Lord High Commissioner appointed for 2012

by John Stirling, Slains Pursuivant

Lord Selkirk speaking in the Scottish Parliament before his retirement

On 12th December 2011 it was announced that Lord James Douglas Hamilton (properly James Alexander Douglas-Hamilton, Baron Selkirk of Douglas, and representer of the Earldom of Selkirk[1]), the younger son of the 14th Duke of Hamilton and uncle of the present (16th) Duke, had been appointed to be Her Majesty’s Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland for 2012. Surprisingly, in a family that has been so prominent in Scottish life, Lord James will be only the third of his family to fill the place since it arguably began in 1580: James, Marquis of Hamilton, served in 1638 (he was there to take the flak from Charles I’s attempt to impose both bishops and a prayer book on Scotland), and Lord James’s father, Douglas, held office from 1953 to 1955.

 The Church of Scotland acknowledges only one Head, Christ[2], so the Lord High Commissioner is the Sovereign’s representative at, but not in, the General Assemblies of the Church of Scotland: observes proceedings from outside the bar of the house on behalf of a Member of the Church, H.M. the Queen, but he does not take part. Since 1905 he has had precedence in Scotland next after the Sovereign, before the Royal Family. Our own Chief, Merlin, Earl of Erroll, is the hereditary High Constable of Scotland and the first member of the Royal Household after the Commissioner. When the Commissioner is doing his stuff, he enjoys the privileges and trappings of the Sovereign’s presence: the Lion Rampant flies over the Palace when he is there, and

The Duke and Duchess of Argyll; the Duke is Hereditary Master of the Household

from his motor-car and (if there was need of one) presumably from his yacht or dinghy. He gets a Royal Salute of twenty-one guns. He is attended by a Chaplain and Purse-Bearer and by Aides-de-Camp wearing aiguillettes on the right shoulder[3]; his lady may be attended by one or more ladies-in-waiting and maids of honour.

The Commissioner is part of the civil family of the Sovereign in Scotland and, as her representative, is at the head of the Royal Household in Scotland during his commission. The Household is staffed by the Officers of the Household. Though largely ceremonial, the Officers descend from a time when the Sovereign wanted only trusted people near him to tend to daily needs like sleeping (grooms or pages of the bedchamber), dressing, shaving and going to the loo. Being close to the Sovereign gave you privileges: a word in the King’s ear might make a career. Thus great noblemen competed to be Pages of the Bedchamber, dressing the King in the morning; or of the Privy Stool (yes, a privilege), in order to “get at” him. The surviving Great Officers of the Household in Scotland are:

  1. Lord High Constable of Scotland: traditionally the Chief of the General Staff and General Officer Commanding the Scots army, as well as being generally in charge of the army’s camp and judge over violent crime within a league of the King’s court. Our Chief, Merlin, 24th Earl of Erroll is the hereditary holder of the office.
  2. The Master of the Household: the supreme officer in the household rather than the camp, held by the Dukes of Argyll heritably since 1667.
  3. The Keeper of Holyroodhouse: presently Alexander, 16th Duke of Hamilton. The Dukes of Hamilton (as Lords Abernethy and representers of the old Celtic Earldom of Fife) have the hereditary privilege of bearing the Crown of Scotland on occasions like the opening of the Scottish Parliament, both now and in the past.
  4. The Armour-Bearer and Squire of the Sovereign’s Body, held in succession by the Seton family of Touch, but possibly dormant since the coronation of George V in 1911.  (Seton of Touch is the heraldic heir of the Hays of Tullybody and, as such, shows the Hay escutcheons on his coat of arms, quartered with the arms of Seton.)
  5. The Bearer of the Royal Banner, the Lion Rampant, held by the Scrymgeour-Wedderburns, Earls of Dundee.
  6. The Bearer of the National Flag of Scotland, held by the Earls of Lauderdale.
  7. Lord Justice General, also the Lord President of the Court of Session, at the time of writing Arthur Hamilton Q.C., the Right Honourable the Lord Hamilton.
  8. The Great Steward of Scotland, Charles, Duke of Rothesay, the Sovereign’s eldest son.

We think fondly that the business of the Crown in Scotland is mostly ceremonial and decorative. Today, in the midst of a widespread debate about nationhood, these symbols of our national identity are more vital than ever – whether we like them or not. If Independence comes, just how will we express ourselves as a nation? Will there be a Crown and, if so, what will be its role? Symbols and signs are vital hooks on which we hang our loves and hates. Our future will be shaped, but not dictated, by our past.


[1] Having disclaimed the title in 1994.

[2] Article IV of the Schedule to the Church of Scotland Act 1921.

[3] Ropes of looped or plaited gold wire cord with a spike or aiguillette at the end. They are worn on the right shoulder only by the most senior ranks: Admirals of the Fleet, Field Marshals, Marshals of the Royal Air Force, Aides de Camp to the Sovereign, Equerries to the Royal Family, and officers of the Household Cavalry. It is supposed that they are relics of the cords used to tie the front and back plates of the cuirass together at the shoulder.