Gourock Coat of Arms Public Consultation

The following post is an expansion on my response to Inverclyde’s Historical Links to Slavery Working Group: Gourock Coat of Arms Public Consultation. I have written on the Gourock Coat of Arms before, and I have a deep personal interest in it stemming from an early age. Therefore I felt it would be beneficial to share my response on this site. Inverclyde Council had pre-emptively planned to remove the Coat of Arms, concurrently with plans to de-colonise the Watt Institute’s museum collections.

I encourage any Gourockian readers to fill out the survey & hand it in by Wednesday 24th November.

Historical Background

Inverclyde Council is currently examining the historical connections between Inverclyde and the transatlantic slave trade. As part of this work, we would like to find out what you think about the display of the Gourock Coat of Arms. While living individuals are in no way implicated in the abuses inflicted by their ancestors, it is important for us to consider how historical figures are understood and remembered.

The Common Seal of the Burgh of Gourock is represented above. The shield is vertically divided, the left hand division being taken from the Arms of the Stewarts of Castlemilk, a Dumfriesshire family who held the lands of Gourock until 1784, when they were sold to Duncan Darroch, a merchant who made a fortune in the West Indies. The right hand division bears a ship in full sail, with two oak trees above and one beneath. Above is a “demi-negro” (the upper body of a black man, described as “demi” because only the head and torso are shown) holding a dagger in his right hand, and beneath is the motto “Be Watchful” (the town’s motto is “avant and be watchful” which combines the Stewarts’ and Darrochs’ mottos). The oak trees show the fertility of the Darroch estate and the other devices bear witness to the fact that Duncan Darroch spent many years of his life in Jamaica. The ship indicates his voyages, and the “demi-negro”, an enslaved man, is emblematic of the slavery which at that time was common on the American continent and in the West Indies, and which was the basis on which the Darroch fortune was built. The Darroch crest on the Gourock Coat of Arms could therefore be considered to be an outwards depiction of slavery, and the money to be made from it.

The Gourock Coat of Arms is currently displayed in various places in Inverclyde including the Gamble Halls (Gourock), the Provost’s Lamp at Shore Street (Gourock) and alongside other local burgh coats of arms on a stained glass window in the Watt Institution (Greenock).

We will use your responses to this short survey as part of our review.

Thank you for your participation.

– Inverclyde’s Historical Links to Slavery Working Group: Gourock Coat of Arms Public Consultation
The Coat of Arms as depicted above the door of the Gourock Municipal Building

I have issues with some elements of the historical background summation. As I am not a professional historian or heraldic researcher, I will defer to those more informed in these matters: I only wish to make sure these matters have been raised.

My main objection is the description of the man as “enslaved.” There are several examples of enslaved people in heraldry in the British and Irish Isles, such as the coats of arms of John Hawkins, the Burnaby family of Middlesex, the Browne family of Devonshire, the Reverend Durnay of Oxford, and the Donnellan family of Galway. The figures on these Coats of Arms are depicted bound in ropes, chains, or shackles, all of which are unambiguous markers of slavery: the Gourock man displays none of these. Several others depict individuals bearing the commodities sold on the backs of their labour – sugar cane, grain, crops – thereby equating their servitude with the fortunes made to their “masters.” Again, the Gourock man is not depicted in this fashion. In fact, the Gourock man bears more in common with the clan crests of Livingston, Murray, and MacFarlane, which depict white Scottish individuals in the same state of undress, the same attitude (affronte), and bearing a weapon in their right hand.

With this in mind, I do not feel it is necessarily accurate to describe the Gourock man as “enslaved,” for the simple reason that he does not bear the visual markers of slavery as depicted in other examples of heraldry as mentioned above.

I also consider the use of the descriptor of “demi-negro” – while of course understood in a historical context – is provocative since the term “negro” has been deemed unacceptable in social contexts since the 1970s, and any offense could be avoided with the equally accurate but more presently acceptable “demi-man, sable.”

The Coat of Arms as it appears on the side of the Gamble Halls

1. Prior to reading the background/context above, were you aware of the Gourock Coat of Arms, and were you aware of the depiction of an enslaved man on the Coat of Arms?

– I was aware of the Gourock Coat of Arms and the history behind the depiction of the enslaved man on the Coat of Arms.

– I was aware of the Coat of Arms but not the depiction of the enslaved man.

– I was not aware of the Gourock Coat of Arms.

