The Lord Lyon and Tartan
An updated extract from
'District Tartans' [Gordon Teall and Philip D Smith, 1992]
A great deal of confusion arises concerning the precise role
fulfilled by the Lord Lyon King of Arms, with regard to
tartans. Statements such as "... the Lord Lyon's office ...
controls the use of authentic Scottish tartans" appear from
time to time in even well-regarded journals. Such misleading
comments arise from partial knowledge or misunderstanding of the
The Court of the Lord Lyon is primarily an office of heraldic
jurisdiction. Tartans, per se, are not heraldic devices,
although they can become so if incorporated in armorial bearings.
One suspects the hand of Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, late Lord
Lyon, in the following observation:
During the past few years, ..., whenever a person or limb
attired in 'the proper tartan of clan X . ..' occurs in armorial
bearings, Lyon Court takes evidence, and defines such tartan, the
system of definition adopted being .. . the Logan system of one
eighth inch proportions ... A record of authentic clan tartans is
thus being gradually built up on legal evidence and statutory
authority, in the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in
Scotland, one of the National Public Registers of the Kingdom.
This statement, though true in itself, is possibly the source of
many present day misconceptions. It is perhaps not generally
realised that relatively few heraldic achievements depict tartan.
Indeed, only twenty-eight tartans are defined in the Public
Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland, whilst a
further two are mentioned but not defined. Nevertheless, it is the
custom of Scotland to regard the use of a clan or family tartan as
being the heritable prerogative of the respective Chief or head.
Though this prerogative is not enshrined in the law of Scotland,
the customary privileges of Chiefs relating to clan tartans are
recognised by the Lord Lyon.
It is also the prerogative of the Lord Lyon to record upon
application, the thread count of a tartan in the Lyon Court Books.
This book is used also for placing upon public record such matters
as Change of Name when this is authorised by the Lyon Court.
Precisely which tartans are recorded in the Lyon Court Book is
entirely a matter of discretion for the Lord Lyon. Accordingly,
therefore, since the practice was initiated in 1951, the
criteria has varied according to the views of the incumbent of the
office. The Lord Lyon seeks technical advice with regard to the
inclusion of tartans in the Public Register of all Arms and
Bearings in Scotland and in the Lyon Court Book from
his Tartan Committee which comprises individuals
having a specialised knowledge on tartans.
Between 1951 and 1992, thirty-nine separate entries were made in
the Lyon Court Book in respect of the thread counts of
specific tartans. Two of these entries also included a hunting
tartan and two a dress tartan, bringing the total of tartans so
recorded to forty-three. Of these, thirty-three were applicable to
personal surnames, and nine to Provinces of Canada and one to the
United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Apart from
Nova Scotia, the arms for which have been matriculated by the Lyon
Court, the registration of the tartans of the remaining provinces
and the West Point Military Academy has been a matter of some
The last Lord Lyon, Sir Malcolm Innes of Edingight, who
succeeded to his office in 1981, stated that with regard to
tartans, he would only consider Petitions from Chiefs of the Name
as they are the only people who can determine clan or family
tartans. In certain exceptional cases, where a significant local
authority or government authority has - by legislation - determined
a tartan, he will also consider a Petition from them either
before a tartan has been determined by such legislation or
after. He is not prepared to accept Petitions from
individuals for tartans and has suspended the former practice of
recording tartans of those with matriculated arms who are not also
Chiefs of the Name.
Many of those who have considered the matter in depth hold the
view that the Lord Lyon should never have become involved with the
recording of tartans other than those appertaining to individuals
or corporate bodies possessing arms matriculated by the Lyon Court.
They reason that it is difficult to understand the constitutional
grounds for the Lord Lyon recording tartans of public authorities
outwith Scotland other than Nova Scotia, which has arms granted by
the Lyon Court.
In respect of armorial bearings, the Canadian provinces for
example, were formerly under the jurisdiction of the Earl
Marshal and Garter King of Arms in London, though
they are now the responsibility of the Chief Herald of
Canada. Unlike Canada, however, the United States has no
connection with the British Crown, of which the Lord Lyon is a
judicial officer. Presumably, the assumption was made at the time
that tartans are quintessentially Scottish and this in itself was