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In Scotland, the chief of a clan/kindred will have their own coat of arms, consisting of the shield, supporters, crest and so on. Followers of that chief may show their support by bearing the crest of these arms in a strap and buckle – the familiar clan crest badge. Scottish Clansfolk are not permitted to use the chief’s full coat of arms, just the crest, and this is all part of Scotland’s ancient laws of heraldry.
The Arms of the Chief of MacMillan on the left, with the MacMillan Clan Crest on the right (© St Kilda) - both by Romilly Squire.
In Ireland there was a similar-ish situation before Independence; at least where the leading members of a family would bear full coats of arms. There was, however, a notion that arms belonged either to an entire whole sept (the Irish equivalent of a clan) as common property, or to all the descendants of whoever first owned the coat of arms, as Irish inheritance laws often followed the notion of ‘tanistry’ where succession was not dominated by whoever happened to be the first-born. This was all formalised from 1943, when Edward MacLysaght essentially nationalised the heraldry of Ireland. As chief herald of Ireland he advocated that any member of a sept may display full coats of arms (distinct from ‘bearing’ arms). So, in short, anyone descended from a particular sept may display the full coat of arms associated with that sept if they want to.
Grand. But, why are our Irish badges in the form of crests, not full coat of arms? St Kilda’s range of Irish crests were devised by the heraldic artist Romilly Squire, who served for many years as a consultant to the Chief Herald of Ireland. Although we could have just made badges in the form of the full coat of arms, Romilly’s principle was that this was far too cumbersome to use for the purpose of anything on a small scale. At its core, heraldry is all about communicating a clear message, so he focused on the crests to make the most elegant representations suitable for badges. He then set these crests within a traditional Claddagh circlet motif, along with the Irish-Gaelic rendering of the sept name. All the Irish crests we use are based on the historic examples found in the archives of the Irish Office of Arms, as delineated by MacLysaght.
The Arms of Burke/Bourke/de Burgh/de Burca on the left and our crest on the right. Fully cast cap badge below.