record the arms in terms of the statutes. It should be further noted that not only has the Lord Lyon jurisdiction to enforce the Law of Arms, but if the law is deficient, he may prescribe new Heraldic Rules which have the force of Law.
    Lyon has jurisdiction in Scotland in questions of 'Name and Change of Name', questions of 'Family Representation', disputes over chiefship of a 'Noble and Armigorous' family, and 'Chiefship of Name and Arms'. Chief of a Family and Head of a Clan are synonymous, and give the right to bear and use the undifferenced arms of the 'Chief of the Clan'.
    Within Lyon Court there are six Officers of Arms; three Heralds,Albany, Marchmont, and Rothesay, and three pursuivants, Carrick, Kintyre, and Unicorn. They are members of the Scottish Royal Household, formerly in daily attendance at the Palace, and in that capacity perform many ceremonial duties in Scotland. The heralds and pursuivants have many statutory duties in connection with Scottish heraldry, and may act as judges of first instance in Genealogy. They may be consulted about heraldry and genealogy in a professional capacity like any advocate, by members of the public, and may appear before the Lyon Court, or other nobiliary Courts, and before the English Court of Chivalry. Usually some of them are members of the Scots Bar. The present Lyon Clerk, Mrs. C.G.W. Roads is also Carrick Pursuivant, and is the first women to hold this office.

    The duties and powers of Lyon under the Statutes are sevenfold:

  • 1. To establish rights to arms and pedigree.
  • 2. To protect the rights of the individual and the Crown in matters armorial.
  • 3. To assign suitable differences to cadets of armigorous families.
  • 4. To record genealogies and grants of arms.
  • 5. To matriculate in the official register all arms used in the Kingdom.
  • 6. To furnish extracts from the same.
  • 7. To determine all disputes between heraldic claimants.

    Following the act of 1672, a Register of Arms in Scotland was established, and has been maintained to the present day. Earlier records are sparse, and it is traditionally recorded that early heraldic records were taken to England by Cromwell, and lost at sea on their return in 1661. Further documents were lost in a fire about 1670, or were retained in their own possession by later officials of the court. The earliest Scottish Heraldic register is the 'BOOK of BLAZONS' by Sir David Lindsay of the Mount, 1542. Today this document is preserved in the Advocates Library in Edinburgh.
    It should be clearly understood that when a person has recorded arms in Lyon Register, that it is strictly not open to anyone else of the same surname to use his arms. This is an infringement of the owners legal rights for which he may ask the Procurator Fiscal of the Court of the Lord Lyon to prosecute the offender. Ownership of arms and crest is personal, and it is not extended to others of the same name except under certain circumstances. Lyon Court has full powers of fine and imprisonment, as well as at common law, power to erase unwarrantable arms, and to 'dash them furth' of stained glass windows, break unwarrantable seals, and seize movable goods and gear upon which arms are unwarrantably represented.