The first point to be made about heraldry is that there is no such thing as a ‘family’ coat of arms. A coat of arms is a piece of personal heritable property, protected by law, and to use another person’s arms just because you share his/her surname is illegal.

Andrew Hay of Hayfield Hay of Boyne Hay of Broxmouth
Hay of Locherworth Lord Hay, Master of Erroll Sir John Hay of Park, Bart
The Earl of Kinnoull Dominic Hay of Leys Hay of Lochloy

Heraldry originated in the early part of the 12th century when full body armour made it increasingly difficult to recognise warriors on a battlefield or tourney ground. A system evolved whereby a device was painted on a knight’s shield, and replicated on his surcoat, to identify him to others on the field. Knights’ helmets were reinforced with a ridge across the top to guard against blows from above, and this too developed into different designs, a part of the coat of arms called the ‘crest.’ As heraldry developed into an identification system used in domestic circumstances, additional and purely decorative features arrived on the coat of arms, such as supporters, mantling, the crest coronet or cap of maintenance, the compartment and the motto. Additionally, different flags were developed for different purposes, like the pincel, the standard and the guidon.

Toasting the Chief

Toasting the Chief

In Scotland, the simplest coat of arms, known as the undifferenced arms, mark out the Chief of a whole name. In the case of the Hays, this is three red shields on a white background, instantly recognisable as the arms of the Chief, the Earl of Erroll. Every other Hay will have this coat, supplemented with additional charges (or ‘marks of cadency’) which indicate his/her position in the family.

John Stirling, WS, Slains Pursuivant

John Stirling, WS, Slains Pursuivant

Since at least 1404, the Earls of Erroll have maintained a private officer of arms called the Slains Pursuivant. The present Slains is John Stirling, WS. Historically many of the old aristocratic families would have maintained their own herald, and Slains is one of only four that survive and have official recognition. Those interested in heraldry or in obtaining a grant of arms for themselves may contact him on slains@clanhay.org

The ultimate heraldic authority in Scotland is the Lord Lyon King of Arms. He combines the role of chief herald of the realm with that of presiding judge in his own court, and unlike most Kings of Arms, he is an officer of state in his own right. To discover more about the Court of the Lord Lyon, click here.

© Alan Hay 2010