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Descriptive Catalogue of Impressions from Ancient Scottish Seals
Of Impressions from Ancient Scottish Seals, Royal, Baronial, Ecclesiastical and Municipal embracing a period from AD 1194 to the Commonweath taken from original charters and other deeds preserved in public and private archives by Henry Laing.


There are few subjects of greater value, or of more interest to the diligent inquirer into the early history of our country, than that of Seals This, indeed, is readily admitted by all who have paid the least attention to the subject; while the best historical works afford evidence that Seals form no unimportant element in archaeological research. The importance of the subject being so generally acknowledged, renders it unnecessary to offer any lengthened introductory remarks with a view to direct attention to the following pages.

It is hoped, however, that the following brief remarks illustrating the art may not he considered impertinent or out of place, and though they may contain nothing worthy the attention of such persons whose opportunities of acquiring knowledge have been more favourable than those of the writer, they may yet be read with interest by others who have not paid much attention to it, and may also prove interesting as being the result of the writer’s own observations on a subject, the proper treatment of which requires far higher qualifications than he can pretend to claim.

The art of engraving Gems or Seals is one that claims the highest antiquity; and there is abundant evidence that it was known and practised by nations long previous to the period of which we have now any written records. Not only do the numerous gems of the most remote antiquity found in India and Egypt prove this, but we have the unshaken authority of the Holy Scriptures, an authority which it is delightful to see is being-strengthened daily, by the discoveries made by the intelligent and persevering Layard, of races and nations whose very existence and names had wellnigh been forgotten.

It is unnecessary to dwell longer on the art as practised in India and Egypt, than merely to observe that it was evidently held in esteem and importance by the natives of those countries, and arrived at the same degree of perfection with the sister arts of sculpture, painting, and architecture, which, judged by the standard of excellence of modern times, may perhaps be thought defective, yet in their kind were certainly excellent.

It was in Greece, in common with all that was beautiful in art, that Gem or Seal engraving attained its highest perfection ; but as the Roman power extended its possessions and influence, the practice of the art was transferred from Greece to the West, and under the Empire we find many works produced equalling in excellence those of the Greek artists. With the decline and fall of the Empire the art suffered also, and though never lost, it lingered on almost in barbarity, till in the general revival of letters and art under the magnificent family of the De Medici, it again rose to perfection, and many works were produced that will bear an honourable comparison with the ancient Masters. These remarks, though perhaps not bearing directly on the particular kind of Seals described in this work, may yet not be unnecessary as pointing out the source, and tracing the progress of the art to the period embraced in it.

It is yet undecided at what period the engraving of Metal Seals, to which we are now to confine our attention, was invented, or rather when they became more generally adopted, since it cannot be doubted that the ancients were acquainted with the art of engraving on metals; the beautiful coins, both of Greece and Rome, are sufficient evidences of the fact, but it does not appear that they extended the practice of it beyond engraving the die for striking the coin. It seems most probable that the application and extension of the art to Metal Seals may date from a period subsequent to the fall of the Roman Empire, and in the rising kingdom of the Franks ; or it may, as some believe, have arisen at Constantinople, and thence been early adopted by the Franks; but at whatever period or place such Seals may have become generally adopted, there can be no doubt that from the sixth, and during the following centuries, their use became very extensively spread through the continental kingdoms of the north, and, doubtless, the adjacent islands adopted the art and use of Seals not very long thereafter. Leaving untouched the question regarding the use of Seals by the Saxons, we will now confine our remarks to the Seals immediately connected with Scotland.

The earliest Seal of that country yet met with, is of Duncan II., in the latter part of the eleventh century. The twelfth furnishes us with many interesting specimens both of the Ecclesiastical Seals and of those of the Nobility and Gentry; and though those of the earlier period may seem rudely executed, yet we feel assured, that could perfect impressions of them be obtained, they would be found not deficient in a certain degree of merit and proficiency, sufficient at least to prove that the Art must have been practised a long time previous to that of which we have now any examples. From the time of Duncan, a.d. 1094, we have an uninterrupted succession of the Great Seals of the Kingdom, all executed in a manner that shows the excellence to which the art had arrived at the respective periods; and, perhaps, on these Seals may be best observed the progressive changes in the armour of the Knight. In the earlier ones are specimens of the Flat-Ring, Trellised or Maseled, and Chain Mail, which are gradually superseded by Plate till the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the whole defensive armour is of Plate, with its numerous additions fabricated in the most elegant and costly style. (See Nos. 1, 3, 11, 13, 19, 27, 33, 39, 67, 72.)

