West Highland Heraldry

A Closer Look at West Highland Heraldry – by Alastair Campbell of Airds – Unicorn Pursuivant of Arms (Now Islay Herald Extraordinary).

It is often claimed that the Scottish form of heraldry is the purest in the world both in form and in regulation Well, so it is, up to a point – that is, until it meets the West Highlands which, as so often, have their own ways of doing things. In this case a pretty odd way of doing things as will appear.

Academic historians tend to disdain both heraldry and genealogy. In my view this is a mistake. Few people would claim that Heraldry is conclusive historical evidence – but if it doesn’t always prove who people actually are, it may well show who they thought they were or, at least, who they would like to be!

And whatever critics may say, heraldry is intensely symbolic and allows its users to make statements which can be clearly recognisable and which can offer a valuable sidelight on history.

At an early stage I must pay tribute to Mr Roger Pye, author of a notable series of articles in The Coat of Arms and the first, I believe, to draw attention to this particular form of heraldic usage. Sadly, in what follows, evidence is spasmodic although a reasonably clear progression is visible. The use of heraldry in the West Highlands was for long scantily recorded – which is not to say that it was not in constant use – and Heralds’ Rolls often show what had been in use or what their compilers thought should have been in use, while tombstone carvers, while contemporary, often show a considerable degree of independence. What, for instance, are we to make of the tombstone of Campbell of Achaworran on Lismore, a cadet of the Campbells of Inverawe, who, instead of the six salmon on the border of that coat, is given only two? Is this a genuine difference or was there a squabble over the stonemason’s fee or was it a particularly filthy day when the lure of the pub proved irresistible?

Probably seals are the best evidence – they are contemporary and there is no doubt of their being used. But there are all too few of them.

The Definition of West Highland Heraldry

West Highland Heraldry is characterised by the use of quartered arms and by the repetitive use of one or more of a number of highly symbolic charges. These are:

The Lion Rampant
The Galley
The Hand
The Salmon

The use of quartering is of course usual practice to denote dynastic marriage but this is not the case here: it is a more general connection and the term coined for it is “totemic”. There is also frequent use of rocks and castles but these can be traced in nearly every case to the actual ownership or keepership of identifiable sites. So it is that in the West Highlands and Islands we find this kind of coat in use today for a wide range of families, among them the Clan Dougall, the Clan Donald, the Macleans of Duart and the Maclaines of Lochbuie, the MacNeils of Barra and the McNeills of Gigha, the MacLachlans and of course their various cadets.

Maclean of Duart
MacAlister of Tarbert

MacNeill of Gigha
MacNeil of Barra

Nor is this all since the practice is also adopted by the Clan Chattan where, apart from Mackintosh himself, it has long been used by the Farquharsons, the MacGillivrays, the Macphersons and others.

Shaw of Tordarroch

Maclean of Dochgarroch
(cadet) MacGillivray

But its adoption was by no means general in the area; it does not appear in the arms of such potentates as Macleod of Macleod or Macleod of the Lewes, Matheson, Mackenzie, or Cameron of Locheil while the use of the galley as a quartering in the arms of the Campbell Duke of Argyll and Earl of Breadalbane is the normal commemoration of marriage with heraldic heiresses. (The transfer of the actual Lordship of Lorne was a commercial transaction but this does not alter the above fact).



The Meanings

The Lion Rampant

In the back of his splendid book The Highland Clans, the late Sir lain Moncreiffe of that Ilk charted the use of the Lion Rampant by various families whose common origins lie in the Kingdom of Scottish Dalriada.

I think there is little doubt that the Lion is used as a reference to the Royal Line of the Sons of Erc, Fergus, Loam and Angus who moved across the North Channel in around 500 AD and established a major extension of Irish Datriada in what is now Argyll.

From here, in 843, King Kenneth MacAlpine, under increasing weight of Norse attacks, moved eastward to the Pictish Capital of Scone, his as well, by right of his mother; from this move, of course, stems the origin of the Kingdom of Scotland. With him went from Dunstaffnage not only the Stone of Destiny but the lion coat which, as Sir lain has pointed out, turns up in the arms of many of the great families of the east of Scotland. and which derives ultimately from this source.



