Robert Laing of Colington
Self-styled chief of Clan Laing
Born: 11 July, 1948 in Germiston, Transvaal.
Died: 12 March, 2007, in Johannesburg, aged 58.
ROBERT LAING of Colington was the colourful and learned South African heraldist whose boundless enthusiasm for genealogy and clan matters led to his adopting the chiefship of Clan Laing. Elevation came from his own hand however, and carried no recognition either from the Lord Lyon nor the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs. Equally, the soubriquet "of Colington" does not exist.
Yet such was Laing's energetic input into heraldic matters that he is usually referred to by his affectation "Laing of Colington". He provided a focus for those of the surname Laing, Lang and variants, and promoted the existence of Laing tartan. It remained his intention to petition Lyon Office for chiefly recognition.
Robert Arthur Laing's life was totally bound up with heraldry. The chiefship apart, he provided scholarly work on the subject, and was a leading figure behind the development of modern heraldry in southern Africa and research into ancient use. His knowledge of sillography (the study of seals) helped trace use of seals in Cape Province as far back as 1652.
A tall dark-haired figure, he regularly visited Scotland, becoming known to a wide circle of heraldic contacts, and was an early overseas member when the Heraldry Society of Scotland was formed in 1977. The coat-of-arms he earlier recorded in South Africa was matriculated in Scotland in 1978, and later embellished by the South African Bureau of Heraldry to include supporters. These heraldic beasties (in his case, bears) stand on either side of a shield and are a mark of rare heraldic honour. They would certainly not have been granted to him in Scotland.
However colourful his spurious claim of chiefship, his deep knowledge of heraldry and the promotion of it were never in doubt. He owned one of the larger private libraries devoted to the subject, and his more than 100 contributions to journals around the world included a paper to the Heraldry Society of Scotland on the influence of Scots heraldry in South African practice. A longstanding member of the Heraldry Council of South Africa, he became chairman in 1995 as well as editor of its journal, Arma. Just before his death, he had completed a doctoral thesis on heraldic usage during the Dutch administration of Cape Province, and his PhD is to be awarded posthumously by the University of Pretoria.
In 1987, Laing of Colington was commissioned to design a coat of arms for the Water Institute of South Africa, and his final draft proved immediately acceptable for registration by the State Herald. Laing's design incorporated a kingfisher (symbol of a predecessor organisation) with a fish in its mouth - to indicate the need for fresh water resources - with a stylised bridge representing man's quest for clean water, along with an allusion to reinforcing the South African sphere of operation. He completed the arms with a Latin motto Aqua Vita Est (water is life). Another design was for the International Association of Oral Pathologists.
After a sample of unnamed tartan was found in the grave of a George Henry Laing who died in Texas in 1853, Laing of Colington in his role as "clan chief" enthusiastically endorsed the sett as that of Clan Laing, attaching to it a provenance going back to the 1770s.
While Laing was of established Scots descent, his nearest Scots-born ancestor was a James Laing, born in Markinch, in Fife, in 1802. Thereafter, the line was all of solid South African stock married to Boer womenfolk. Of his love for Scotland, however, there was never any doubt.
Neither was there for decorations and orders of chivalry. He was a knight commander of the Order of St Lazarus, a commander of merit of the same order, a knight of the Royal Yugoslav Order of St John, and a member of the Irish nobiliary organisation Niadh Nask.
Laing of Colington, academically bright with several degrees and awards to his name, had a career in management systems and computing. The opportunity to take early retirement led to an increasing role in lecturing and writing on heraldry and genealogy.
Laing never married, though he confessed to "three near misses". He is survived by his younger brother, John.
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