The Seals of the Nobility and others of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, also afford interesting specimens of the different kinds of armour; but it is not thought necessary to make particular reference to the numbers where they occur.

During the thirteenth century, the Seals become more numerous and of a greatly improved style. The Great Seal of Alexander III., (Nos. 13, 14,) and those of the Ecclesiastics and Nobles of the same period, are exceedingly beautiful, and executed with a taste and truth of detail that would do no discredit to modern art. This century also furnishes many and valuable illustrations of the practice and definitive principles of heraldry. The devices upon the Seals of the preceding century, though they cannot he considered as heraldic, certainly contained the elements of the science; thus the fleur-de-lis ou the Seal of John Montgomerie, (No. 590,) afterwards became, with two additional ones, the proper heraldic bearing of the family, and has so continued to adorn their escutcheon unchanged for nearly eight centuries. Other instances will he found in the following Catalogue that will readily suggest themselves to the observant reader.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the art continued to maintain its excellence, which is particularly apparent in the Seals of the Douglasses, the Lindsays, and other magnates of the country; but towards the latter part of the fifteenth century, the art began to decline, and during the following one, few appear that can he compared as works of art with those of an earlier time.

The Ecclesiastical Seals of the thirteenth and two following centuries, afford most interesting specimens of the costume of the different orders in the Church. The Bishops are exhibited as vested in the chasuble, amice, alh, stole, maniple; and the pall seems represented on one, (No. 856, and perhaps also on No. 939,) though not an Archbishop, yet perhaps as Primate of Scotland. On the Monastic Seals also, or indeed wherever a figure of an Abbot or Priest appears, may be observed the same propriety of costume. (See Nos. 863, 903, 939, 942, 946, 94S, 969, 1005, 1006, 1067.)

About the latter end of the fourteenth century, the design of the Episcopal Seals was changed by substituting for the simple figure of the Bishop, which had hitherto been the usual design, either a representation of the Trinity, the Virgin, or the patron saint, within a niche or beneath a canopy.

The rich architectural design of these Seals cannot fail to excite attention as valuable illustrations of the art. Indeed from these Seals alone, might be almost distinctly traced the rise, progress, and decline of that beautiful style of architecture which prevailed during that period. Very instructive examples of this may be seen in Nos. 870, S72, 877.

But the chief value of such a collection as the following pages describe, will of course be found to consist in the many important illustrations it affords of heraldry, of which, in frequent instances, it may be said to be the earliest, if not the only authentic record.

"When it is considered that very few and scanty heraldic records of any kind are preserved in this country, and those only of a very late period, Sir David Lindsay’s work in 1542, being, it is believed, the earliest of the kind extant, it becomes obvious that such a record of arms as the present work must be of great value.

It. wouid far exceed the proper limits of these remarks, to point out the numerous instances which might materially assist in correcting many mis-statements and erroneous blazon, which either through ignorance or inadvertency, have found a place in several valuable works on Heraldry. One or two instances only will be referred to as an evidence of the utility of the present work. Sir James Balfour and other authors have stated, that the Merchiston family of Napier assumed their arms upon the marriage of John Napier with Elizabeth Menteith, the heiress of Rusky, and co-heiress of Lennox, after the year 1455. The Seal, No. 621, a.d. 1453, is sufficient proof that the Napier family carried those arms previous to the marriage.

The same respectable authorities also state, that the old Earls of Lennox bore a saltire engrailed cantoned with four roses. In this collection are four (Nos. 489, 491, 492, 493) most interesting and perfect Seals of this noble family, and in all of them the saltire is carried without any engrailing. Neither is it carried engrailed by the Stuarts, when they succeeded to the title of Earl of Lennox, until about 1576. (See No. S04.)

