Keith Arms and Heraldry

    "Heraldry is the fury of history made wise and formal; from its hands we take at last the wholesome images - the heart's bread - that our ancestors sowed for us in passion and blindness". George Mackay Brown.

It is often reported that King Malcolm II dipped three fingers into the blood of Camus, the slain Dane, and drew verticle stripes upon the shield of Robert, leader of the Catti troops, in the year 1010. These stripes then became the identifying marks for Robert's descendants, under the surname of Keith, along with a motto quoting Malcolm's words, "Veritas Vincit". In the records of various harolds, however, a bit of confusion is born. Some describe the Keith arms as "argent, on a chief or, three pallets gules" (silver shield with three, verticle red stripes on gold in the top 1/3rd of the shield). Others say: "argent, a paly of six, or and gules". (Such descriptions correspond with the oldest illustration of Keith arms that I have been able to locate. This illustration is from Gelre, Herald d' Arms in 14th century Belgium, and is pictured ar right.) Even so, the configuration presently used in Keith arms, and recently proclaimed by the Lyon Court as the official version, enters a fourth pallet of gules, so that the chief begins and ends with red. Lindsey, a herald of some years past, recorded arms for Keith of Ravelston in these words: "argent, on a chief gules, charged with three pallets or." This latter recording (now the correct description for Keith) is what we see in arms of Keith-Marischal and Earls of Kintore, and arms of allied families (see the James Keith arms, as illustrated immediately below). All this brings into question, whether Malcolm drew stripes with three bloody fingers or four. History says three. The fourth stripe in Keith arms, let us say, represents poetic license.


Arms of one individual may be passed only to an heir. Other children in the family, upon receiving a grant of arms, must change the included elements sufficiently to "difference" his blazon from all others. So long as the family remains honorable, the differencing is usually accomplished with simple addition of a figure or two. As illustrated here, the Honorable James Keith, Esquire, a descendant of the Marischal, he merely added a crescent (taken from arms of his mother's Seaton family). We see from this blazon that James has the rank only of a gentleman, indicated by the helmet. Without this crescent or other alteration interjected, the mark would signify that James was heir to Marischal, but that the offices and titles had been revoked or resigned.


    The Dickson families of Inneresk, recorded in the Lyon's register of 1672 (arms at near right), derive from a Richard Keith, who was descendant from Keith-Marischal. Richard was known as "Dick", and his descendants assumed the Dickson surname (some ended up as Dixon). Inneresk arms were carried earlier by Sir Robert Dickson of Sornbegg. Having the same origins, the Dicksons of Bughtrig carry similar arms (but silver stars, called "mullets", as shown below). At far right are the arms of John, a son of William Graham (2nd Earl of Montrose) and Lady Janet Keith (daughter of William, Earl Marischal). We see that William added Keith to his arms, quartered with Graham, and kept the rose (Montrose) figures. His brother, John Graham of Orchill, elected not to add Keith to his, even though the right to do so was equally present. Interestingly, some of the Graham family migrated to America, on the ship that brought Sir William Keith. William was later made governor of Pennsylvania. The Grahams ended up with some of the Keith plantations in that colony.


As example of how various are the ways of adding figures to arms, I have here illustrated those of Sir William Hope of Balcomy, son of Sir John and his wife, Mary (daughter of William Keith, Earl Marischal). This blazon is same as the father, but is "charged" with the three red stripes to indicate descendancy from Keith-Marischal. Note the helmet, indicating that the bearer was a Knight.

    Among the widely varied arms borne by Keiths in times before mid 1800, are those I have shown below.

Keith of Tillygone (crest - a lure; motto - Venit ab astris)

Keith of Ludquhairn
(crest - hand casting an anchor; motto - Remember thy end)

Keith of Ravenscraig (quartered for Randolph)

Keith of Harthill

Major Robert Keith of Craig
(crest - standing deer; Motto - Fortier qui sedulo)

of Bughtrig, and later of Belchester (crest - a hand holding a sword; motto - Fortes fortuna juvat)

For those interested in extensive study of heraldry and arms, I highly recommend the two-volume Work, "A System of Heraldry, Speculative and Practical..." by Alexander Nisbet, 1722 (reprinted in 1984).

Understanding the "Coat of Arms"

[Technically, "coat of arms" refers to a vest-like, cloth item that noblemen used to wear over a suit of armor...the thing upon which their arms (also called "armorial") was painted, embroidered or otherwise affixed. For purposes of this article, the proper term, "arms", will be used for the designs (or blazons) which typically in modern America are called a "coat of arms".]

