The earliest recorded use of the Lion rampant as a royal emblem in Scotland was by Alexander II in 1222 with the additional embellishment of a double border set with lilies occurring during the reign of Alexander III (1249–1286). This emblem occupied the shield of the royal coat of arms of the ancient Kingdom of Scotland which, together with a royal banner displaying the same, was used by the King of Scots until the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when James VI acceded to the thrones of the Kingdom of England and Kingdom of Ireland. Since 1603, the Lion rampant of Scotland has been incorporated into both the royal arms and royal banners of successive Scottish then British monarchs in order to symbolize Scotland; as can be seen today in the Royal Standard of the United Kingdom. Although now officially restricted to use by representatives of the Sovereign and at royal residences, the Royal Banner continues to be one of Scotland’s most recognizable symbols.
The ‘Lion Rampant’ Flag
This is NOT a national flag and its use by citizens and corporate bodies is entirely wrong.
Gold, with a red rampant lion and royal tressure, it is the Scottish Royal banner, and its correct use is restricted to only a few Great Officers who officially represent The Sovereign, including;
- the First Minister as Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland,
- Lord Lieutenants in their Lieutenancies,
- the Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland,
- the Lord Lyon King of Arms,
- and other lieutenants specially appointed.
Its use by other, non-authorized persons is an offence under the Act of Parliament 1672 cap. 47 and 30 & 31 Vict. cap. 17.
Why is the image of a lion so prevalent in Scottish Clan heraldry?
Why would a beast that was never native to Scotland feature so heavily?
The image of the lion in art and culture dates back to pre history and cave paintings. Our ancient ancestors who’s story began in Africa would have admired these powerful beasts and they would become symbols of noble savagery. As society advanced the symbolism became stronger; In ancient Egypt the lioness was merged with the human to create the sphinx.
In almost every other culture the lion was also present. Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persian and many early islamic cultures. Its not hard to understand, after all the lioness is a dedicated mother and ruthless hunter, the male lion a majestic animal that defends his pride with fury. a good role model for early civilisations.
The lion probably entered early Christian culture via a manuscript called the ‘Physiologus’. This document probably dates back to around the 2nd century AD and consists of a number of descriptions of animals and birds as characters in a series of moral tales. In the opening story a lioness gives birth to stillborn cubs but the lioness brings them to life by breathing upon them, this and other similar stories are a direct reference to the idea of Christ’s resurrection and the redemption of man. The Physiologicus also gives us the story of the Pelican wounding herself to feed her young, an image that can be seen on the Stewartcrest.
In the middle ages the manuscript was translated into latin and spread through central Europe and was adapted into several ‘Bestiaries’ With such strong links to these moral tales such animals would naturally form the cornerstone of heraldic symbolism where they would become like ‘moral flash cards’.
Such tales established the idea of the lion as the ‘king of the beasts’ and so its understandable that heraldic art would take on this concept of using the lion as a symbol of the ruling elite. This symbol entered Scottish heraldry with King William I. Known as William the Lion this tag did not come from his appearance of character but simply from his adoption of the lion as part of his own standard. His successor Alexander II took the same red lion rampant on a yellow ground and made this the royal symbol that would become the well known Royal Standard of Scotland.
I have used the phrase ‘rampant’ above. this refers to the attitude that the animal adopts, in this case raised up on hind legs and paws raised to strike (the lion can stand on either one or two legs depending on tradition although in British heraldry it tends to be one with the other also poised to strike). There are many other attitudes that animals such as lions, wildcats etc can assume; ‘Passant’ is walking with one fore paw raised, ‘Statant’ is standing with all paws on the ground, ‘Salient’ is leaping, ‘Sejant’ means in a sitting position and so on. Other phrases you may hear are ‘Guardant’ or ‘Affrontee’, where the animal faces the viewer and ‘Regardant’ where the animal looks to its rear.
With such strong links to Scottish royalty its no surprise that the Scots nobility would incorporate the lion into their own arms, some such as MacGregor make no secret of this with a lions head and the motto which translates as ‘Regal is my Race’. Here are the clans and Scottish armigerous families we know of that use the lion symbol in their crests.
Its easy to be confused about how an animal native to Africa could have such a profound symbolic influence in Europe, we should also remember that lions though not native or wild would have been brought over with invading Romans who would have kept the creatures for games or even as status symbols. Personally though I prefer to believe that it was not these poor caged beasts that influence the heralds of early medieval Europe but the lion tales of old that were seen as symbols of the ancient code of chivalry.
Rodger Moffet….Director of ScotClans. Expert in all things clan and tartan.