The well known crest of the noble house of Hamilton, which commemorates' a very doubtful tradition, will be found to be very different from the crest on the Seal used by the chief of that family in a.d. 1388, and who, moreover, was the first of the chief line that assumed the name, (No. 400 ;) though it should be observed the Earl of Arran in a.d. 1549, (No. 404,) carried the present crest.

Mistakes have also been made by modern heralds in the supporters.

Thus they have made the supporters of the arms of Maxwell of Polloe, two monkeys, while upon the Seal No. 574, a.d. 1400, they are undoubtedly lions ; and with great propriety the present Baronet has dismissed the monkeys, and resumed the noble animals adopted by his ancestors. These are only a few Instances of the use of ancient Seals, many others will be found by the careful observer.

The custom of placing the crest above the shield, seems to have been introduced about the middle of the fourteenth century. The earliest instance in this Collection is No. 237, a.d. 135G, a period rather earlier than that when it is supposed the same custom was first introduced into England. Supporters seem also to have been introduced about this period, and the same Seal, No. 237, which gives the date of the one custom, supplies us also with the date of the other. There are certainly earlier instances where the shield is placed on the breast of an eagle, or where lizards and other animals are placed at the sides and top of the shield, (See Nos. 375, 7S5 ;) and there is the well known Seal of Muriel of Stratherne, (No. 764,) cited by some writers as an example of an early supporter; but none of them can properly be considered such, being introduced merely to fill up the vacant spaces of the Seal, from which practice, indeed, some have stated supporters to derive their origin.

The Privy Seal of James I., a.d. 1429, (No. 43,) is the earliest instance of the National Arms having supporters, and these it will be seen are lions ; the unicorns do not make their appearance before the reign of Mary, whose Great Seal, No. 59, first brings us acquainted with them.

The examples of composed arms, (Nos. 768 and 1241,) are interesting illustrations of the practice before the present system of marshalling was adopted. Nos. 205 and 231 are the earliest examples of impaling ; and No. 496 gives the first and finest example of quartered arms, A.D. 1367.

Though well known to all acquainted with heraldry, it may be necessary to mention that the useful system of indicating colour by certain lines and marks was not adopted till a late period; any attempt, therefore, to give the proper tinctures of the arms blazoned in this work could only have been made on conjectural or doubtful authority ; it was therefore considered better not to give any tincture, even in comparatively modern and well-known instances.

A few remarks may here be offered on the shape of the shield, which has varied considerably at different periods. In the earliest will be found the narrow kite-shaped shield of the Normans, which prevailed with some modification, tending rather to the pear-shape, till about the middle of the thirteenth century, when the shield very generally became of that elegant form known by the name heater-shape, a form well adapted for displaying with grace and distinctness—a most essential matter in heraldry— the charges which the science, then becoming practised on more definite principles, rendered necessary. This shape continued to prevail during the two following centuries, with some variations however having a tendency to increase its breadth rather disproportionally. During the sixteenth century, in common with all that was elegant in the arts, the shield suffered many changes of form by no means adding to its beauty or usefulness. The most fantastic and ill-conceived forms were used, many such will be found in this Collection, though special reference to them has not been made in the description.

The lozenge-shape, perhaps the worst that could be conceived for the purpose of displaying armorial charges, has been imperatively assigned as the only proper shape which ladies should carry; but it seems remarkable that in the long period embraced in this Collection, including the best periods of heraldry, in which occur numerous instances of arms carried by females, but in no one instance docs the shield take any other form than the prevailing one of the period. In England, as early as the fourteenth century, the lozenge-shape appears to have been used by ladies, (perhaps exclusively in their widowhood,) but it certainly is singular that no instance of that shape has been met with here until a very recent period, and, considering how very unsuitable such a shape is for the purpose, perhaps the sooner it is discontinued the better. Equally unsuitable is the absurd fashion which has too extensively prevailed in modern times, of having angular projecting points at the upper part; it is, however, pleasing to observe at the present time a return to the elegant form of earlier ages.

