Obituary: David Sellar, Lord Lyon King of Arms, legal historian, genealogist and author

David Sellar, Lord Lyon King of Arms. Born: 27 February 1941 in Glasgow. Died: 26 January 2019 in Edinburgh, aged 78.
David SellarDavid Sellar
David Sellar

David Sellar was the gently urbane academic and author who as Lord Lyon became Scotland’s greatest officer of state.

Clad in tabard of office, he cut a majestic figure: tall, impassive, pale eyes above a fine beard. If appearances matter – and in the post of Lord Lyon they surely do – then the holder of this ancient office brought credit and dignity to one of our nation’s most historic roles.

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As Lord Lyon, he held reins like no other in the world, with personal charge of heraldry, and as a judge on genealogical questions relating to family representation and pedigrees. Through his post in jurisprudence at Edinburgh University, he brought to the office the force of the law. But his lifelong study, his “passion” as he termed it, was the study of genealogy – and thus he was possibly the first genealogist appointed to the office.

William David Hamilton Sellar MVO MA LLB FRHistS FSAScot was hailed as the most influential Scottish legal historian of his generation. Born and raised in Glasgow, educated at Kelvinside Academy and Fettes College, he read history at Oxford and law at Edinburgh, and after qualifying as a solicitor, worked briefly at the Scottish Land Court, before joining the law faculty at Edinburgh University. That was in 1969, and he remained there for his entire academic career.

Keenly interested in promotion of Scots law, history and culture, he founded the Centre for Legal History in 1992, now one of the leaders of its kind anywhere in the world, serving Scottish legal history as an academic discipline.

In his research and in a prodigious published output, he raised questions around the nature and identity of Scots law, querying how far back the history of it can be traced. He demonstrated how our distinctive common law acted as a pillar of national identity from the wars of independence of King Robert Bruce onwards, and he examined whether this operated the same way across the Highlands as the Lowlands. He examined how much Scots law contained influences of Celtic, Roman, canon, and English law, and queried what effect the Reformation had.

His answers formed an essential framework for the interpretation of Scottish legal history, emphasising both the antiquity and the continuity of our legal system, as well as aiding the establishment of an innovative course in Scots Law and the Western Legal Tradition at Edinburgh.

His deep knowledge of sources written in Latin, Scots and Gaelic shone through when he wrote his magisterial paper on the origins of the Lordship of the Isles, the title to which now held by Prince Charles. Mr Sellar wrote on the origins of a clutch of Highland families, including Campbells, MacDonalds, MacDougalls, MacLeods, Lamonts, MacNeills and Nicolsons.

His output also included a treatise on Galloway genealogies, besides writings on the history of various branches of Scots law including marriage, divorce, incest, homicide and unjust enrichment.

Appointed Lord Lyon in March 2008 in succession to Robin Blair, Lyon Sellar knew that he was 36th in succession to Lyon Henry Greve of 1399. His keener eye soon fell upon the genealogical blanks, that he was 37th in succession to an unnamed Lyon inaugurated in the rank of knight by King Robert Bruce at Arbroath Abbey in 1318.

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In a major lecture to the Heraldry Society of Scotland a decade ago, he not only demonstrated his expertise in Scots law, genealogy, clan history, and heraldry, but via the research of Dr Adrian Ailes, managed to put a name to a Lyon of 1290, one Jack Caupeny.

His research made clear however that such a pedigree is only a beginning, for his office descends from the Seannachie of Celtic times, someone who may have participated in the inauguration of kings back at least to King Kenneth MacAlpin in 843.

Renowned for mixing wisdom and humour, he was asked of the difference between the Land Court and Lyon Court: “Each is a court of extraordinary jurisdiction. One deals with crofters, and the other with chiefs”.

Lyon Sellar and I happened on each other in the heraldic section of the National Library of Scotland. “Fishing from the same pool?” was his greeting.

He once turned up for a meeting of Edinburgh University Heraldry Society at which the distinguished heraldist Sir Iain Moncrieffe of that Ilk was due to speak. But only Sir Iain, Mr Sellar and the society president turned up. So all three adjourned to a pub, where, he reported, “We spent a better evening than the meeting might have been”.

Mr Sellar was O’Donnell Lecturer in Celtic Studies at Edinburgh in 1985, Stair Lecturer in 1997 and Rhind Lecturer in 2000. He has been a member of the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland, Vice-President of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, literary director of the Stair Society, chairman of the council of the Scottish History Society, and chairman of the conference of Scottish Mediaevalists. He has served on the council of the Scottish Genealogy Society, and of the Heraldry Society of Scotland. His formal entry into heraldic practice came with his appointment as Bute Pursuivant of Arms in 2001.

Lyon Sellar possessed his own fine sense of belonging. Great-grandson of William Sellar born in 1837 in Mortlach, Banffshire, and descendant of “400 years of blacksmiths” in the neighbouring parish of Botriphnie, His own arms recall his ancestral origins by the inclusion of a blacksmith’s hammer.

Married and a keen “walker and island hopper”, Mr Sellar once confessed “I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t interested in genealogy”, recalling “I must have been very young – possibly six or seven – when I first started pestering great-aunts and elderly relatives”. In adulthood, this led to researches into consanguinity, from which emerged the fact that in pre-Reformation Scotland, the prohibited degrees of marriage included descendants of the same great-great-grandparent: in simple terms, even third cousins could not marry.

Mr Sellar died after a short illness, and is survived by his wife Susan; step-son Andrew, and sons Duncan, Niall and Gavin and five grandchildren.