It is often reported that King Malcolm II dipped three fingers into the blood Camus, the slain Dane, and drew vertical 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 heralds, 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, vertical 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 at 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 us 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alteration interjected, the mark would signify that James was heir to Marischal, but that the offices and titles had been revoked or resigned.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. Reading left to right are shields from: (1) Keith of Tillygone (crest – a lure; motto – Venit ab astris); (2) Keith of Ludquhairn (crest – hand casting an anchor; motto – Remember thy end), line of Sir William Keith, who served as governor of Pennsylvania; (3) Keith of Ravenscraig (quartered for Randolph); (4) Keith of Auquhorsk; (5) Keith of Harthill; (6) Major Robert Keith of Craig (crest – standing deer; Motto – Fortier qui sedulo); (7) Dickson of Bughtrig, and later of Belchester (crest – a hand holding a sword; motto – Fortes fortuna juvat)
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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).
For related topics, see the following pages in this web site:
- “Notes on Heraldry” discusses proprieties of the systems.
- “Keith, Great Marischals of Scotland” illustrates those noble arms.
- “Chief of the Clan, The Earl of Kintore” illustrating his arms and origins.
- “Succession of the Keiths” – discussion of each who served as Great Marischal.
- “Understanding the ‘Coat of Arms’” – basics in the art of blazon.