The subject of the mottoes and devices cannot be passed unnoticed. Tt is of considerable interest, well deserving the attention of the archaeologist, for as such Seals were probably intended not for official or public purposes, but for private and confidential intercourse, they become valuable and interesting evidences of individual taste, or of the feelings or sentiments prevalent at the time. Thus, the very early seal of Thor Longus, (eleventh century, of which unfortunately there is no impression in this Collection,) having the motto, “thor me mittit amico,” and the Seals of the Dunbars, (Nos. 287-293,) are pretty examples of individual friendly intercourse, and even the more tender sentiment is observable on those of the latter. The very pretty Seal of Alexander Til., (No. 15.) “ esto prudens ut serpens et simplex sicut columba,” may well indicate the prudent policy of that able monarch.

The mottoes on the Ecclesiastical Seals (in which class they are found more numerous) are, as might be expected, of a devotional character ; and though, in some instances, they may perhaps be adverse to the feeling of the present age, there are few which, if considered rightly, would not afford instruction and delight; certainly they are all expressive of a deep devotional feeling that demands respect.

In some instances but little attention seems to have been paid in adapting the motto to the device. It would seem as if an antique gem were almost capriciously taken, and a motto engraved around, not having the least apparent connexion or reference to the device; hence some strange discrepancies arise. We have lately seen one of this description from a collection in England, which has the design of a young faun attending with the wine-cup upon Bacchus, and the motto surrounding it is “jesps est amor h,” (Jesus is my love.) In other instances the device and motto is most appropriate, and produce a pleasing and striking effect. The Seal of Brian Fitzalan, (No. 336,) is of this description. Also one from the collection of Albert Wav, Esq., deserves particular mention :—a figure of a priest consecrating the chalice, of course to be understood as emblematic of that Divine work of love by which alone eternal peace can be obtained, and the motto. “crede jiichi et est satis,” (Believe in me, and it is sufficient.)

These examples are sufficient to show that mottoes were generally in use from the earliest period ; but mottoes as forming part of the accessories of arms are supposed not to have a very early origin ; very few such occur in this collection, and those not earlier than the sixteenth century. The Seal of Margaret, Queen of James IV., a.d. 1526, (No. 55,) has the motto on a scroll beneath the shield ; and the Great Seal of Queen Mary, No. 59, is the first of that kind which has on it a motto instead of merely the name and style. Yet it cannot be doubted that mottoes were used (as part of accessories) at a much earlier period, and there is certainly one, though it has not been read, on the Seal of Archibald Douglas, Lord of Galloway, as early as a.d. 1373, (No. 23.9.)

It may well be feared that these remarks are extending to an unreasonable length ; yet it is hoped the indulgence of the reader will be granted while a few words on the material of the Seal, the shape, and the method of cutting it, &c., will bring this Address to a close.

The earliest mention of Seals in the Scriptures is under the general term of signet or rings, which conveys no information as to the material of which they were composed; but at a later period where they are mentioned in connexion with the gems adorning the breastplate of the High Priest, there appears pretty certain evidence for believing that these signets or rings were engraved gems set in gold or other metal.

There seems little doubt that the original matrices of the Seals described in this work have been entirely formed of metal. Of the few remaining specimens still preserved in the cabinets of various collectors, they are for the most part formed of brass, some are of silver, and one instance (No. 44) at least supplies a fine specimen of a gold matrix. No matrices of a very early date have been preserved, none indeed, it is believed, previous to the fourteenth century, unless we except those interesting gems in a metal setting which are met with about the eleventh and twelfth centuries, of which it is believed there are good specimens in Dublin. The occurrence of these gems on the Seals of our early Barons is an interesting subject for inquiry. As they are found pretty numerous on the Seals of the De Vescis and the Avenels, we may suppose these warlike Knights to have been collectors, and to have formed a cabinet during their crusading expedition, of which perhaps it was the best fruits. They are pleasing evidences of a desire for refinement which the possession of such luxuries of art always inspire.

The Seals of the Nobility and Gentry present little variation from the circular-shape; occasionally in the earlier periods we find some of an oval, and more rarely the triangular or same shape as the shield. On the other hand the Ecclesiastical class presents little variation from that pointed oval-shape known as the Vesica Piscis, and which seems to have been almost exclusively appropriated to the Seals of Ecclesiastical persons and Institutions, at least from the twelfth century.

