The Heraldry of Queensferry

Heraldry in Scotland

The development of armour in the 11th century created a need for identification to distinguish knights in battle. However, the resulting coats of arms, or “armorial bearings”, rapidly came to symbolise nobility, rank, authority and ownership. In a society where most people could not read or write, armorial bearings provided a useful form of identification and mark of authority. By the 13th century, the “science of heraldry” and many of the designs used today were well established.

The earliest surviving Scottish heraldry appears on the seal of Allen, High Steward of Scotland in 1177. Further south, Edward the Confessor, who reigned from 1042 to 1066, is considered by some to have had the first coat of arms in England. Heraldic symbols existed before this but were not thought to have been used for individuals.

In Scotland, heraldry and the issuing of coats of arms is controlled by the Lord Lyon King of Arms. The Lord Lyon is a Privy Councillor, an Officer of State and a Minister of the Crown. The Lord Lyon’s office is derived from that of the ancient High Sennachie of the Royal Line of Scotland, guardian of the Royal Pedigree. The Lord Lyon is a Judge of the Realm and presides over the Lyon Court situated in Edinburgh. Scotland and Spain are probably the only countries where a court of heraldry and genealogy is still in daily operation.

Honours and titles have enjoyed much wider distribution in Scotland, than other countries. In 1707, at the time of the Union of the Parliaments of Scotland and England there were, despite England’s much greater population, 164 peers in England, compared to 154 in Scotland plus many other barons and clan chiefs with some form of title.


Each coat of arms is defined, not by images or diagrams, but by a written description known as “blazon”. French was the international language of the Middle Ages and many of the terms used in heraldry have Old French origins (e.g. “argent” for white, “azure” for blue). Any depiction of a coat of arms is the result of an heraldic artist’s expression of its blazon. Colours and shapes are not defined precisely in heraldry and each artist’s work may vary in shape or shade. However, the blazon should be sufficiently precise and unique such that, even allowing for artistic variations, each depiction of a coat of arms by any European heraldic artist is recognisable as a specific coat of arms. This makes the recording and control of blazon very important and in Scotland this is the responsibility of the Lord Lyon.

Blazon has simple rules: it starts with the shield, describing any divisions of the shield and then the tincture of the field; it then proceeds to cover the objects, or charges as they are referred to, placed on the shield. There are only a few standard “tinctures” known as “colours”, “metals” and “furs”. If a charge is to be shown in its natural colours it is described as “proper”. The tincture is placed after the item it is describing and each tincture name should be stated only once. A tincture used more than once in a blazon is described as “of the first” or “of the second”, etc., meaning the first or second tincture named in the blazon. A shield is always referenced from behind, so “dexter” meaning “right” is the viewer’s “left”, and “sinister” meaning “left” is the viewer’s right. There are a number of specialist terms to describe the various heraldic devices and their arrangements, see here for more explanations.

Burgh Seals

Queensferry was created a Burgh of Regality in the 13th Century and a Royal Burgh in 1636 by King Charles I. Royal Burghs had considerable and exclusive trading privileges and formed the burgess estate of the Scottish Parliament. The arms of the Royal Burgh of Queensferry were registered in the Lyon Register about the year 1673, complying with a Scottish Parliament Act of 1672. This act introduced a new public register for coats of arms and required all those who used armorial bearings to “matriculate” or register them in this “Public Register of All Arms and Bearings” commonly referred to as the Lyon Register. This new Lyon Register would form the basis of all arms used in Scotland and replace earlier Lyon Registers that had been lost or destroyed.

Before 1672, evidence of the use of Burgh arms is mainly in the form of Burgh seals. Burgh seals were important symbols of the authority of the Burghs and the different seals represent significant changes in local government. The seals were often double-sided, one side was religious in nature, often depicting the patron saint of the Burgh. The other side would have a secular theme. In some Burghs, the secular image became the Burgh coat of arms and the religious image was used for a sacred flag, both being carried in civic processions. In other burghs, the sacred image became the coat of arms and the secular image discarded. A few Scottish Burghs kept both images and had two coats of arms. Queensferry has traditionally used both images however, the secular coat of arms, consisting of a cross and birds and attributed to the arms of Queen Margaret, has not been recorded in the Lyon Register.

Queensferry Seals

The earliest recorded depiction of the arms of Queensferry appears on a Burgh seal impression dated 1529. It shows Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland, on a galley and represents the ferry she initiated for pilgrims.

An example of a Burgh seal impression is shown on the left and is taken from a Burgess Ticket dated 1827. Burgesses had the right to belong to a craft and elect magistrates. A burgess ticket was necessary to carry on trade in the burgh and only burgesses could be elected to the council.TOPThis image shows the above seal in more detail. Queen Margaret is hovering above a galley and holds a sceptre in her right hand and her Gospel Book in her left. Note that the vessel has no spar or sails visible and a flag has appeared on the vessel.

