What is a "coat of arms"?

In European tradition, a coat of arms, called armorial bearings or arms for short, is a design belonging to a particular person, or group of people, and used in a variety of ways as an identifying mark. Coats of arms have a formal shorthand description, called blazon.

Coats of arms originate in the designs used by medieval knights to make armor and shield stand out on the field of battle and enable quick recognition. These designs were used to decorate clothing worn over armor, from which we derive the term "coat" of arms. Additionally, the design was painted on the shield and elements of a knight's coat of arms were often used to decorate helmet crest, pavilion, and banners used by both knights and lords.

Who has the right to display specific arms?

In the Scottish heraldic tradition, an individual (rather than a family) possesses a coat of arms. Coats of arms were, and still are, passed from father to son as legal property, and are not used by more than a single individual at the same time. (Though direct heirs will usually bear the same arms with a minor "difference" called a "label" to differentiate an eldest son from his father. At the time of the father's death, the label would be removed, and the son would immediately inherit the father's "undifferenced" coat.) Other children in these families could matriculate (or register) an altered form of their father's arms that were differenced in some way. Women were a special case, as they were entitled to bear their father's arms by courtesy during their lifetime, but did not pass down these arms unless there were no male heirs. In addition, arms in Scotland have a strong familial or clan association and so in order to bear arms inherited through the female line would require use of the same surname associated with those arms, and as such many men married to powerful heiresses have taken their wives' surname for just such a reason!

In Scotland the Lord Lyon King of Arms, the chief Herald of Scotland and judge over the legal court of heraldry (the study of arms), has criminal jurisdiction to enforce the laws of arms. Many other traditions are not so restrictive—-allowing all members of a family to use the same arms, for instance.

What do arms look like?

A full description of a coat of arms encompasses several pieces--Crest, Helmet, Shield, Motto, Supporters, etc. These are not important for this article, but you can read more about the different parts in various articles online. In the Scottish context, the Society of Scottish Armigers, www.scotarmigers.net has many helpful articles on heraldry in the Scottish context. Also, I recommend the Heraldry Society of Scotland, of which I am a member, at www.heraldry-scotland.co.uk. There is also a great heraldry primer at the American Heraldry Society.

MacLea arms

To the best of my knowledge, no member of our MacLea family has been granted arms by the Court of the Lord Lyon in Scotland, or any other heraldic body. Several McLeas (or Livingstones) have been granted arms, or "matriculated" those of ancestors, but none for which a direct relationship to our family can be proved.

For someone of our family (who are citizens of the United States) to be granted arms by the Lord Lyon in Scotland, the arms would need to be granted "for and in memory of" a Scottish citizen with the same surname, from whom descent can be proven.

Because of the Scottish heraldic system, with its heavy family/clan basis, anyone with a given surname for which previous arms exist (even if they cannot prove a relationship with that family) would be given a version of one of these arms as a so-called indeterminate cadet of that family or clan. The arms of the Chief of the Clan MacLea, Baron Alastair Livingstone, are a very reasonable starting point for any MacLea who wishes to apply for a grant of arms in the memory of their MacLea ancestors in Scotland. You can see his arms on the Clan webpage:


And read more of the "blazon" (heraldic language) for his Warrant and Matriculation on these pages:



There arms are in the West Highland tradition, which means that the arms are "quartered" with Celtic "totemic" symbols. (In more mundane heraldic traditions, including those of the rest of Scotland and England, "quartered" shields indicate descent from multiple families, from which the bearer is the heir of all of the families indicated in each quarter. In West Highland tradition, these quarters do not indicate descent from multiple armigerous families, but rather are indicative of a particular family of West Highlanders. The coat, though quartered, is considered inseparable.)

Applying for arms

It is my intention to apply for arms "for an in memory of" our Scottish immigrant ancestor, James Brown MacLea. However, at the moment, I have not done so, because I am collecting all the official copies of documents necessary to prove descent from him. You'd be surprised by how many documents you need to do so!

Also, it is very expensive to do so (upwards of $2000, in all likelihood, and more with nicer artwork and for each cousin who would like to matriculate his own differenced version of the arms and receive his own nice document).

As you can see by looking at our family tree since arrival in America, there are several branches of the family that would be entitled to "differenced" versions of the arms after they would be granted to James.

My father, Robert Douglas MacLea would be entitled to the "undifferenced" arms by virture of his descent from first son of the second son (the first having no male children) of James. Upon his death, my brother Rob would be become the heir to those arms, and my nephew Patrick thereafter.

However, I myself (as second son to Robert), as well as my father's brother, and the MacLea/McLea-surnamed descendants of my grandfather's brothers, and of my great-grandfather's brothers, would all be entitled to matriculate "differenced" versions of James Brown McLea's arms.

Application process at the Lyon Court

In order to apply for arms for James, I have to acquire all the documents necessary, apply, and then provide the funds for the fine vellum document and recording within the records of Scotland in perpetuity. It is preferable to apply for the "grant" for James as well as the less-expensive "matriculations" for myself, at the same time (and the cost is less as well). It would also be better to get any interested cousins involved at this time as well.

So, if you're a MacLea/McLea cousin with interest in getting yourself a differenced version of said arms, who would like to contribute to the cost of applying for arms for James, please get in touch as soon as possible. My email address is ksm6 at cornell dot edu.

Assuming arms in America

There is no heraldic authority in the United States, and therefore, any American can choose to do as he likes with regard to personal heraldry. You can read a lot more about this in the informative articles of the American Heraldry Society, www.heraldrysociety.us.

Basically, what this means is that in order to use your own heraldry in the U.S., you may design and use your arms as you like. However, should you choose to use arms in Scotland, you would fall under the authority of the Lord Lyon. Illegally usurping arms from someone else, or assuming arms without grant or matriculation, is prohibited.

For that reason, provided I can come up with the money, I would like to apply for arms for our ancestor, and for members of the family descended from that ancestor as would like them, in Scotland, from the Court of the Lord Lyon. Still, there is no reason you can't use any heraldry you damn well please, in the U.S. Many consider it to be rude to use non-approved "Scottish" arms at Highland Games within the U.S., but that is at your own discretion.

What would arms for James Brown MacLea look like?

In consultation with others in the Scottish heraldry community, and the son of the Clan Chief, the Young Bachuil, I have come up with a proposed design for James Brown McLea, as would be inherited by my father and a differenced version for myself.

Thanks go to Anthony Maxwell, John Gaylor, and many others, and to Anthony Maxwell especially for the artwork for the proposal.

You can look at the MacLea arms proposal on that page.