This form is supposed to have some symbolical signification, audit may not unnaturally be supposed to represent the Church. For as the two circles, the intersection of which gives this figure, may symbolically represent the circles of time and eternity, so the figure given, may well represent the Church, where in a peculiar manner are united the affairs of time with the more important affairs of eternity; or in other words, the Church in the faithful discharge of its duties, forms, as it were, a connecting link or introductory passage,—a resting-place where, though within the circle of time and still militant, may yet be met and enjoyed in some slight degree the blessings of eternity.

The method of engraving or cutting these Seals was entirely by the hand, with the aid of small chisels and suitable punches of hardened steel, much in the same manner as the dies for striking coins or medals are executed. The letters of the inscription round the Seal, some of which are very beautiful, have most probably been struck in from steel punches, but in the majority of eases, they have evidently been cut with the hand.

The method of engraving gems or precious stones for Seals is effected by quite a different mechanical process, being accomplished by means of small tools of soft iron fixed in a lathe, which is kept in motion by the foot of the engraver, in the same way as the ordinary turning-lathe. The tool is kept moist with oil and finely powdered diamond ; the stone to be engraved is then held and guided by the hand against it, while the rapidly revolving motion of the tool, aided by the diamond dust, cuts into the stone the desired figure. By this simple process, and which has undergone no material change from the earliest periods, have been executed the finest gems of antiquity, which still command the admiration of the most refined taste and judgment. Within the last few years, metal Seals have been engraved by the same means as gems, only dispensing with the oil and diamond dust, and using steel tools having serrated or file-like edges. This method, however, is far from being generally practised, though there is little doubt, when better known, it will be as generally used for the engraving of Metals as of Stones. The greater facility with which the rapidly revolving- tool is managed in the hand of the artist, gives a decided advantage over the older and ordinary method of cutting with chisels.

To complete these remarks, it seems necessary to notice very briefly the wax of which these impressions were formed, and the mode of appending them to the instrument. The wax has varied much in colour during different ages, green, white, or the natural colour of the wax, and red, have been used indiscriminately, without being regulated by any particular rule, except, perhaps, the taste of the owner or the fashion of the times. White, or the natural colour of the wax, continued to be used for the Great Seals, and the Burghs and Monasteries, at least for such as have a Counter Seal of the same size ; but the green—in which colour they look exceedingly beautiful— went out of use after the fourteenth century, and the red predominated.

In the earliest periods the impressions have been most carefully made, the wax being of one colour only, and without leaving any border round the edge of the Seal; but at a later period, it seems the impression was first taken in coloured, and then imbedded in a mass of uncoloured wax, forming in some instances a deep and broad border round the design. It is surprising how very durable the wax has proved in many instances, preserving the original sharpness and beauty of the impression almost perfect. In the majority of cases, however, we have to lament not only the ravages of time, but the still more fatal effects of carelessness.

The manner in which these Seals were appended to the document, was by passing a narrow strip of parchment, or a silk cord plaited or twisted, through a slit in the parchment document at the lower edge, and the ends being held together, the wax was pressed or moulded round them a short distance from the ends, and the Seal impressed on it, thus securely appending it to the document. In some cases the wax was spread on the document itself, and the Seal impressed. This however very rarely occurs, and in almost all in this Collection the Seals are pendent.

That this was the practice in early periods even among the Romans, some evidence is afforded by a passage in the writings of the apostle Paul, where a figurative allusion is made to a Seal having two distinct sentences, which we may suppose to have been inscribed on each side of the Seal ; and if this be a correct view of the apostle’s illustration, it furnishes evidence both of the Seal being pendent and having a Counter Seal.

All the Seals described in this Catalogue have been taken from original documents preserved either in public archives or private collections, (a list of these will be found at page xxv.) excepting those referred to as being at Durham. To the rich collection there preserved the opportunity of gaining access has not been afforded, and the few Seals in this Catalogue from that collection, and one from the Duchy of Lancaster, are from casts communicated by the Rev. J. II. Hughes, M.A.

