Coats of Arms, Clans, Tartans

It has been convincingly established that the Shanklands originate from Scotland, from the lowland border country around Dumfriesshire and Ayrshire. Scottish ancestry immediately prompts the questions, "What clan?" "What tartan?", and maybe even "Did the family have a coat of arms?"

A search on the Internet for such accoutrements for a specific name is almost certain to be successful, for instance in producing a ready-made coat of arms with motto and crest for the name in question, a copy of which can be purchased for a very reasonable sum . . . but is it authentic?

I think it is extremely unlikely to be authentic in any real sense, and that although commercial organisations will for a fee cater to our tastes for Scottishness, an understanding of Scottish history and culture will be more rewarding in the long run in helping us to understand and appreciate our Scottish background. Reading a wide range of historical accounts of Scotland is only to be encouraged. This article is intended to be just a taster!

Scotland - lowlands and highlands

The picture of Scotland most usually presented is that of the Gaelic-speaking Scotsman in his kilt of the clan tartan, with sporran, and claymore, and bagpipes, and a blood-stirring history of battles against other Scottish clans and, of course, the English. Picturesque but not quite accurate - since this applies much more to the Highland Scots than to the Lowlanders.

Sketch map of Scotland Southern Scotland showing the current England/Scottish border, Hadrian's Wall, and the Antonine Wall.

Image produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service. Image reproduced with kind permission of Ordnance Survey and Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland.

Scotland can really be considered as two countries. During the Roman occupation in the second century, Hadrian's Wall (coloured yellow on my map) had been constructed dividing England from Scotland (England thus being within the Roman empire and Scotland beyond it); a few years later the Antonine Wall (coloured red on the map) was built to the north of it, in an attempt to drive the "barbarians" (i.e. non-Romans) further north and thus better defend the English province. This border area, therefore, although never formally part of the Roman Empire, did come under considerable Roman influence. Subsequently, of course, it also came under extensive English influence.

Moreoever, apart from the political differences (Roman versus barbarian), and the obvious topographical differences (highlands versus lowlands), there are tribal and language differences between the peoples of the two main areas of Scotland. The Highlanders were Picts, speaking Gaelic; the Lowlanders were largely Brythonic Celts, later Angles, speaking Anglo-Saxon (what we would now call "Old English"). Furthermore, there was considerable mixing of populations from either side of the Scottish/English border throughout its history.

By the 11th century, Scotland was a country of Scots, Angles, British, and Picts united under a Scottish king; in 1070 King Malcolm (whose wife was English) moved the royal court to Edinburgh. At this time many English Saxons were taking refuge in Scotland from the Normans following the Norman Conquest of England by William the Conqueror and the devastation wrought in the north of England by the Norman invaders against the rebellious English. The Scottish lowlands had been English speaking for centuries - in fact it has been said that "English has been spoken for longer in Edinburgh than in Leeds".

A few centuries later, following the Reformation, the two parts of Scotland again showed their differences by the Highlands remaining Catholic and the Lowlands becoming Protestant. There was repression and religious intolerance on both sides, a focus for this being the National Covenant of 1638 asserting the signatories' support for Protestantism.


The word "clan" originally meant "children", and even today its primary meaning is "family". However, the clan system, certainly in the Highlands, went much further than this.

At its heart the clan system was based on the ownership of land, which was the property of the clan chief; members of the clan held land in a feudal system from the chief. The clan members may have been related in some way to the clan chief but equally well may not have been; they may have been totally separate families owning allegiance to the chief in return for land holdings. In some cases clan chiefs induced other families to join the clan in return for some benefit, thus making the clan stronger.

Similarly, it would be wrong to suppose that all members of a clan shared the same clan surname. In fact, in the Highlands surnames were very little used until the seventeenth century, although the clan as a political entity survived well into the eighteenth century. When surnames came into use many clansmen took their clan chief's surname (without it necessarily implying a relationship); many did not, and form what are known as septs of the clan.

The clan system as described is primarily Highland. In the Lowlands the primary allegiance was to the King, and this weakened the ties to the clan chief. It is also apparent that some of the Lowland aristocracy, for instance the Bruce family, discouraged the use of the clan terminology. Hence the concept of clanship in the Lowlands is really little more than a sense of family kinship. However, there is a strong claim to clanship for the Hamiltons and the Maxwells, both Lowland families.

In Scottish law, recognition of a group of people as a clan with a clan chief and not just as a family is administered by the Court of the Lord Lyon (the authority on Scottish Heraldry). The "official" take here appears to be that clans are Highland; Lowland 'clans' are 'families'. The Court of the Lord Lyon has recognised the chiefs of only about 140 clans; that is not to say that other clans do not exist, but with no accepted chief at their head.

There is a useful and interesting - at least when I read it - entry about Scottish clans in Wikipedia.


Tartans are of course traditional in Scotland but registration of clan tartans did not start until the 19th Century! Until then, it was normal to wear the tartan for your own particular area - so if your own clan was most numerous in that area they would all wear the same tartan and that would be considered in the fullness of time as the clan tartan. Not all clans have a registered tartan; not all tartans are associated with a clan.

In fact you don't need to be Scottish to have your own tartan, and you can wear any tartan you like the look of whether it belongs to your family or not. The Royal Air Force have their own tartan. British Airways have one. Reportedly, even the Hare Krishnas have one! Burberry, of raincoat fame, have one (a very famous one) which, unusually for tartans, is copyrighted.

Coats of Arms

The Court of the Lord Lyon is the heraldic authority for Scotland, as against the College of Arms which has jurisdiction in England, Wales and Ireland. A Scottish coat of arms belongs not to a family (or to a clan) but to an individual who has been granted those arms by the Lord Lyon. So although a coat of arms may have been granted to someone of the same surname as yourself, you cannot display those arms or claim them as your own.

Normally the clan chief would be the holder of a coat of arms, and it is the Lord Lyon who must confirm the passing of the coat of arms on the death of the clan chief to his successor. Other members of the clan are not permitted to use those arms. They may, however, display the clan chief's crest and motto if any, with a strap and buckle indicating their membership of the clan. supposed Shankland arms

Note: Although there appear to have been arms granted in the name "Shank", it is unclear that there is any connection between the name Shank and the name Shankland; however, the coat of arms awarded to the Shank family has been also applied to the name Shankland, and so is reproduced here for information. (This isn't meant to imply any validation either of this coat of arms or with its association with the name Shankland!)

Shankland country

I hope that this article does not appear relentlessly negative! - no clan, no tartan, no coat of arms, etc. The Shankland country in the lowland border areas of Scotland has much to recommend it.

Apart from the breathtaking beauty of the Scottish lowland landscape, this is an area with many heroes of its own. Political heroes in William Wallace and Robert the Bruce (both born in Ayrshire). Literary heroes in Thomas Carlyle (Dumfriesshire), and, of course, Robert Burns (Ayrshire / Dumfriesshire). Not to mention a host of brave and steadfast people whose names are largely unsung, but who defended their faith in the National Covenant of 1638 against the brutal forces ranged against them.

And of course a tough, intelligent, educated and resourceful people who not only built the great sailing ships and steamships that brought trade to the whole of Britain, but who also populated the rest of the English-speaking world with its doctors, educators, and engineers.

Anne Shankland, April 2006

(The above is my take on the question, but what do I know? I'm not only English but born and bred in the very south of England, and a Shankland only by marriage, so I'm really totally unqualified to pontificate about matters Scottish - not that that has stopped me in the past. But if you would like to take issue on this, do so by all means - write or email me a refutation of this article and I shall be delighted to add it to the website!)