Some Scottish Symbols & Traditions

Larry Pearce

Sometimes knowing certain symbols and traditions can make the work of a genealogical researcher easier, and sometimes knowing these things can make it just more fun. For example, attending my first Scottish highland games in Ligonier recently, I wore my 50th Anniversary Gray Reunion T-shirt. Our crest has the anchor atop that befits the motto, “Hold Fast,” but I wasn’t aware of the significance of the “Lion Rampant,” aside from being the national symbol of Scotland. I will provide some detail about the meaning of this and the flower of Scotland, the thistle. In addition, we’ll look at several interesting traditions practiced in Scotland, Ulster, and America such as multiple baptisms and the naming of children.

The flag of Scotland has the mighty red lion rampant standing up and showing his powerful claws over a gold background. He roars the royal standard. As most flags, this symbol was flown to announce that a king or queen was present. Legally, a national flag does not belong to the royalty or leaders, but to the people over whom they rule. Just as with the American Stars and Stripes, there are definite rules for displaying the emblem. Unfortunately, the guidelines are not always followed and punishment is seldom carried out. This was not the case with royalty in the British Isles and other kingdoms.
There is some debates as to when the Lion Rampant was first used. Logic tells us that it was by William the Lion in the 12th century. It has appeared on the Great Seal of Scotland and stamped on all official papers for centuries there. The European system of symbols is called heraldry. The herald, according to Webster, was one who announced or made official proclamations. He also kept track of symbols, such as coats of arms that represented important individuals and families. He maintained genealogical records. In Scotland, the chief herald is called Lord Lyon, King of Arms and he regulates the use of crests.

My daughter Annie graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, so we were used to seeing the thistle of much of their stock and merchandise. Andrew Carnegie was surely one of the most famous, if not infamous at times, Scottish-Americans who ever lived. Andrew Mellon was also of Scotch descent, a banker and Secretary of the US Treasury. The flower of Scotland that they chose to represent the moral and intellectual qualities of CMU is a beautiful purple flower that grows on a thick, strong and prickly stem. Its legend explains the significance:
Sometime in the 11th century a raiding party of Danes was sent to attack a castle in Scotland. It was usual for castles to be surrounded by a moat, which is a very wide ditch filled with water. The invaders waited until dark and crept slowly up to the castle. When they were very close they took their shoes off so that they would not be heard. They jumped into the moat to swim across. To their horror, the moat was filled with thistles instead of water. The shouts and screams of pain alerted the castle guards who ran out and chased the Danes away. (“Scottish Symbols” 38)

The thistle is not unlike the lion’s claws. It is so prickly that it can’t be pulled out of the ground without gloves. These symbols remind the Scots that their country is not to be held lightly.

Knowing the customs of the Scottish people can often help when the genealogist has difficulty in figuring out names and dates. Before birthing in hospitals became the common practice, christening dates were often the first public records. But, sometimes an itinerant minister would baptize several children at once, making it impossible to tell the birth order and ages. Those were also the times when full names were published. The Scots had a predictable practice of naming that sailed with them to America. Knowing this system has been helpful to me several times. I’ll get into that in a minute, but first, let me relate a wonderful story about a Scottish family that lived in the remote Highlands. It was told to Tine Glen-Riddell by her uncle:

This family lived deep in the hills many miles from the nearest church and for some time there was not a minister for the church either. When a new appointee heard of the family and that not one of the several children had been baptised he had word sent demanding they should all be presented at church the next Sunday.

The minister was not going to let them escape his attentions and set off to baptise them at home. The older ones watched as the minister put liberal amounts of water over the baby’s head. They were not at all impressed and one said to the other in Gaelic that he, the minister, referred to with a rude word, had better not think he would do the same to them. They were all well soaked before the minister left.

As did the traditional Germans, the Scots had a regular pattern for naming their children, which makes guessing ancestors a little easier, although never certain, for genealogists. The best site I’ve found on this subject is:

I hope this short lesson on a few Scottish symbols and traditions has been helpful, and that the next time you see a man wearing a kilt and playing a bagpipe you’ll say, “Top of the mornin’ to ye, lad.” As for the next lassie you meet, just smile and enjoy her beauty.

Works Cited

Glen-Riddell. “Multiple Baptisms in the Highlands.”

“Scottish Symbols.” Journal of the Clan Campbell Society 30:4. Autumn 2003: 38.

2 Responses to Some Scottish Symbols & Traditions

  1. My grandfather on my dad’s side’s first name was Harris and middle name Dale. My father’s first name was Melvin and his middle name was also Dale. My first name is Glenn and my middle name is Harris. I am the second son. My brother is the first son and was named Bruce Norman Watson. We are all Watsons. My little sis is named Sharon Dale Watson, so this info about the naming system is interesting. Thank you. Be blessed.
    G.H. Watson (Scots-Irish descent)

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