It is believed that no work similar to the present has yet appeared ; and if—though the result of many years’ labour—it be not so complete as could be wished, it is hoped it will be found to supply in some degree a want that has long been felt by the zealous archaeologist. The hope is also cherished, that from the publicity now given to the subject, and its great importance as illustrating early history, greater facilities will be afforded for increasing the collection, so that, eventually, Scotland may possess a complete armory based exclusively upon Seals of an early date. Such a work would do much to preserve heraldry in its legitimate purity. There can be little doubt but abundance of rich materials for such a work are in existence, and if the subject be viewed in its proper light by our landed proprietors and chiefs of ancient families, it is hoped that in that spirit of liberality which is characteristic of the age, every facility will be afforded to explore the hidden treasures of their charter-rooms, and bring to light much that may benefit the public, and materially aid the labours of the historian.

In conclusion, the writer of these remarks begs to state, that he has taken every care to make the following work accurate and interesting, but quite sensible of his many disqualifications for the proper treatment of such a subject, he is far from supposing it perfect, or that it will escape perhaps merited censure ; he trusts, however, that no very serious errors will be found. In works of this kind, produced even under the most favourable circumstances, it is almost impossible to avoid mistakes; he therefore craves some consideration. His labours are now concluded, and he sincerely hopes that his humble efforts hitherto made amid many disadvantages, but in the spirit of love for the work, will be found worthy the patronage which has been bestowed ; and should it be the means of leading any one better qualified than himself to treat the subject in that large and comprehensive manner it deserves, he will be much gratified at having been instrumental in so doing.

It is now the pleasing duty of the writer gratefully to acknowledge the favour and encouragement he has received from numerous gentlemen, and the willing and efficient aid rendered to the present work. To the Members of the lfannatyne flub in particular he is much indebted, as without the assistance of that honourable body it would have been impossible for him to have produced the volume in the style in which it is now presented to the Subscribers. His thanks are due to the authorities of the Register House, for access to the valuable collection of charters contained therein; to the Earl of Morton, the Marquess of Tweeddale, and other proprietors, for the like favour; and in an especial manner is he indebted to the following gentlemen, who have ever shown a lively interest in the work, and have willingly contributed much valuable information and assistance in forming this Collection:—Lord Lindsay ; Sir Walter Calverly Trevelyan, Bart.; P. Chalmers, Esq., of Auldbar; Thomas Thomson, Esq., P.C.S.; Cosmo Innes, Esq.; W. B. D. D. Turnbull, Esq.; Alexander Macdonald, Esq.; David Laing, Esq.; Albert Way, Esq.; George Seton, Esq.; William Fraser, Esq.; and the Rev. James Henry Hughes, M.A., late fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, Chaplain 1I.E.I.C.S., whose extensive knowledge of heraldry and genealogy has proved a source of great assistance during the period which his more important duties in a distant country allowed him to remain in Edinburgh.

The name of the late George Smythe, Esq., younger of Methven, should be included among those to whom the author is much indebted for many valuable additions at an early period of the formation of this Collection, and whose premature removal from a sphere of usefulness is justly lamented by all who had the happiness of knowing him.

To the liberality of C. K. Sharpe, Esq.; W. W. Hay Newton, Esq.; and James Gibson Craig, Esq.; he is indebted for three plates which illustrate the volume, in addition to those contributed by the Bannatyne Club.

He has to acknowledge the kindness of Henry Drummond, Esq., M.P., in permitting the use of some woodcuts which had been engraved for illustrating his work of the “History of Noble British Families.”

To Mark Napier, Esq., he is also indebted for the woodcuts of the Seals of the Napiers.

To those gentlemen, and to all who have encouraged the writer In the present undertaking, he returns his sincere thanks, in the hope that the manner in which he has performed his task will give satisfaction to those whose approbation he will esteem as his best reward.

Edinburgh, July 1850.

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Additional Information
The following books provide additional information on the Seals of Scotland

Supplemental Descriptive Catalogue

History of Scottish Seals
from the eleventh to the seventeenth century, with upwards of two hundred illustrations derived from the finest and most interesting examples extant. By Walter de Gray Birch, LLD., F.S.A., Late of the British Museum (1905) in 2 volumes.

Volume 1  |  Volume 2

Scottish Armorial Seals
By William Rae MacDonald, Carrick Pursuivant (1904)

Ancient Seals found at Carrickfergus

Town Council Seals of Scotland
You can view these down this page

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