Those Scots

A lovely footnote from a current research project.

I was looking up genealogical records for the Birnie family of Broomhill, to try and figure out the provenance of Smith College Mortimer Rare Book Room MS 274, which has the names of both Mr. Robert Birnie, Minister of Lanark, and John Birnie of Broomhill. (Robert (1608-1691) was relatively easy, since there weren’t many Roberts in the family; every generation had at least one John, though, but my bet is on John (1643-1716), Robert’s only son.) I was using a funny little genealogical volume, Account of the Families of Birnie and Hamilton of Broomhill, by another John Birnie (the son of John son of Robert), edited and printed in 1838 by W.B.D.D. Turnbull.

It’s a nice little volume, available on, that has the Account following an account by W.B.D.D. Turnbull on a particular dispute involving many members of the Birnie and Hamilton families, regarding church interment. Mr. Turnbull had previously (1833) reprinted a copy of William Birnie’s (1563-1619) treatise against the practice of church burials, and prints this volume of genealogy and documents relating to the later dispute as additional material.

At the end of the analysis of the dispute, which is a section labeled “Prefatory Remarks, we find a description of the heraldic bookplate that apparently appears in several books that Mr. Turnbull has before him. They do not, evidently, impress Mr. Turnbull, who remarks in a footnote that “Heraldry was never properly studied as a science in Scotland. The present officials of that elegantly organized establishment are about the most ignorant reptiles that ever crawled between earth and heaven” (xviii).

The object of Turnbull’s scorn? The Birnies of Broomhill, in creating their crest, did not follow the rules, resulting in what Turnbull refers to as “a heraldic freak” (xviii): “They have given to their shield as supporters, two parsons precant, sable, in reading-desks–all proper!! La voila!” (xviii-xix).

As substitutes for the usual zoological complement of lions, unicorns, and gryphons, it must be said that the parsons, even when referred to with the French-influenced language of heraldry as “precant, sable,” seem a little odd.




Birnie, John, Esq. Account of the Families of Birnie and Hamilton of Broomhill. Ed. W.B.D.D. Turnbull, Esq. Edinburgh: Printed for Private Distribution (Edinburgh Printing Company), 1838.

Genealogical material possibly taken from BL Add. Ms. 28850, but the BL dates the genealogical part of that manuscript to 1730, and the printed volume includes deaths up to 1733.

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