The Galley

The Galley comes in various forms; it may have its oars in action or crossed in saltire; it may have a flag, a cross or a flaming beacon at the masthead; it may or may not have a crew of various numbers; it may be in, or out of the water; its sails may be furled or unfurled and it may have a salmon crammed into the same quarter swimming under it.

Two of its most famous appearances are as the Galley of the Isles and as The Galley of Lorne used by two of the lines of Somerled’s progeny – the MacDonalds and the MacDougalls. But it was earlier in use on the seals of the Isle of Man and there can be little doubt that this is the symbol of Norse Royal power.

Sir lain Moncreiffe, indeed, derives it from the symbol used to denote the male embodiment of the old pagan goddess-spirit Nerthus – the Earth Mother – from whom the old Peace-Kings of Uppsala claimed descent and whose symbol was a crescent-moon-shaped Galley. This may be taking it a bit far – I don’t know – but the galley was the real instrument for the application of power in these seas for many a century and its own symbolism, I should have thought, was powerful enough.

The Hand

This, too, appears in different guises. It may be on its own or it may be holding a cross – usually a cross crosslet fitchy – or, in the case of the Clan Chattan, sometimes a heart or a dagger. But it is still The Red Hand? Best known today as The Red Hand of Ulster, this is the ancient heraldic device of the O’Neills, once High-Kings of Ireland who traced their descent from Neil of the Nine Hostages. In conjunction with the Cross it implies a connection with St. Columba himself a scion of the O’Neills – The O’Donnell being the Coarb and Chief of the Kindred of St. Columba. Niall of the Nine Hostages, if indeed he existed, was early enough, but the Red Hand even predates him in literature since it appears on one of the anners o the Fiann in Ossianic poetry.

The Salmon

This is a most mysterious symbol and one which is clearly of great importance.

Salmon appear frequently in early Celtic mythology as a symbol of Wisdom and Knowledge. They are also a symbol of eternity with their mysterious return to their birthplace from the outermost ocean where they recommence the life cycle – also for their strength and beauty. Their Knowledge springs from their having eaten the red hazel nuts of Wisdom that fall into the water of the sacred wells from the hazel trees that surround them – the red spots on the salmon’s belly derive from this.

This knowledge can be passed on by eating the flesh of the salmon A famous instance of this was the case of Finn MacCool, the mythical leader of the Feinn, the war-bands of young men whose deeds are commemorated in the heroic poetry that is said to spring from the composition of Finn’s son Ossian. His great rival was Diarmid whose death he eventually encompasses. And of course there is the famous story of Somerled himself’ whose decision to take on the Norse is said to have been taken as a result of his finally catching the salmon that had long eluded him.

In many civilisations it is the serpent who is endued with magical powers but in Ireland there are no snakes and it is the salmon that takes its place. They have connotations with immortality and when an Irish King defeated another, a ritual killing of the fish in the vanquished king’s stew-pond took place. Even today, the salmon is a Royal Fish and Salmon fishing rights are retained by and dispensed by The Crown Clearly it is a powerful symbol. To my mind there is a pagan feel to it; I do not think it is the txoua of early Christianity and wonder if it is not a reference to the Old Religion of the Celts, or more accurately, to a person or family connected with it.

On a different note, I have been told by Professor Per Andraesson that although the salmon is a rarity in Norse heraldry he has seen a coin dating back to Jutland in the 8th century which has both a salmon and a galley on it. And even today its use is clearly important to status. When MacCailein Mor goes to the Oban Ball he is clad in a doublet decorated with silver salmon as is Maclean of Duart. And the Campbell chief also displays the mysterious salmon semee on his Standard. I mentioned earlier the Campbells of Inverawe and the six salmon that decorate the border of their gyronny coat.

There are two 17c stones at Ardchattan Priory for members of the same family that give a coat with a gyronny in each of their four quarters – and a salmon stuffed in underneath them in base. Also at Ardchattan is the early achievement of Maclntyre of Glennoe which in irregular form show a stag about to be transfixed by an arrow, a galley – and, yet again, a salmon. The Clanranald stone at Arisaig displays the same phenomenon with the salmon forced in at the base of the quartered shield.

