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A few things to make clear first – there is a big difference between Arms and Crests. Crests are taken from a chief’s Coat of Arms, and are the feature set above the shield, often seen on top of a helmet. There is no such thing as a Clan Coat of Arms, only the chief’s arms, which no one else is permitted to use under Scots heraldic law. Even the symbols within are the chief’s, and only the crest and motto may be used by clansfolk when depicted within a strap and buckle. Strictly speaking there’s no such thing as a ‘clan crest’ either for the same reason, but the terminology has caught on and we use it as a shorthand. We’ll talk more about all this in a later blog, but this is all you need to bear in mind for the moment.
The oldest tradition of identifying clansmen was the ‘plant badge’, which was a sprig of foliage pinned to the bonnet. Although originally chosen on an ad hoc basis, over time traditions arose whereby particular clans adopted certain sprigs as their chosen symbol. For example, the Campbells’ plant badge is traditionally the Bog Myrtle, the MacDonalds take Heather, Nicolsons take Juniper, Wallaces take oak leaves and so on.
McIan's Illustration of MacDonald of Glencoe, showing a sprig of Heather
Taking any chance to show off, in the early nineteenth century, the pin used to attach these decorations, or to hold eagles’ feathers (a big topic in its own right, and best saved for another day), were turned into elaborate silver brooches, displaying the wealth and prestige of the owner.
Meanwhile a second tradition had emerged, that of the clan-crest badge. Here the crest and motto of the chief’s coat of arms is set within a strap and buckle motif, which is the symbol of clanship within Scotland. It is supposed to represent the all-encompassing bonds of kinship. We have heard that the strap and buckle emerged from the practice of the chief having his clansmen identified by an arm band affixed with a literal strap and buckle, although we have not found any conclusive proof for this. More likely is that it is riffing on the symbolism of the orders of chivalry, and specifically chivalric belts. So where orders of knights would be recognised by their belts, the strap and buckle around the crest symbolises, so to speak, how the clansfolk are the metaphorical ‘knights’ of the chief. These brooch badges could be worn on the bonnet to hold the plant badges, they could be worn on plaids or on the lapels, they were even used as kilt pins.
Kenneth MacLeay's (1802-1878) illustration of Donald Munro, Archibald MacDougall and Lachlan MacLean, each sporting a silver cap badge.
Another thread to this story comes from the military. At the end of the eighteenth century, when armies turned away from the old pointed hats towards the round ‘shakos’, each regiment started to pin their badges to the front of their hats. As the nineteenth century wore on these badges became smaller. Borrowing from this tradition, pipe bands and clans adopted this fashion, by pinning band or clan-crest badges to their bonnets in a similar fashion.
Left, a Mid-Victorian Shako of the Highland Light Infantry, showing the Regimental Badge. On the right is a soldier of the London Scottish Regiment during from about the time of the First World War.
To learn more, and to see a comprehensive list of clan crests and plant badges, see the Scottish Clan Encyclopaedia, third edition.
The current rules set down by the Lord Lyon concerning Clan Crest Badges can be read here.