I suspect it will surprise the vast majority of readers to learn that heraldry forms part of Scots criminal law due to the Lord Lyon King of Arms Act of 1592. Put simply that means that any organisation which chooses to represent its identity in a “coat of arms” needs to comply with the Scotland’s heraldic laws.
As a supporter of Airdrieonians FC, I found this out the hard way when the Airdrieonians Supporters’ Trust contacted me to inform me that the football club had received a letter from the Lord Lyon’s Procurator Fiscal adjudging its badge to be illegal.
Although this seemed to be unbelievable at first (given that Airdrieonians had used the badge since around 1950) the Procurator Fiscal to the Court of the Lord Lyon had indeed written a letter to the football club warning that the badge used was “an heraldic device”.
Before any legal person (ie a person or corporate entity) in Scotland uses a “badge” or “coat of arms” it must register such badge with the Court of the Lord Lyon. That requires the payment of around £2,500, however, it is not possible to register a “heraldic device” if that contains letters. Heraldry is all about identifying a person without using letters or words, and so the old Airdrieonians’ Badge, proudly displaying the letters AFC through its centre, was illegal because it wasn’t registered, but it also wasn’t possible to register that badge. A death sentence had been passed
The whole situation seemed bizarre, if the Airdrieonians badge was illegal because it was in a shield and contained letters, then so were the badges of around 20 senior Scottish Football clubs.
The reason that action has not been taken against a number of Scottish clubs is because the Procurator Fiscal to the Court of the Lord Lyon only raises a legal action when a matter is brought to his attention. All that is required for an action to be taken is a letter or an email informing him that a company, football club, rugby club, golf club etc is using a “heraldic device”.
Late in 2015, following a particularly bruising narrow defeat of Airdrieonians by Ayr United FC, a fellow supporter of my club decided to complain to the Lord Lyon’s Procurator Fiscal that Ayr United’s badge was also in breach of the law of heraldry (and to boast about that fact on social media). In consequence, Ayr United has been required to cease using its badge from the beginning of the 2017/18 season.
When action had been taken by the Lord Lyon’s office against Airdrieonians, I had sought to petition the Scottish Parliament, but my application was rejected on the basis that what was required was a change to the law which could only be made by the UK parliament in Westminster,
When action was taken against Ayr United in November 2015, that club’s supporters asked for their local MP to take action and in response to a challenge being raised by Corri Wilson, the SNP MP for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, Minister for Constitutional Reform John Penrose said any questions of “judicial functions” were devolved to Holyrood.
While this might seem like “the buck” being passed from Holyrood to Westminster and then back again, the statements made are consistent. Only Westminster is able to change the underlying law (the Lord Lyon King of Arms Act 1592) but Westminster cannot involve itself in any actions already taken by the Procurator Fiscal to the Court of the Lord Lyon.
I appreciate that this all seems technical, legal and, fundamentally, unhelpful to Airdrieonians FC and Ayr United FC. It is unconceivable that Westminster would ever dedicate time from its limited calendar to a change in Scots heraldry law.
However hope is not yet dead for the clubs affected. While it is the Procurator Fiscal to the Court of the Lord Lyon who takes action in respect of any breach in Scots heraldry law, he should be directed by the Advocate General for Scotland. If a representation was to be made to the Scottish Government and the Advocate General for Scotland, it might be that a review of this ancient law would actually take place.
Colin Telford is a solicitor and member of Airdrieonians’ Supporters’ Trust