Whatever the salmon represents it is obviously of considerable import and it is all the more mysterious that we have apparently forgotten its meaning.

Campbell of Inverawe
Campbell of Inverawe
MacIntyre of Glenno
Clanranald Stone

West Highland Heraldry – The Meanings

Let us now look more closely at the users of West Highland heraldry – The Macdonalds

The MacDougalls

The senior line descended of Somerled is that of the MacDougals of Dunollie, formerly Lords of Lorne, who used the style “de Ergadia” – “of Argyll”. They are on record as using the galley on its own in 1296, between 1300 and 1307 and again in 1332. The Red Hand was added in a seal of 1565. The Dunvegan Armorial of 1582 gives the first appearance of the MacDougall Lion rampant, silver on blue but this time with the addition of three silver mullets in chief – a possible reference to Moray at the other end of the Great Glen from Dunollie, the seat of Loam so many of whose descendents appear again in the area around Inverness.

The MacDougalls originally buried their Chiefs at Ardchattan, built by Duncan MacDougall around 1232, until the burial of an 18c Chief was held up by a furious storm which prevented the funeral cortege crossing Loch Etive. After several days, urgent action was imperative and the mourners took him through the hills to Kilbride, south of today’s Oban where the MacDougall chiefs now have their mausoleum. Here is to be found the coat of 1737 which has everything in it, all four symbols plus a castle, and in 1785, the first appearance of today’s coat borne by the MacDougall Chiefs which quarters the lion rampant with the galley.

Seals 1296, 1300-7. Balliol Roll
Workman’s Manuscript
The Dunvegan Armorial

Tombstone Kilbride
Tombstone Kilbride
Lyon Office

The Macdonalds

The MacDonalds, too, were early users of the galley down to the time of John, 1st Lord of the Isles. Subsequent Lords were frequent users of seals and seem to have altered their pattern with regularity. From the considerable number on record, I start with seals of Donald, Lord of the Isles who fought the Battle of Harlaw in 1411 over his claim to the Earldom of Ross. Several historians have commented on the fact that he might have had ideas of a an even greater claim and the addition of the Royal double tressure to the galley -as well as the eagle displayed may well have reflected this; his mother, after all, was the daughter of King Robert II. After his defeat at Harlaw it may be significant that the double tressure is dropped – for a time. Through his wife Lady Margaret Leslie he claimed the earldom of Ross and this is reflected in the consequent use of the three lions rampant of Ross. the Leslie buckles on a bend and the Comyn garbs – this last referring to the half-share in the earldom of Buchan also inherited through his wife’s great-uncle.

Quite what the hand and dagger in the seal of John, last Lord of the Isles of 1472 represents, I am not sure, although I do not think it is the Red Hand of the O’Neills.



In 1493 the Lordship of the Isles was forfeited and the Clan Donald fragmented. Thereafter it would appear that the use of the quartered West Highland coat became prevalent if not universal among the chiefs of the various branches although the first instance of its use does predate 1493.

Lord of Kintyre

‘MacDonald Buie’
Earl of Antrim

As early as 1461 Celestine, Lord of Lochalsh, younger brother of John, last Lord of the Isles had introduced the galley and the single lion rampant into his coat while his son Alexander in 1492/3 adds the red hand thereby scoring three out of four.This branch of the family, even before the forfeiture had been showing signs of wanting to contest the leadership of the great Clan Donald and it is not impossible that this was reflected in their use of heraldry.

Celestine, Lord of Lochalsh
Alexander of Lochalsh

The MacLeans

The Macleans were also users of West Highland Heraldry. But their bloodline was very different from that of the sons of Somerled so it cannot be that which involves this usage. They were of DaIriadic origin, descending from the tribe of Loarn through the splendidly named Old Dougall of Scone and, it would appear, coming back to Argyll from Galloway.

Both Maclean Chiefs early used the device of a tower, shown on a Duart seal of 1534 and, silver on blue, for Lochbuie in Lindsay of the Mount’s 1542 Armorial. This was kept as his device by Lochbuie whose arms of 1672 are recorded in Lyon Office where it appears as a quarter along with the Galley, the Lion, the Salmon and Hand holding the Cross.