– Inverclyde’s Historical Links to Slavery Working Group: Gourock Coat of Arms Public Consultation

As stated previously, I do not believe the man depicted is enslaved. Nonetheless, my perspective is similar to that of Professor Sir Geoff Palmer CD, who has written and lectured extensively on Scotland’s black slavery history, and was Scotland’s first black professor and Jamaica’s first Honorary Consul to Scotland:

“Although many people have stated that statues such as that of Henry Dundas should be removed, my view is that if you remove the evidence, you remove the deed. Therefore, slavery-related objects such as statues and buildings should carry plaques which tell the truth of links with slavery. In this regard, the next statue that is removed, should be racism. Teaching this history properly in schools and giving it proper attention in our higher institutions of education should help to reduce slavery-related racism. Unlike those who have said that people are different species and races, my view is that we are one humanity, nothing less.”

I absolutely understand and wholeheartedly support the desire to redress the historical record in regards to the inexcusable crime against humanity which was slavery, and it is vital that current and future generations have a better understanding than we had before. This is why I support the placement of educational plaques in all locations where the Coat of Arms is depicted, such as the Gamble Halls.

The Town Council Seals of Scotland: Historical, Legendary, and Heraldic by Alexander Porteous in 1906, explained that the man was “emblematic of the slavery which in his day was in full vogue on the American continent and in the West Indian Islands.” Porteous was very learned & accomplished folklorist, which is where his expertise lies: his knowledge of Gourock’s Coat of Arms is based on personal historical research. There are also a number of folk explanations for the Gourock Man supposing that it is a depiction of a historical event, such as a runaway slave retreating into the river & committing suicide rather than allowing himself to be recaptured: much like the “Green Oak” folk etymology for Greenock, I feel these should be discounted from the original intentions behind the depiction in the absence of direct documentary evidence.

Gourock Burgh Seal as depicted on a JaJa postcard, ca. 1905

A number of things deserve consideration. First of all, the placement. The original placement of the man on the Burgh seal was in the top right, representing the Darroch crest: the placement on the blazon against the blue & white lines does not necessarily indicate a direct connection with the sea from a Heraldic perspective beyond an artistic coincidence.

Badge of Clan Darroch

Second is the man himself. His attitude – the position and facing – is affronte, a change from the original Darroch crest where he is depicted facing dexter (their right, our left). In his right hand is a golden skean: skean of course is a Scottish variation of the dagger, derived from Scottish Gaelic sgian. It’s very important to note the significance of heraldic weaponry, as each has a specific meaning: an arrow means readiness, an axe military duty, a sword authority and knighthood. The dagger in heraldry represents power, justice, and valour: often suggesting that the bearer came close to their enemy. It is thus a symbol of status and bravery.

There are other comparisons which can be made to other Scottish crests, particularly the wild man, or “savage.” (Like “negro,” “savage” has modern offensive connotations very different from the original etymology) Clan Livingston has a demi-man with a club in right hand and a snake in the left: Clan Murray has a demi-man with a sword in one hand and a key in the other: Clan MacFarlane has a demi-man with a sword raised over his head. All these figures, like the Gourock man, are facing affronte, all depicted naked from the waist up: even the Gourock man’s hair is evocative of the laurel wreaths depicted on wild men. In Heraldry, the wild man represents nature (hearkening back to its original Late Latin origin salvaticus, from Latin silvaticus, “from the forest”) and is often used to denote protection due to their fierce nature: it also represents humans uncorrupted by the vices of civilised men, signifying truth, fidelity, and gratitude to their friends.

This also correlates with the Darroch family’s association with oaks, as depicted on the Burgh Seal. Clan Schaw and Clan Wood, who – like Clan Darroch – link their names to trees and forests, also use the Wild Man in their iconography. The Celtic Wild Man as protector of the forest is well-attested in Scottish folklore, and I feel an argument could be made that the Gourock Man is evocative of that convention. The fact he bears a skean, a quintessentially Scottish weapon, as opposed to any other weapon or item must surely have a similar significance in linking a depiction of a black Jamaican with this Scottish heraldic figure.

Compare this imagery to other crests featuring “sable” individuals in these Isles. The Coat of Arms of the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies depicts a Native American and a black African both bearing cornucopias, the Horn of Plenty, indicative of the riches the company hoped to find and exploit; the McNair Family Crest features a demi-man sable with sugar-cane, another indicator of industry (Fairbairn’s Crests of the Families of Great Britain and Ireland); the Wilkie family crest featured a demi-man sable holding a bill in one hand and a sugar-cane over his shoulder (Scottish Arms: Being A Collection of Armorial Bearings AD 1370-1678). Some depicted their demi-man sable holding items of industry, such as the Staples family with their bolt-staple.

