Elizabeth Roads knows the path to the Order of the Thistle

Elizabeth Roads
Elizabeth Roads
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TICKETS to the hottest event in town have already dropped through letterboxes and, sorry, but if you haven’t got your golden-edged invitation, then you’re officially a great big nobody.

Now the only question for the few hundred lucky guests invited to St Giles’ Cathedral tomorrow to witness Prince William become a Knight of the Order of the Thistle, is where they’ll be sitting and to ponder whether they’ll get a glimpse of the real star of the show, Kate.

Order of the Thistle Installation at St Giles Cathedral in 1952.

Order of the Thistle Installation at St Giles Cathedral in 1952.

One woman who knows precisely who’s going where is Elizabeth Roads. The only woman to ever hold the office Clerk to the Lord Lyon has already polished off the seating order, arranged those very posh tickets – not just for the St Giles’ event but for the Jubilee thanksgiving service at Glasgow Cathedral today too – and ensured ceremonial figures know exactly what they are doing.

It sounds like the ultimate headache, a seating order arrangement fraught with potential huffs from people demanding a pew with a view.

“A lot of the organising becomes second nature after a while,” she smiles. “If someone is significant in their status we make sure they have an appropriate place. Take the Sheriff Principal, for example, I’d make sure not to place him at the back behind a pillar.

“Otherwise it’s a case of working through the guests, making sure young people can see something and, rather than sticking them in the middle of a row of 30 people, I put children on the end of an aisle so they can see,” she adds. “Disabled guests need easy access, but otherwise everyone else is treated much the same.



“Actually, St Giles’ is very easy, it’s not a difficult church to seat people in and the procession will at some stage pass close to everyone.”

The ceremony will take 40 minutes and feature a procession from the Signet Library to the Thistle Chapel within St Giles’, where Prince William will pledge an oath of allegiance to uphold the values of the Order.

As well as organising the guests for the ceremony – among them Kate, Duchess of Cambridge – mother-of-three Elizabeth, 61, will be taking part, dressed in her ceremonial Snawdoun Herald of Arm’s tabard, alongside the Lord Lyon, David Sellar, two other heralds and three pursuivants. It’s a ringside role but, as she explains, it is just one element of a traditional job helping the Lord Lyon oversee the usage and granting of Scottish coats of arms and which – to her surprise – turned out to be in the genes.

“I started to do some research into my family,” she explains. “My maiden surname is Bruce – and I can trace that side back to the 13th century, almost certainly to one of Robert the Bruce’s brothers. I do have a missing link,” she stresses, “however, it’s almost certain although I can’t prove it.

“Then on the other side of my family, I can get back to the 14th century. One of my grandfather’s uncles turned out to be one of Napoleon’s doctors, which is quite interesting, although rather more ancestors were ne’er do wells,” she laughs.

“Then I found one of my ancestors was actually Lord Lyon in the 17th century.”

The idea that this long-gone forefather occupied the role to which she is now so close seemed extraordinary. As she delved deeper, she managed to confirm the link.

“I started to research this man, Sir James Balfour, when I came to this role,” says Elizabeth. “He had a daughter who married into my maternal grandmother’s family – and I was descended from that daughter.”

Back then her forefather would have worked as Lord Lyon from his private home. However, his role involved in royal ceremonial occasions and overseeing the ancient Scottish heraldic system of coats of arms has barely changed. No doubt, he would have had a trusty clerk like Elizabeth, although certainly not a woman, to ensure his office ran like clockwork.

Today the Court of the Lord Lyon is at West Register House. It’s where new coats of arms are issued, old ones queried and researched and endless requests for information about Scotland’s heraldic system processed.

The workload, says Elizabeth, who has just graduated in law from Napier University, is probably greater now than in her forefather’s times.

“We probably grant more coats of arms now than 200 years ago,” she says. “Private companies, individuals, organisations, they want something that’s instantly recognised, not a logo that changes with fashion, but a static symbolic emblem.

“They feel it gives them a degree of gravitas, it shows it’s a company or organisation with solid foundations. Whisky companies, for example, will have one to help show that it’s a good product, it’s quality.

“An individual might want a coat of arms for various reasons. Frequently, it’s because they have done research that’s shown they are linked to an old family. They’ve found, say, that they are a 21st century Macdonald descended from a 16th century one. They want a symbol that connects them with that family.

“People like to know where they came from, to have a feeling that this is their roots.”

The heraldic system is not to be trifled with, she points out. For, as Donald Trump discovered recently, tinkering with coats of arms that you’re not entitled to can land you in hot water.

“Donald Trump was using a coat of arms that had been on a building that he owned,” recalls Elizabeth. “The arms belonged to a completely different Englishman and he thought, because he owned the building, he could use the coat of arms.

“But the arms had not been granted to him personally. Because this is a legal process, there’s inquiry by the procurator fiscal to the Lyon Court who investigates whether there is a contravention of laws and whether there should be a prosecution.”

In Trump’s case – and in all but one case in all her 30 years of working for the Lord Lyon – there was no further action. But still, the question remains – why on earth in a modern society would anyone need a coat of arms? After all, when Kate Middleton’s coat of arms was unveiled last year, it received a lukewarm response to the inclusion of gold in reference to her mother’s maiden name, Goldsmith, and white peaks referring to the family’s love of skiing.

“When people design their coat of arms, they bring in things relevant to the family,” explains Elizabeth. “A family involved in education might have an open book, or music, a musical instrument. We try to make their shield not too personal to the individual because then it might not be relevant to their grandson or granddaughter.

“And sometimes designs can be inappropriate. Often people don’t realise it, perhaps they’ve made things too complicated.

“The intention should be to symbolise rather than be very specific. Someone who is very keen on a certain dog breed might ask for a particular dog on their arms.

“An image of, say, your dearly loved little mutt, the Heinz 47 breed, won’t work terribly well on a coat of arms. It’s not snobbery at all,” she insists. “The range of people I have come across in 30-plus years stems from those who may, for example, have just been appointed as principal of a university, to people just interested in either heraldry as an art or want their own coat of arms who may never intend to display it outside their own front door.”


THE Earl of Strathearn – Prince William by any other name – will join an exclusive club when he becomes a Knight of the Order of the Thistle, just one of his 30th birthday presents from Her Majesty The Queen.

The Order, motto Nemo Me Impune Lacesit (No One Provokes Me With Impunity), is said in some accounts to have been founded by Achaius, King of Scots, who, while engaged in battle at Athelstaneford in East Lothian in 786 with the Saxon King Athelstan of East Anglia, saw in the heavens the cross of St Andrew.

After he won the battle, Achaius is said to have established the Order of the Thistle, naming St Andrew as patron saint and adopting his form of the cross as a flag, namely the Saltire.

King James VII issued letters patent “reviving and restoring the Order of the Thistle to its full glory, lustre and magnificency” in 1687.

The Order officially recognises the 1687 date as its starting point.

There are 16 ordinary Knights and Ladies of the Thistle – there is no restriction on royal Knights. Previously, the only women members were the Queen, who is head of the order, and the Queen Mother.

The Queen changed the rules in 1987 and decreed that “common” women be allowed to join.

Former Christian Aid chair Lady Marion Fraser, left, of Gifford, East Lothian, then became the first, and so far only, woman from outside the royal family to be appointed. The Princess Royal, Princess Anne, was conferred with the Order of the Thistle in 2001.

Thursday’s ceremony will take 40 minutes and feature a procession from the Signet Library to the Thistle Chapel where Prince William will pledge an oath of allegiance to uphold the values of the Order.