The tower concerned is surely Lochbuie’s castle of Moy. The Seton Armorial of 1591, however, displays different arms for Duart which are still in use today. The first quarter contains a rock, not a castle. I suspect this is the fortress of Cairnburgh in the Treshnish Isles to which the Macleans retired when Duart became untenable. As well as the Hand and Cross, the Galley and the Salmon they have two eagles’ heads respectant which I believe may be a depiction of the Hawks which were, as the Exchequer Rolls reveal, supplied to the King on various occasions by the Maclean Chiefs.

The earliest recorded seal of the Chief of Duart is something of a surprise since the actual shield shown has on it the familiar gyronny of eight of the Campbells. Grouped around it are, however, the Tower, the Hand. the two Eagles’ Heads and the Galley. The later enmity between the two clans has tended to hide the fact that in earlier days they were in fact good friends. Hector Mor of Duart whose seal this is was a staunch ally of the Campbell Chief and became his father-in-law. This seal is a clear political statement. If the Macleans were of different blood they were for long followers of the Lords of the Isles and sat on the Council of the Isles. Could this perhaps provide a common link?

Sir Robert Lindsay II
Herald’s Roll
Duirinish Cup

Tomb Stone
Lyon Office

Although previously listed among those not using this form of heraldry a closer look is interesting. The earliest Macleod of Macleod seal on record in 1542 displays a stag’s head cabossed with a chequy base. This is followed by Sir David Lindsay, yr, in 1582 who shows Macleod with a triple-towered castle, silver on blue. This was confirmed by Lyon in 1726 and is now now quartered with the triple-legged device of the Isle of Man, silver on red.

This is because the Macleods imagined themselves descended from King Olaf of Man (whose device, as we have already noted, would in fact have been the Galley). More recent research has shown that although certainly Norse in origin, the Macleods do not descend from this monarch. But three 17c examples in fact show the Macleod chiefs using West Highland heraldry; a cup from Duirinish which belonged to Sir Rory Mor and a gourd at Dunvegan display quartered coats where the castle and the stag’s head are joined by the lion and the galley. Sir Rory’s 1664 tombstone has a Galley on it, accompanied, in chief, by the hand and the castle.

The Macleods of the Lewes have very different arms – a black burning mountain on a gold field. The explanation of this mystery has, I am convinced, been identified by David Sellar, who has pointed out that Macleod of the Lewes obtained most of his lands through marriage with the heiress of the Nicolsons of Portree and probably took her arms as well. Not only were the Nicolsons supposed to hold their lands from the Norse rulers of the Isles for their services as coastwatchers – hence the burning mountain – but the recent imbroglio can be explained in which Nicolson of Scorrybreac was less than happy when it became evident that his arms as accepted by an unobservant predecessor displayed his subordinate status to Lord Carnock who had been granted Arms as Chief of the Name of Nicolson.

Macleod of Cadboll
Macleod of the Lewes
Macleod of Macleod

The Camerons

Also listed among the non-users were the Camerons of Locheil whose gold and red barry coat is a famous one.

This coat appears in the Ragman Roll in 1296, the oath of Allegiance sworn to King Edward I of England by most of the Scots nobility. It is of geographic origin, the name appearing in several places in Scotland, notably in the parish of that name in Fife. Mrs. Beryl Platt has put forward a strong case for the name originating in Cambrun in Flanders where the arms of Oudenarde appear to be the same.

Whether a young man of this house ever came north and married the heiress to the Lochaber group of clans which took Locheil as their chief is problematical. Cam shron or ‘Crooked Nose’ as a personal nickname seems a more likely source but the Locheil family have long used the arms of the lowland Camerons (Lyon first granted them, it is true, with only two gold bars instead of the present three, in 1795).

But they did have doubts, as a document at Inveraray reveals: there Locheil’s seal of 1678 is a quartered one with the barry coat in the third quarter, the first, second and fourth displaying a Galley, a Hand and a Lion Rampant respectively. And certainly the composition of the Council of the Isles must surely have varied; the Camerons of Locheil would have certainly been contenders for membership.

