Scottish Team face defeat by Medieval Law

It should be a great time to be a fan of Ayr United.

Ayr (pronounced ‘air’) had a poor season last year, but are currently top of Scottish League One having already won more games this season than they did last season, and as I’m writing this are on a 13-match unbeaten streak, which is the longest currently in all 4 Scottish divisions.

Instead, fans of Ayr, known as the Honest Men, have been dismayed by news that their club is in trouble with the authorities and faces prosecution. Usually, when a club faces prosecution, it’s to do with a financial matter, such as taxes, or that they have breached some law relating to their stadium.

That’s not what’s happening in this case. Instead, Ayr have been informed that their club emblem, which has been used since the 1950’s and is emblazoned on their club shirts and all merchandise, has been deemed a heraldic device, and has fallen foul of a law from 1592 relating to heraldry.

For those who don’t know, heraldry relates to coats of arms and similar symbols and developed in medieval times as a way to distinguish certain families and organisations. Heraldry has rules about what can and cannot be included in a coat of arms.

Scotland is proud of its heraldic traditions, and has a court called the Lyon Court to uphold them; the Lyon Court is the world’s oldest court relating to heraldry that is still operational. The Lyon Court is headed by the Lord Lyon, King of Arms, who has sole discretion on what coats of arms are and aren’t acceptable.  

In England, misuses of coats of arms are handled by the Court of Chivalry and are seen as a civil matter, though nobody has been brought before the Court of Chivalry in over 60 years.

In Scotland however, infractions in heraldry are actually a criminal matter and nobody can legally use any sort of heraldic device without the approval of the Lord Lyon, who has the power to have any unapproved heraldic devices, and anything they are attached to, destroyed. This means that if Ayr make no changes to their emblem, the Lord Lyon could destroy all team kit and merchandise.

In theory, Ayr could pay the £3000 and apply to get their badge made official by the Lyon Court, but it is unlikely that application would be successful due to the use of the saltire (the diagonal cross) in the same design and colouring as the Scottish flag; so any emblem with the saltire included suggests some kind of Scottish national institution. Also, the presence of the letters ‘A’ and ‘U’ in the shield would also disqualify it from being approved as no letters are allowed on heraldic devices.   

So, the options available to Ayr United are to either up with a completely new badge, or, and I think this is the most likely course of action they will take, simply remove the shield around the emblem, which, as stupid as it sounds, would no longer make it a heraldic device.

It is believed that Ayr have already ordered all kits and merchandise for the 2016/17 season, so they’ll be hoping that they will be allowed to use their current badge until the 2017/18 season.

Ayr aren’t the first Scottish team to be forced into changing their club crest by the Lyon Court. In 2010 Formartine United, a club who play in the Scottish non-leagues, were forced to change their club badge as it contained a saltire.

Earlier this year, Airdire United, who are Ayr’s opponents tomorrow, had to change their club badge because of the letters ‘AFC’ on their shield. They changed their badge by simply removing the shield, which puts it beyond the jurisdiction of the Lyon Court.  

It should be pointed out that the Lyon Court doesn’t spend it’s time looking for emblems in violation of heraldic laws. They only investigate cases which have been brought to their attention by a member of the public.

It is believed that Ayr were reported to the Lyon Court by a fan of a rival team – Ayr have a fierce local rivalry with Scottish Premier League side Kilmarnock (though there is a suggestion that an Ayr fan did something similar to Kilmarnock 20 years ago when they were designing an emblem).

It may seem as though Ayr United and the clubs before them are being unfairly treated, but I should point out that the Lyon Court is there to uphold the law. It may be a ridiculous anachronism of a law, but it’s still the law, and if the Lyon Court decide that a prosecution is in the public interest, then that’s what they’ll do.

The Procurator Fiscal (the person who responsible for bringing prosecutions to the Lyon Court for the Court of the Lord Lyon, Alexander Green, says the issue is not uncommon in Scotland.

"They are not alone," he said. "A lot of organisations produce a badge, it looks heraldic and it can be described heraldically. And if it can be described heraldically if you want to use it in Scotland, it must be first granted to you by the Lord Lyon King of Arms.

Green went on to defend the role of the Lyon Court, saying:

“Scotland probably has the best heraldry in the world. It is very pure. It is a wonderful example of something that has cultural importance for Scotland. I think it is something that is worth preserving."

There are wider implications for Scottish football as a result of this. Only 2 Scottish clubs have club crests that have the approval of the Lord Lyon, and Colin Telford, an Airdrie-supporting lawyer has looked into this issue and reckons that a further 25 of Scotland’s 42 league clubs also have club crests which could be deemed heraldic devices that are in breach of the law. Other sporting, community and educational organisations could also in theory be prosecuted for misusing heraldic devices.  

This means that in theory, a fan could report a rival team tomorrow, e.g. a Celtic fan could report Rangers, who’s club crest features a lion rampant- a royal symbol- and they would then face the same problem that Ayr are facing now.

It is not believed that English and Welsh clubs would face a similar problem, as even if the courts decided to bring a charge, which they haven’t in 61 years, they would face civil charges rather than criminal, and clubs in England and Wales would be allowed to trademark club badges, which would give them all the protection they needed.

Re-designing a club badge may seem like a non-issue, but here in the UK, club badges are an important part of a team’s identity, and it seems crazy that a badge that has been used to represent a club, it’s fans and the community for years can be threatened by the application of a 400-year-old law that was put in place to protect the interests of the aristocracy.  

Until there is a change to the law, which seems unlikely, it seems that Scottish clubs have no choice but to pay up and re-brand their clubs in order to avoid prosecution from the quill pushers at an institution which seems determined to protect something that only seems important to itself.

By prosecuting football clubs and other community organisations, rather than acting in the public interest, the Lyon Court only serves to make itself seem every bit as much of a relic than people believe it to be.