To the untrained eye, Ronald Coutts’ coat of arms might look much like other such designs created to represent a person’s family heritage.
But for Coutts — and for generations of his family that follow him — each part of the design, from the motto “Advance Never Retreat” to the pair of trumpets on the shield, has a specific meaning.
Coutts, a retired firefighter and past president of the Village of Caledonia, recently received his official coat of arms from Lord Lyon King of Arms in Scotland — an accomplishment that involved about a year and a half of research and direct communication with Lord Lyon, whose office is responsible for heraldic matters in Scotland. Coutts had to petition Lord Lyon for the arms by not only proving his Scottish heritage, but also his worth as a member of the community.
The result is a beautiful, hand-lettered and drawn document, decorated with both Coutts’ coat of arms and that of Lord Lyon, which proclaims in great detail Coutts’ Scottish heritage and life achievements. A large framed document hangs in Coutts’ Caledonia home, while its text, signature and artwork are also on file with the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland, which has registered all coat of arms from 1672 to the present day.
A genealogical journey
It is an accomplishment that Coutts said he never thought he’d see, and part of a much longer genealogical journey that he said has been exciting for him and his family.
Coutts, who grew up thinking he had Irish heritage, first discovered that his family was instead part of Scotland’s Clan Donald when he attended his first Milwaukee Highland Games nearly 30 years ago. He found his name on a list of descendants of the Scottish Lord MacDonald there, and it piqued his interest enough to have a DNA test done through National Geographic.
The more he learned, the more he wanted to know, and Coutts soon found himself involved in Clan Donald USA — the U.S. branch of the oldest and largest Scottish clan — going on to serve first as its State Commissioner and later its High Commissioner. He’s also been involved for many years with the Milwaukee Highland Games and has served on the board of the St. Andrew’s Society of Milwaukee.
In addition to traveling around the states for Clan Donald USA events, he and his wife, Joella, have journeyed to Scotland about a half dozen times. And, through all of their travels, they said it is the many interesting and caring people they meet that they treasure most — from dignitaries such as Lord Lyon and England’s Prince Charles to other members of Clan Donald living everywhere from Australia to California.
“We’ve been blessed with all the people we’ve met, from throughout the U.S. and all over the world,” Coutts said. “Everyone has their own story.”
While she doesn’t have direct Scottish heritage, Joella said she enjoys exploring her husband’s family roots. “It’s part of us,” she said.
Joella played an important role in acquiring his coat of arms, Coutts said, having done much of the research necessary to prove that his great-great-grandfather came from Scotland.
“We had to get legal documentation, birth and death certificates, and Joella went to the courthouse in Racine and Milwaukee to find them,” he said. “If it weren’t for Joella, none of this would have been possible.”
She also donated her artistic talents to the cause, drawing drafts of proposed designs to send to Lord Lyon for his consideration. Each piece of the coat of arms design was chosen by either Coutts or Lord Lyon, and the two conferred back-and-forth as Coutts explained why certain things were important to him.
The bright blue that occupies much of the space represents the Great Lakes area, where Coutts was born and raised, for instance. And Lord Lyon suggested having a ram at the top to signify Coutts’ role as a leader and protector of people in his time as a firefighter, as well as in leading the Village Board, Clan Donald USA and more, he said. The stag, near the bottom of the design, is the Coutts family crest.
Pleased and proud
Once the elements were chosen, an artist was assigned to create the final design and “Lord Lyon had the final say in everything that got done,” Coutts said.
His whole coat of arms journey began, Coutts said, because his friend John Pyke, a past High Commissioner of Clan Donald Canada, encouraged him to apply for his arms. And while he was hesitant to do so at first, Coutts said he is very glad now that Pyke kept urging him onward.
“He told me to do it for my children and grandchildren,” Coutts said.
Establishing his coat of arms is his way, he said, of leaving his mark for future generations of the Coutts family.
“This will follow forever,” he said. “I’m very proud of this.”