The Descendents of Anrothan

The next group of clans is that which all claim descent from Anrothan, a prince of the O’Neills who, from his descendants later location would seem to have married the heiress of the Dalriadic dynasty who held Cowal, Knapdale and Glassary around the year 1000.

Chief among them were the remarkable MacSweens whose eponymus Suibhne, in the late 12c, built the first stone castle in Scotland, Castle Sween, on the Loch of the same name in Knapdale. He and his kindred seem largely to have escaped the notice of historians but in their day they equalled the most important of the sons of Somerled and far outstripped the nascent Clan Donald. But they got it wrong; they were already in decline by the time of Haakon’s invasion of 1263 and they were on the wrong side in the Wars of Independence. Eventually they appear to have decamped to Ireland where they re-emerge as the powerful gallowglass clan of the MacSweeneys. They themselves appear to have left no heraldry behind them but their cousins made great use of the Dalriadic Lion.

The MacNeils

Among them are the MacNeils – of Barra in the Outer Hebrides and of Taynish and Gigha, close to Castle Sween. They both are listed as Members of the Council and both use West Highland Heraldry. Their descent from Anrothan, however, rests on somewhat sparse oral tradition which is not recorded in the pedigrees and there is a case, competently put by Nicholas Maclean Bristol, for their being descended from a Neill Maclean who appears in the Exchequer Rolls at the time that Robert the Bruce was rebuilding Tarbert Castle. But whatever their descent – and, indeed, whether the MacNeils of Barra and the McNeills of Taynish are of the same stock – the Barra Chiefs appear to be in little doubt of their O’Neill connections since they surround the Red Hand with nine fetterlocks in an obvious reference to Niall of the Nine Hostages.

The MacGilchrists

From the same stock come the MacGilchrists, later Lords of Glassary, who use the Dalriadic Lion. So powerful was the symbolism of this that when the lands eventually went in a financial deal to The Earl of Argyll, the sellers, the Scrymgeours of Dundee, were insistent that as part of the deal they should still be entitled to the Lion arms even though they only held Glassary through two removes of marriage.

The Lamonts and the MacLachlans

These notable clans descended from Anrothan are located in Cowal, a district which has never come under the aegis of the Lords of the Isles. This would appear to upset the theory that use of West Highland Heraldry was connected with membership of the Council of the Isles.



The Maclays/ MaeDunsleaves/ Livingstones and the McEwens

Their arms admittedly are relatively modem but the Border McEwens of Bardrochat claim descent from the MacEwans of Otter on Loch Fyne another of the clans descending from Anrothan as are the MacDunsleaves or Maclays.

These latter turn up again in a remarkable fashion as the Livingstones of Bachuil in Lismore. The strange choice of Livingstone as an anglicisation may be due to a Livingstone given a nineteen-year lease of Lismore by King Charles I in 1641 and the modem arms are clearly derived from the lowland earls of Callendar rather than the holder’s Highland lineage which is perhaps a pity, handsome as they are, with the notable distinction of two croziers crossed in saltire behind the shield. These represent the Bachuil or Staff of Saint Moluag, contemporary of Columba, whose seat was in Lismore, later seat of the Bishopric of Argyll. The ancestors – presumably in the female line of the Livingstones, as they now are were given the lands of the same name for their role as dewars or keepers of the Saint’s staff which they still possess.

Even though of minor extent their possessors have been ranked as Barons of Argyll. Of further interest is the reference to the representative of the family of the day who, in 1544 was Iain McMolmore Vic Kevir, who is addressed in the charter by the Earl of Argyl as “nostro signifero ” . The late Lord Lyon Sir Thomas Innes of Learney opined that the word signifer here meant “Pursuivanf’ and that the Keeper of the Bachuil was Argyll’s Officer of Arms, Sir lain Moncreiffe going so far as to suggest he went by the title of Lorne Pursuivant.

