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This is one where the symbolism seems straightforward at a glance, but increasingly harder to grasp on deeper exploration. Three theories are given in James MacVeigh’s The Scottish Nation; or the Historical and Geneaoligcal Account of All Scottish Families and Surnames (1889).
Each of them rests on the idea that devise on the shield of the chief of Cunningham’s arms is what’s called a ‘Shakefork’. The shield has a Y-shape that does not meet the sides of the shield, instead terminating in little points.
The Cunningham Shield
Combined with the motto of ‘over fork over’, the interpretation is that this is meant to represent an actual shakefork, also known as a pitchfork, a farming tool used to move hay bales and wheat sheafs. Essentially you shove the fork into the bale, then lift or fling it where you want it to go. You can also use it for the more unpleasant job of mucking out the stables. The three interpretations to explain the arms and crest are therefore:
As attractive as MacKenzie’s theory is, it’s very hard to find evidence of a specific Cunningham serving as master of the king’s stables (although not impossible, nothing of that nature was found by Sir James Balfour-Paul in his comprehensive peerage).
But one can wonder about the whole shakeforth identification. James Coats in his 1725 book A New Dictionary of Heraldry says ‘it is strange how so discreet a Person [referring to Mackenzie] could pen down so extravagant a Notion, the Pall being so well known to be the Archiepiscopal Ornament, which he brings down to a Dung-fork, without the least resemblance’. (pp.258-9).
Coats is being too harsh on MacKenzie here, after all he didn’t make the association with the symbol and the fork, but drawing on an older tradition: the motto of the earls of Glencairn literally had the word 'fork' in it after all. There were a couple of Cunningham bishops. William Cunningham was bishop of Argyll from 1539 and died about 1561, the time of the Reformation. David Cunningham was the first Protestant bishop of Aberdeen from 1577 to 1600. But both men are quite late, and the arms with the Y are much older. A seal of William Earl Cunningham here, dating to 1543 shows the fork already in use. Note that William’s seal has a full Pall, meeting the edges of the shield and not detached, as a ‘shakeforth’ is supposed to. For a Pall to be ecclesiastical, it would usually be detached from the bottom of the shield (see here for an overview). So we might reject Coats' Archiepiscopal idea, at least without more evidence.
What about the crest and motto? We first see them in about 1600, notably expressed on the wonderful Glencairn Aisle attached to the kirk at Kilmaurs. This has our familiar unicorn and the motto ‘Fork Over’.
(Incidentally, the rabbit supporters are possibly a play on the word 'coney', an old word for rabbits, and the surname Cunningham/Coney-ham)
A working theory might be that the ‘Y’ shape is a very old heraldic symbol for the Cunninghams, so old it’s original meaning was forgotten, if it ever had a meaning. The earliest heraldry was simple, the aim being an aid to identification on the battlefield, so utility usually came first with meaning second. Over the centuries this became less important.
The Pale of the shield probably neither originally referred to bishops or forks. In the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century an effort may have been made to make sense of it, and the shakeforth idea was seized on, probably by the earls themselves, either thinking of the link with the Comyns, or the legend of Malcolm. With this new interpretation in mind, a fitting motto and crest were then added to the arms to fit the theme of forks and stables, which we see by 1600.
The older Carrick range Cunningham Crest Cap Badge.
Miles Kerr-Peterson 10 July 2023