The Chief of Clan Hay, the Earl of Erroll, is one of a handful of the old Scottish nobility to retain a private officer of arms, known as the Slains Pursuivant.
The current incumbent of this ancient office is Mr John Malden, a distinguished herald who is a former Unicorn Pursuivant to the Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms. Currently President of the Heraldry Society of Scotland, Mr Malden has written extensively on heraldry over a period of nearly 50 years and his magnum opus, An Ordinary of Scottish Arms, is the definitive modern work in its field.
Back in the middle ages, all the great nobility would have maintained their own heralds. The first reference to a Slains Pursuivant occurs in 1404, when one John Gray was pursuivant to the then Chief of Clan Hay, Sir Thomas Hay of Erroll. But the practice gradually fell out of use as the practical need for them declined, and the titles of herald, pursuivant and king of arms became confined to the officers of the crown, chief among them the Lord Lyon King of Arms.
It was in the 1940s, under the influence of the future Albany Herald, Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk, that they were resurrected by a few of the very old nobility of Scotland. In addition to Slains, a Garioch Pursuivant was appointed by the Earl of Mar, and an Endure Pursuivant by the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres. These appointments continue to the present day, having been joined in recent years by a Finlaggan Pursuivant to the High Chief of Clan Donald (Lord Macdonald.) However it seems the practice had a somewhat limited appeal and it was not adopted by other earldoms of similar vintage, such as Sutherland, Argyll, Huntly, Angus and Rothes, all of whom might have been equally entitled to make such an appointment.
The first 'modern' Slains Pursuivant, appointed by the late Countess of Erroll in 1948, was Professor Michael Maclagan, an Englishman and an academic of Oxford University. He would later become Richmond Herald in the English College of Arms. He was succeeded by Lady Erroll's second son, now the Hon Peregrine Moncreiffe of that Ilk, the younger brother of the present Earl of Erroll. The next Slains was Sir Crispin Agnew of Lochnaw, a distinguished holder of the office, an advocate practicing at the Scottish bar and the leading expert of our time on the law of arms, land, titles and succession. He was later promoted to the Court of the Lord Lyon and is now Rothesay Herald. He was succeeded by Peter Drummond-Murray of Mastrick, who, like his present-day successor, was Chairman of the Heraldry Society of Scotland; he held office for nearly 30 years, before handing over briefly to Edinburgh lawyer John Stirling, who is now Linlithgow Pursuivant Extraordinary, a supernumerary member of Lyon Court.
The commission appointing the present Slains Pursuivant makes interesting reading. Perhaps uniquely, it is signed by "Erroll", "Argyll", and "Hamilton", three of the great officers of state in Scotland, a measure of the heraldic significance of Slains Pursuivant as the personal herald of the Lord High Constable of the kingdom. The witnesses to Erroll's signature are the Duke of Argyll, Hereditary Master of the Household, and the Duke of Hamilton and Brandon, the premier peer of Scotland, Hereditary Keeper of the Palace of Holyroodhouse and, like the Earl of Erroll, Hereditary Lord Assessor to the Lord Lyon King of Arms. The significance of the appointment is underlined by the fact that the commission was given at Holyrood Palace, The Queen's official residence in Edinburgh.
It was the heraldic scholar Dr Bruce McAndrew who identified that there was a relatively small number of family names at the pinacle of medieval Scottish society, and four of them - Hay, Campbell, Douglas and Hamilton - are represented in this document, signed by their respective chiefs. Of the 20 Scottish earldoms in existence 500 years ago, no fewer than four are represented here - Erroll, Argyll (held by the Duke of Argyll), Angus, and Arran (both in the possession of the Duke of Hamilton.) In his capacity as Lord of Abernethy, Hamilton is furthermore the heir of the old pre-feudal Earls of Fife, who had the hereditary right to place the crown on the head of a new King of Scots. That inheritance is recalled at the opening of every new session of the Scottish Parliament, when the duke carries the crown of Scotland as a symbol of royal authority.
So there is more than initially meets the eye to this apparently simple commission appointing a new private officer of arms. Scratch its surface, and we find, within its very fabric, the modern, living manifestation of medieval Scotland.
© Alan Hay 2020