    The SHIELD is the central element of all arms, and is also called a "field". It is within this field that symbols (called figures) constructing a blazon are placed to represent the bearer's genealogical connection. Figures of many types may be used, ranging from simple color blocks, to animals, animal parts, rainbows, plants, or manufactured goods. Some such figures were chosen by a noble, commemorating a deed or honor or specialty for which he had become known. In other cases, as with Keith, the symbols were decreed by a king or higher noble. Shield figures in early Keith arms, and with some families allied by marriage, include within the top 1/3rd of a silver shield, three gold and three red "palets". In terms used by the Heralds, such a shield is described in this language: "argent, a paly of six pieces, gules and or". The significance of this odd wording will be made plain, below, in reference to "COLORS".




is essential, along with the shield, to form armorials, and signifies stature of the arms bearer. The drawings, here, illustrate the four distinctions. Reading left to right are helmets of the king (used in arms only by the king and always gold), a nobleman, a knight, and a gentleman, (the gentleman may also elect to use the knights helm but with the visor closed) Helms face to the Dexter (left) or to the front, except in the case of the King who's always faces front. Though drawing style may differ somewhat, every armorial helmet will conform to these general characteristics.




the topmost element in armorials, is a representation of figures that battle leaders once used to identify their person. Animal heads or other parts, hands, daggers, and such are common in crest, as they were in earliest times when the symbol might have actually been mounted atop a warrior's battle helmet.




called "ornaments of the head", in one configuration or another are seen in some position (usually beneath the crest) in all arms of noblemen. Only the king may use a "crown"; others of the nobility display coronets in keeping with their titles. Shown above, left to right, are the crown, Earl's Coronet, Lord's Coronet, and Ducal Coronet. The latter seems to have been permitted, also, in arms of knights and even gentlemen, in which case the coronet rests atop the shield and is topped by a crest. Noblemen place their coronet of appropriate rank between shield and helmet. There are additional coronets in use, but seldom seen in Scottish arms (and not illustrated here). These include coronets signifying Prince, Viscount, Marques, Etc., which display somewhat subtle differences from those I have shown. Listing from highest rank down, Scotland distinguishes these titles among its "Peerage": Duke, Marques, Earl, Viscount, and Lord. Beneath the peerage are Barons and Knights.

    The MANTLE. In early times, when arms and armament were hung in line at jousts (for display, and to identify the participants), it was necessary to protect against rain and rust. Thus, squires draped heavy cloth above these items, in a decorative manner. Later, as arms were illustrated for books or records, mantling was also depicted...usually as organic-looking swirls that we see in our times. In some countries, only higher nobles were allowed mantling, and rules developed as to how fancy it could be shown.

    SUPPORTERS, man, animal or fanciful figures, appear on either side of the shield in arms of higher nobles. It is said that this stems from times when the particularly wealthy paid for fearsome-looking, costumed guards to stand beside their arms on display. Stylized lions are most popular as supporters, and appear in that position (one side or both) in arms of most European and Scandinavian royal houses. Keith-Marischal used hearts (European red deer) for supporters; Kintore uses armed chevaliers.

    A BADGE, represented some office served in the king's name appears in arms where appropriate. In the office of Great Marischal, early Keiths carried a red baton, topped by a crown, and decorated with thistles. This baton was displayed in their arms, two of them, crossed behind the shield.

    Besides the above items, we often see a decorative strip placed between the helmet and topmost coronet (when present) or the crest. This is called a Wreath Bandeau (also called torse), representing two rolls of silk or leather, wound together and forming a pad between items.

    The Tinctures of heraldry are two metals, five colours, a few rare stains and certain traditional patterns of heraldic fur.  Thus Gules, red, may be painted any shade from Vermillion to maroon, or azure, blue, may be pale or navy, so long as it is blue.  A thing in its natural colours is termed proper.  The system of line hatching is used to indicate colour when colour is not available.

    Tincture names are often seen, but seldom recognized by Americans: 
GOLD (appears yellow) =
SILVER (appears whiter
gray) =
vert (or sinople
and PURPLE =

The names listed are in order of their ranking. Gold/or is the most regal of tinctures; Purple/purpre, the last color added to the herald's palate, is lowest in rank. In writings, tinctures are usually

    The CHIEF (and other divisions of a shield) may be seen mentioned in verbal descriptions of arms, and should be discussed. In every system, shields are graphically divided in a number of proscribed ways, giving plenty of variability to accommodate the large number of arms recorded, and understandability to the verbal record. "Chief" refers to the top 1/3rd of a field. This applies even when a shield is "quartered" (divided into four fields) or "parted" in other ways.

    Items outside of the shield are called "external ornaments"...such as crest, and high noblemen's supporters. Such items are usually rendered "proper", as it is called, which means they are to be shown in the colors appearing in nature. A stag would be brownish, rainbow would be in those colors, a lion would be tan, etc. Keeping all of the above in mind, a herald's verbal record of a particular blazon then becomes more intelligible. Test your understanding as you view the arms of Kintore, which are written in old records as:

(Arms of the
Lord Lyon, overseer of all registered arms in Scotland)


 Some information obtained from Larry Keith and used by permission. Edited by Terry Keith.