The History of Leith

April 10, 2006

The Story of the Coat of Arms of Leith

coat of arms Leith

Recorded in the Lyon Office on February 27, 1889
Argent,in a sea proper and ancient sea galley with two masts, sails unfurled, sable, flagged gules, seated therein the Virgin Mary with the infant Saviour in her arms and a cloud resting over their heads, all also proper.

The Town clerk has had the goodness to send us not only a copy of the official grant, but also an authorised coloured drawing, dated on the 4 March following the grant. In two of the seals sent to us, and on the official paper on which the town clerk writes to us, there is no cloud; and on the older seal there is an architectural canopy above the head, which in the newer seal and on the paper is represented resting upon pillars as though standing in the boat. The town clerk is good enough to tell us, When we were before the late Mr Burnett for this matriculation, I represented to him that it appeared to me that what was over the Madonna and Child in the earlier dies of the seal No. a above was some sort of protecting cloud, which in later dies was depicted as the kind of canopy shown on the impression below.

Restalrig Coat of Arms

Then, I took it, that there being no support for this covering, for any mode] of the arms, supports were from time to time given, till we had the ponderous thing which is shown in only a modified form in the impression No. 3. The Lyon accepted that view, and said he believed it entirely accounted for the hideous affair.
We respectfully differ—indeed literally toto caelo- Mr Laing and from the late Lyon King upon this point.

In the coloured picture which has been kindly sent us, the Blessed Virgin is dressed entirely in pale blue, and the holy Child in pale pink and his nimbus is without the cruciform lines prescribed by universal tradition as an indication of His unique personality. The type seems to be taken from the Madonna della Seggiola, and differs from those on the older seals of the burgh, which have the Child on the right arm, in accordance with some of the most interesting of the Scotch examples, such as the Virgin of Good Success, originally at Aberdeen, and now in the Parish Church of Notre Dame de Finisterre at Brussels, and the Virgin on the mace of the Faculty of Arts of St Andrews, a type which seems indeed to have been used in England as well as in Scotland, as it is that in the interesting contemporary portrait of Richard I preserved at Wilton.

We believe the origin of these arms, which much resemble those of Boulogne-sur-Mer, to be that the Collegiate Church of Restairig (South Leith) was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, the Patron of North Leith being St Ninian. And our belief as to the canopy is confirmed by entries 1100 and 101 in Laing’s Descriptive Catalogue of Scottish Seals, which run as follows:— Restalrig Chapter of the Collegiate Church of —a Gothic niche a full – length figure of the Virgin and infant Jesus. – –
Restairig, William Gibson, Dean of —Under a Gothic niche, with open screen-work at the sides, a full-length figure of the Virgin and infant Jesus.
To bear out our contention we give on the nest page a representation of the older seal of Leith and of that of the Chapter of Restalrig.

We know of no case whatsoever in which the sacred Mother and Son are represented as being , under a cloud —an idea which we must stigmatise as being in itself peculiarly offensive, while those instances in which the new-born King, enthroned in His Mother’s arms, is placed beneath a Royal canopy, as in the seals of Restalrig, are quite innumerable, and may indeed be almost said to form the majority. As though this wretched cloud from the Lyon Office could escape no taint of evil, it adds a heraldic and also an artistic fault. A white cloud upon a field argent, however it may be technically saved by the use of the word proper is simply metal upon metal and the same upon the same, and can only be rendered visible by tinting it as grey or black. To this expedient the artist who executed the official drawing which the town clerk has been so good as to lend to us has not been ashamed to resort, and he has added the further offence of not representing the cloud by the conventional convolutions prescribed for this subject by the custom of ages (and of which a type may be seen under Kilrenny), but as a peculiar rounded and knobby object, something like a small bolster knocked out of shape. Repulsive as this appearance is, we have decided on the whole to place it at the head of our article, and only…..
(Dr Wooward in his Heraldry, p. 61, mentions that he has found some cases on the continent of a tincture cendrée, or colour of ashes, but it is utterly unknown in British heraldry. His foreign researches have occasionally had very curious results, of which the following is so elegant and striking an example that we ask the readers permission to cite it. The Florentine family of Ceni bear, party per pale azure and sky-blue an estoile—- per sumably an unpierced mullet representing the planet Jupiter)
…to display the original arms within the text, because the new substitute is not pure nonsense, like the exploits by which the Lyon Office at Aberdeen rigged out the Archangel Michael in a mitre and crosier, and thoughtfully provided him with a boiling chauldron of children; or at Renfrew achieved the cosmological feat of loading a one-wasted ship with the sun and the moon,

Coat of arms Leith variation

and sticking crosses fitchee into the sky. It is, on the contrary, like the wretched foolery at Musselburgh, a deliberate election of one possibility rather than another, and we therefore present it to the reader in its official capacity as the registered blazon, while we give him above the original and historic blazon for which it has been substituted, in order that he may judge for himself whether to applaud the action of the Lyon Office or not. Leith itself does not appear to be entirely reconciled to the change, for on the official paper on which the town clerk has been good enough to write to us, and in the woodcut in the Ordnance Gazetteer, the arms are represented in the ancient manner. And we are also glad to observe that the same type has been preserved in the representation of the arms of Leith upon the restored town cross presented to the city of Edinburgh by Mr Gladstone.

We cannot hut remark that the official tiuctures, as well as forms, are peculiarly unfortunate. They are literally black and blue. The Lyon Office seems at one time to have had a passion for black ships, for which it is hard to account. As the central idea is the Blessed Virgin, we should ourselves have been inclined to adopt for this subject the tinctures of the arms of Dundee, azure, a pot of growing lilies argent, one of the most beautiful as well as the most Marian of the municipal coats, and which are there emphasised by the motto PRUDENTIA ET CANDORE, as symbolising contemplation and purity. Were it not for this we should have been inclined to make the ship or. There is, how ever, the beautiful example of the ship argent in the arms of Paris; and in this instance the silver ship resting upon earth’s troubled sea may well recall the noble Buddhist comparison which likens a saint in the world to a water-lily floating upon a miry pool resting upon it, but not defiled by it — not taken out of the world, but kept from the evil. We should therefore rather have read, azure, on the sea proper an ancient galley with two masts, sails furled argent, and therein under a canopy of the last, the Blessed Virgin sealed holding the Holy Child in her arms, both proper or.iiradiated or. The motto is PERSEVERE.

Leith is one of the instances where another and unregistered coat is in use as well as that sanctioned by the Lyon Office. This coat, which we are informed is that used upon the lamps of the Provost and Magistrates, and which we take from an invitation of the School Board of the early part of the year 1896 may be described as azure, on the waves of the sea proper a three-masted ship in full sail to sinister argent, carrying the flag of England— viz., argent, a cross gules.

Coat of Arms when Leith was under Edinburgh pre 1830

The allusion is no doubt to the large English trade of the port. The same motto is used for this also. We think it possible that this coat may have originated from a seal of which the town clerk has kindly sent us an impression, and which was used in the burgh during its subjection to the municipality of Edinburgh. This seal bears the inscription, Sigillum burgi de Edinburgh villae suae de Leith, and has in the dexter a representation of a castle upon a rock—presumably that of Edinburgh — with large weathercocks upon the tops of its three pointed roofs and in the sinister, upon the waves of the sea, a three-masted ship with sails furled, but flags flying, turned to the sinister. The flags, however, show no sign of being English.

Early coat of arms

Source-The Burghs of Scotland

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