Is the galley sailing to “sinister” (our right) as some believe? In heraldry, charges usually face to our left or “dexter”. Alternatively, the galley could be sailing to the left with the flag on its bow and flying in the expected direction caused by the wind. Here we see a modern representation of the seal on a plaque presented by South Queensferry Ex-servicemen’s Club. Note that the galley now has a spar and “sails trussed up”.
Burgh seals, such as Queensferry’s, could be double sided and here we see the reverse side of the above seal. These arms are attributed to Queen Margaret and are thought to be derived from the ancient Royal Arms of England as used by her great uncle, Edward the Confessor and possibly also King Alfred. The fact that the seal is double sided could be the reason why Queensferry is considered to have two coats of arms.

The seal shows a “cross fleury”, between 4 birds “ensigned” with a fifth. There is some debate as to whether Edward the Confessor had doves or martlets on his arms. Martlets are thought to be swifts and represent speed but doves would be more appropriate for Queen Margaret. However, legend has it that when Queen Margaret landed on the Binks rocks at Queensferry, five sea birds appeared flying in the form of a cross and then landed on her vessel’s rigging, still in the form of a cross, giving rise to the claim that they are seabirds on her arms.

This reverse seal impression is later than the one above, again showing Queen Margaret’s coat of arms, and bears the legend “THE COMMISSIONERS OF THE BURGH OF QUEENSFERRY”. Queensferry became a police burgh in 1882. The 1892 Burgh Police (Scotland) Act required that “The Commissioners shall be a body corporate, having a Common Seal”. It also made the establishment of a police force mandatory in Burghs and conferred various civic duties on the body of Police Commissioners.

There is some evidence that Burgh councils did not always consult the Lyon Office regarding their seals and, periodically, they objected to the authority of the Lord Lyon and his demands that all armorial bearings be matriculated in the Lyon Register.

A copy of yet another seal impression shows Queen Margaret with crown, sceptre and book about to land at the Binks rocks at Queensferry. Some think the building in the background is Rosyth Castle, others believe it to be Dunfermline Abbey. The legend is now: “THE PROVOST, MAGISTRATES AND COUNCILLORS OF THE BURGH OF QUEENSFERRY”.

This seal obverse is probably slightly later than the one above. The 1900 Town Councils (Scotland) Act required a Town Councils to be elected and that they would be designated by the corporate name of “The provost, magistrates and councillors” of the Burgh. They also had to have a Common Seal to be used under their authority. Thus, the Commissioners became Town Councillors.

The above image is taken from the Royal Burgh of Queensferry headed note paper. It is based on each side of the original seal. Note that the boat has disappeared in the left hand seal and the “ensigned” fifth bird has been replaced by a fish on the right hand seal.

As can be seen above, the seal impressions are not always clear and can become damaged. The fish may be due to an incorrect interpretation of an old seal impression.

Queensferry Coats of Arms

A representation of the Royal Burgh of Queensferry coat of arms is shown on the left and depicts Queen Margaret, standing on a galley. The arms represents the ferry that Queen Margaret provided with free passage for pilgrims crossing the Firth of Forth on their way to St Andrews. Queen Margaret also carries her famous Gospel Book.

The Royal Burgh of Queensferry arms were registered around 1673 and the description of the arms, or “blazon”, is as follows:

Argent, in the sea Azure a galley with her sails trussed up Sable, on the middle part thereof Queen Margaret of Scotland standing richly apparelled and crowned Proper, holding in her dexter hand a sceptre ensigned with a fleur-de-lys Or, and in her sinister lying on her breast a book folded Purpure With these Words in an Escrol underneath “Insignia Burgi Passagii Reginae”.

Lyon Register, i 466: c. 1673

The second shield shows a more modern rendering of the Burgh arms. In this version, the shield is surmounted by a Burghal Coronet, “above the shield is placed a mural coronet befitting a burgh”, which was sometimes used by Queensferry although it is not recorded in the Lyon Register.

In heraldry coronets have traditionally indicated rank (e.g. Duke, Marquise, Earl, Viscount and Lord or Baron of Parliament). They were first used on burgh arms in 1912. A number of older burghs have applied to have a coronet added to their arms but there is an argument that the absence of the coronet adds the distinction of having more ancient arms.

Queensferry is unique among the Scottish Burghs in its use of “Purpure” (purple). This is used to describe Queen Margaret’s Gospel Book held in her left hand.

An alternative blazon exists for Queensferry’s arms (Marquess of Bute, 1897):

Azure, a galley with her sails trussed up Sable; in the middle part thereof Queen Margaret of Scotland standing richly apparelled and crowned Proper, holding in her dexter hand a sceptre ensigned with a fleur-de-lis Or and in her sinister, lying on her breast a book folded Purpure.