Some are much more overt. The Burnaby of Middlesex family crest depicts “A Demi Man Sable, Holding In The Dexter Hand A Bunch Of Bluebells Proper, Round The Neck A Rope With The End Hanging Down On The Sinister (left) Side, Or (gold)” (Armorial Families: A Directory of Gentlemen of Coat Armor); Brownes of Devonshire: “a demi-man, sable, wreathed about the temples, holding in his dexter hand a hammer, or” (British Crests: Containing the Crests and Mottos of the Families of Great Britain and Ireland); The Reverend Durnay, Rector and Master of Arts of the University of Oxford: “demi-man sable, in the dexter hand a branch of columbine flowers proper, round the neck a rope with end hanging down on sinister side” (Armorial Families: A Directory of Gentlemen of Coat Armor); John Hawkins’ arms & crest: “a demi Moor in his proper colour, bound and captive, with annulets in his arms and ears.” The Donnellan Family Crest has a full man tied to a tree with a rope.

The Gourock man is not chained, nor is he bound by ropes, or dressed in any of the accoutrements which unambiguously depict slavery such as collars, or bearing the resources which slavery was used to harvest. The Gourock Man is depicted just like the white Scottish demi-men of Clan Livingston, MacFarlane, and Murray.

There are three more Coats of Arms that I would like to mention which I feel are relevant to the discussion.

The first is the coat of arms of Kettering. The newly-convened council recently voted to remove the two supporters from the seal: on the left was a man “proper habited about the waist with a Cloth and his sinister wrist encircled with a Handcuff pendent therefrom a broken Chain Azure.” This is a specific reference to the work of Baptist minister and missionary, William Knibb, born in Kettering in 1803, whose campaigning to end slavery resulted in him being the first white person to receive the Jamaican Order of Merit, the country’s highest civil honour. This is reminiscent of the Mahon Hagan family Coat of Arms, which depicts a demi-man sable with broken chains on his wrists. Councillors unanimously decided that the town’s new coat of arms should not feature the figure of a freed black man, leaving only a pelt to represent the town’s leather industry, and charges from the noble families’ coats of arms. While this is naturally nobody’s business but the town of Kettering’s, I find it rather sad such a prominent anti-slavery symbol was removed in the interests of not being seen to promote slavery.

The second is the coat of arms of Michaëlle Jean. As the viceregal representative to the Canadian crown, the Governor General is entitled to a coat of arms. On these arms are two Simbi supporters – Haitian Vodou water spirits, reminiscent of mermaids, which grant wisdom and calm rough seas – and the crest is a conch in a broken black chain, an explicit reference to Albert Mangones’ sculpture Le Marron Inconnu, which commemorates an escaped slave blowing in a sea shell as a call to arms. Jean was a refugee of Haitian ancestry who arrived in Canada in 1968, and she chose to incorporate these elements into her Coat of Arms, which she bore for all five years of her office.

Finally, the Coat of Arms of Jamaica. The crest is a crocodile, the national animal of Jamaica; supporting it are two natives, representing the Taino and Arawak Native Americans, one bearing a fruit basket. The original motto, “Indus Uterque Serviet Uni,” translates to “the Indies will serve Together.” This was changed in 1962 with a new English motto – “Out of Many, One People.” Importantly, the two native figures are retained, visually identical to their first incarnation, but their presence on the seal completely recontextualised – from one of servitude to one of cooperation and harmony. The Coat of Arms of the Gourock Parish Church incorporates several elements from the Gourock Coat of Arms, with the interesting addition of two Crocodile supporters – an adoption from the Darroch Family Coat of Arms.

Regardless of the original intentions behind the depiction of the Gourock man, the Jamaican precedent shows that it is entirely possible to recontextualise existing imagery in a manner more befitting present and future generations. Therefore, I propose that, rather than perpetuate the idea – true or otherwise – that the man depicted is “enslaved”, and that the town crest represents an endorsement of the horror of slavery, the Gourock Man should be recontextualised in a spirit fit for a modern Scotland, in the same way the presence of the Taino and Arawak supporters on the Jamaican crest were recast. The Gourock Man could be presented as an acknowledgement of the links Scotland shares with Jamaica – founded on unimaginable cruelty, yes, but now in the spirit of reconciliation and cooperation as equals, presenting the Gourock Man’s similarity to other Scottish clan crests as emblematic of equal status & importance in heraldry.

I have been informed that this debate is far from new, and debates regarding the Coat of Arms have been said to reach back even to the 1920s. If that is the case, then this means the people of Gourock have been discussing this for a hundred years, with the result – that the Coat of Arms stays – always the same. It is a matter of regret that the reasons for this are not more widely known: whether it is because of arguments like those I present above, or others entirely, are similarly unknown. Whatever the case, one way or another, a permanent solution which is freely and publicly accessible for all future generations will not only prevent a recurring debate marred by ignorance and misapprehension, but also promote greater understanding of our history.


One thought on “Gourock Coat of Arms Public Consultation

  1. […] the qualification “widely considered” on the Inverclyde Now article for reasons I’ve gone into before. It seemed more likely than not that the Council would choose to take the same route as other […]

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