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  West Highland Heraldry - The Meanings

The Lion Rampant

In the back of his splendid book The Highland Clans, the late Sir lain Moncreiffe of that Ilk charted the use of the Lion Rampant by various families whose common origins lie in the Kingdom of Scottish Dalriada.
I think there is little doubt that the Lion is used as a reference to the Royal Line of the Sons of Erc, Fergus, Loam and Angus who moved across the North Channel in around 500 AD and established a major extension of Irish Datriada in what is now Argyll.
From here, in 843, King Kenneth MacAlpine, under increasing weight of Norse attacks, moved eastward to the Pictish Capital of Scone, his as well, by right of his mother; from this move, of course, stems the origin of the Kingdom of Scotland. With him went from Dunstaffnage not only the Stone of Destiny but the lion coat which, as Sir lain has pointed out, turns up in the arms of many of the great families of the east of Scotland. and which derives ultimately from this source.
The Galley

The Galley comes in various forms; it may have its oars in action or crossed in saltire; it may have a flag, a cross or a flaming beacon at the masthead; it may or may not have a crew of various numbers; it may be in, or out of the water; its sails may be furled or unfurled and it may have a salmon crammed into the same quarter swimming under it.

Two of its most famous appearances are as the Galley of the Isles and as The Galley of Lorne used by two of the lines of Somerled's progeny - the MacDonalds and the MacDougalls.  But it was earlier in use on the seals of the Isle of Man and there can be little doubt that this is the symbol of Norse Royal power.

Sir lain Moncreiffe, indeed, derives it from the symbol used to denote the male embodiment of the old pagan goddess-spirit Nerthus - the Earth Mother - from whom the old Peace-Kings of Uppsala claimed descent and whose symbol was a crescent-moon-shaped Galley. This may be taking it a bit far - I don't know - but the galley was the real instrument for the application of power in these seas for many a century and its own symbolism, I should have thought, was powerful enough.

The Hand

This, too, appears in different guises. It may be on its own or it may be holding a cross - usually a cross crosslet fitchy - or, in the case of the Clan Chattan, sometimes a heart or a dagger.  But it is still The Red Hand?  Best known today as The Red Hand of Ulster, this is the ancient heraldic device of the O'Neills, once High-Kings of Ireland who traced their descent from Neil of the Nine Hostages.  In conjunction with the Cross it implies a connection with St. Columba himself a scion of the O'Neills - The O'Donnell being the Coarb and Chief of the Kindred of St. Columba.  Niall of the Nine Hostages, if indeed he existed, was early enough, but the Red Hand even predates him in literature since it appears on one of the anners o the Fiann in Ossianic poetry.

The Salmon
This is a most mysterious symbol and one which is clearly of great importance.

Salmon appear frequently in early Celtic mythology as a symbol of Wisdom and Knowledge. They are also a symbol of eternity with their mysterious return to their birthplace from the outermost ocean where they recommence the life cycle - also for their strength and beauty.  Their Knowledge springs from their having eaten the red hazel nuts of Wisdom that fall into the water of the sacred wells from the hazel trees that surround them - the red spots on the salmon's belly derive from this.

This knowledge can be passed on by eating the flesh of the salmon A famous instance of this was the case of Finn MacCool, the mythical leader of the Feinn, the war-bands of young men whose deeds are commemorated in the heroic poetry that is said to spring from the composition of Finn's son Ossian. His great rival was Diarmid whose death he eventually encompasses.  And of course there is the famous story of Somerled himself' whose decision to take on the Norse is said to have been taken as a result of his finally catching the salmon that had long eluded him.

In many civilisations it is the serpent who is endued with magical powers but in Ireland there are no snakes and it is the salmon that takes its place.  They have connotations with immortality and when an Irish King defeated another, a ritual killing of the fish in the vanquished king's stew-pond took place.  Even today, the salmon is a Royal Fish and Salmon fishing rights are retained by and dispensed by The Crown Clearly it is a powerful symbol. To my mind there is a pagan feel to it; I do not think it is the txoua of early Christianity and wonder if it is not a reference to the Old Religion of the Celts, or more accurately, to a person or family connected with it.

On a different note, I have been told by Professor Per Andraesson that although the salmon is a rarity in Norse heraldry he has seen a coin dating back to Jutland in the 8th century which has both a salmon and a galley on it. And even today its use is clearly important to status. When MacCailein Mor goes to the Oban Ball he is clad in a doublet decorated with silver salmon as is Maclean of Duart. And the Campbell chief also displays the mysterious salmon semee on his Standard.  I mentioned earlier the Campbells of Inverawe and the six salmon that decorate the border of their gyronny coat.

There are two 17c stones at Ardchattan Priory for members of the same family that give a coat with a gyronny in each of their four quarters - and a salmon stuffed in underneath them in base.  Also at Ardchattan is the early achievement of Maclntyre of Glennoe which in irregular form show a stag about to be transfixed by an arrow, a galley - and, yet again, a salmon. The Clanranald stone at Arisaig displays the same phenomenon with the salmon forced in at the base of the quartered shield.  Whatever the salmon represents it is obviously of considerable import and it is all the more mysterious that we have apparently forgotten its meaning.

Campbell of Inverawe
Campbell of Inverawe
MacIntyre of Glenno
Clanranald Stone


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The Heraldry Society of Scotland   last Update 05 Jun 2017