Recorded in the Lyon office, circa, 1672

Note that there is no sea and the shield is Azure (blue) rather than Argent (white or silver). The Marquess of Bute attempted to record all the arms of the Scottish Burghs in a two volume book but found that many Burghs had not matriculated their arms. For these Burghs the Marquess suggested suitable coats of arms. He also suggested changes if he did not agree with the blazon of recorded Burghs. A copy of his book was presented to each Burgh and in the course of time the book acquired an authority in local government circles that was not intended by the Marquess.TOPThe Marquess of Bute, having quoted the alternative blazon (above), then declared it to be “impossible” as it breaks the “colour on colour” heraldry rule by having Sable on Azure (black on blue). He then goes on to propose an alternative blazon having a galley Or (gold or yellow) with sails Argent (silver or white).

The Marquess of Bute’s blazon is in fact incorrect and the previous blazon, given above, is that contained in the Lyon Register. The comments made by the Marquess, and the wide distribution of his book, may explain why there are different versions of Queensferry’s arms.This shield depicts another version of the Burgh arms used on an old Queensferry signpost. Note the background, rather faded in this case, is the heraldic “metal” Argent which can be represented as white or silver. The sea is shown as blue and white bands, described in heraldry as “on waves of the sea in base undy Argent and Azure”. The shape of the shield is more representative of earlier heraldry and different from the “heater” shield, taking its name from a heater iron, favoured by modern heraldic artistsTOPOne of the current Queensferry signposts, designed by Gordon Muir and manufactured by P Johnson & Company, Ratho Byers Forge, is shown on the left. This is similar to the previous design but has a blue shield, providing better contrast in daylight conditions. The galley could be described as “Proper” thus avoiding the “colour on colour” problem.As stated above, Queensferry has sometimes used a second coat of arms based on Queen Margaret’s arms. A possible depiction of her arms on a shield, employing the design on the reverse of an early Burgh seal, is shown on the left.TOPQueen Margaret’s arms have been shown in a number of ways, another version is provided on the left: “Azure a cross patonce argent, between five doves argent beaked and membered Gules”. In this case, the heraldic symbology of the cross represents Christianity and the dove represents loving, constancy and peace. Gules is the heraldic name for red.

In Scotland, an unmarried woman would normally display her father’s arms. Queen Margaret was the daughter of Edward the Exile who was a nephew of Edward the Confessor. Her arms are probably derived from those of Edward the Confessor – see below.Edward the Confessor, King of England from 1042 to 1066, displayed his arms on the silver coins of his reign as a cross between four doves. Later arms attributed to him add a fifth dove and some show the birds as martlets. Martlets are thought to be swifts and are usually shown without beaks or feet. The symbolic meaning of martlets is also debated ranging from swiftness to defeated enemies.

The blazon for the arms on the left could be: “Azure, a cross fleury , between five martlets both Or”. There are many types of cross in heraldry. A cross fleury has fleur-de-lis type endings on each arm, a cross patonce is similar but has expanded ends terminating in three points.

In Scotland, a wife entitled to bear arms would normally have her arms impaled (i.e. side by side) with those of her husband’s and present them in a lozenge rather than a shield.

The lozenge to the left, taken from a 16th century armorial manuscript, shows King Malcolm’s arms impaled with those of Queen Margaret. This version of her arms uses yet another type of cross, a cross patee (the same cross as that used by the Knights of St. John). These arms are taken from the photo-etched plates commissioned by the last provost of the Burgh, James Milne, to be presented as parting gifts for fellow councillors and officials when Queensferry became part of Edinburgh.

The re-organisation of local government, due to the 1975 the Local Government (Scotland) Act, brought an end to Queensferry’s Royal Burgh status and transferred its administration to the City of Edinburgh District Council. The Royal Burgh of Queensferry’s arms reverted to the crown. Queensferry and District Community Council was created in 1985 and had arms issued by the Lord Lyon in 2001.

The Community Council’s coat of arms, shown on the left, is the same as the arms issued to the Royal Burgh except that, “above the shield is placed a coronet appropriate to a statutory Community Council”, namely, “a circlet richly chased from which are issuant four thistle leaves (one and two halves visible) and four pine cones (two visible) Or”. “Or” is the heraldic name for gold and can be depicted as gold or yellow.

Bibliography and acknowledgements:

1. John Marquis of Bute, KT, JRN MacPhail and H W Lonsdale, “The Arms of the Royal and Parliamentary Burghs of Scotland”, Edinburgh, 1897
2. Alexander Porteous, “The Town Council Seals of Scotland”, W. & A. K. Johnston Ltd, Edinburgh, 1906
3. R M Urquhart, “Scottish Burgh and County Heraldry”, Heraldry Today, London, 1973
4. Alan J Wilson, “St Margaret Queen of Scotland”, John Donald Publishers Ltd, Edinburgh, 1993
5. Innes of Learney, “Scots Heraldry”, Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh and London, 1956
6. Queensferry Community Council (Display their arms)
7. Queensferry Museum (Photographs)
8. Mike McDowell (Coat of arms drawing)

© 2004 Frank Hay & Queensferry History Group

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