On the other hand Bruce is known to have summoned both the Keepers of the Brecbennoch, the shrine of the relics of Saint Columba and of the Quigrich, the staff of Saint Fillan, to be borne in the van of the Scottish Army at Bannockburn and personally, I have little doubt that the Bachuil was borne into battle by its signifer or, to use the normal translation of the word, its “standard-bearer” as an encouragement to the forces of Argyll, and before that, of the Lords of Lorne. As a matter of fact there is one earlier example of Highland Livingstone heraldry in the district – in Kilcolmkill churchyard, in Morvern, where an 18c tombstone displays a quartered coat which includes the lion rampant.

The Clan Chattan

The Clan Chattan are also users of West Highland heraldry although at first sight they are geographically unlikely to be so. They are in fact a confederation of families from different sources. The original Clan Chattan itself is given various origins although the one favoured by the family itself is that which derives them from a 11c Gillechattan – Servant of Saint Cattan whose name appears in various locations including that of Ardchattan Priory on Loch Etive in Argyll. From a younger son of this line came the Macphersons.

The heiress of the senior line, one Eva, is said to have married Angus Mackintosh – son of the Thane – said to have been of Royal lineage as a descendant of the earl of Fife. From them descend the Shaws and the Farquharsons and others while yet other unconnected clans like the Macleans of Dochgarroch and the MacGillivrays attached themselves to the confederation. The earliest recorded Mackintosh seal is that of 1467 which quarters the lion rampant (contourne) with the galley. This is repeated in 1490 and 1505, before, in 1543, quarters displaying a boar’s head and the Hand are added. This last is the same as the arms of today except that from 1680-7 the hand has clasped a heart.

The early seals of the Chiefs of Macpherson and MacGillivray both display single charges; a Lion rampant for Macpherson in 1535 and a stag’s head cabossed for MacGillivray. Both later appear to have taken a gold galley on blue with a gold chief with on it, for Macpherson a red Hand holding an upright dagger and a cross crosslet fitchee and MacGillivray the stag’s head in black with red horns, between two similar crosses, this time in black.

Gillechattan is claimed to have descended from Loarn; Angus Mackintosh from the marriage of Crinan, lay Abbot of Dunkeld, who was of the kindred of Saint Columba, with Bethoc whose line went back to Kenneth MacAlpine. So if these claims are correct, the Mackintosh Chiefs of Clan Chattan had plenty of West Highland connections.

But the tales are not unquestioned; may there not have been a connection with the Pictish tribe of the Catti from Caithness whose wild cat is used so extensively as a crest by members of the confederation. Another possible connection is that the Lord of the Isles was styling himself Lord of Lochaber and in 1447 made Mackintosh Bailie of his Lordship there.

Once again we seem to be back with the Lordship of the Isles and its Council. Incidentally, much is made today of the Clan Chattan Galley being blue rather than black. I am pretty sure this derives from the difficulty known to have been experienced in early times in producing a black pigment that would last. There are several cases I have come across where a coat which should be sable is rendered as azure.




So where are we left ? – Given the spasmodic nature of the evidence we lack as good a picture as we might wish for BUT.

  1. There appears to be widespread use of this form of Heraldry in the north west on either side of the North Channel.
  2. But the usage is by no means universal.
  3. It is in frequent use by those connected to the Lordship of the Isles.
  4. But by no means universally so – some Council Members do not use it; some not on the Council do.
  5. Clearly there is no single blood line involved.
  6. But there is an identifiable totemic reference to several.
  7. In several cases there is evidence of the earlier use of single charges later replaced by a quartered coat.
  8. Most, but not all usage of quartered coats occurs after the Forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles in 1491.

There are two main questions – “What is the significance of the four charges?” and “What led to the adoption of this distinctive form of Heraldry?” We are reasonably happy with the origins of the Lion, the Galley and the Hand but the meaning of the Salmon remains a mystery.

Whatever it is, I would suggest that it is a reference to something very ancient and that it is a reference to a specific person or dynasty rather than to an abstract idea. As to the adoption of West Highland heraldry one is drawn to the Forfeiture and breakup of the Lordship even though some of the usage appears to predate it.

Can the users be putting out a message that they have the necessary qualifications of birth to assert their position after the disappearance of the former dominant power in the area – perhaps even in some cases staking a claim to taking over the leadership itself ? But the Irish, as ever, remain a problem.

St Andrews Day Lecture, 1996


*Permission to use by Alastair Campbell of Airds.