Of all the mysterious things about a place like the Northern Highlands, one of the greatest mysteries is found in the least expected place for such a thing. The front of the Inverness Town House is placed, in a position of prominent authority, above the grand front door is placed the Coat of Arms of Inverness.
The Camel and the Elephant – Inverness Coat of Arms
On the shield of the Arms, Jesus is portrayed on the cross of his crucifixion. Above the shield is a stylised cornucopia, which means horn of plenty. The shield is supported on the left by a Bactrian camel and on the right by an Asian or Indian elephant. The entire arms are surmounted with the banner bearing the mottos of the Royal Burgh “Concordia et Fidelitas” – Fidelity and Harmony!
The arms themselves have gone through several evolutionary stages. Now that Inverness Council has become absorbed into the Highland Council administrative area, they are today merely a symbol of heraldic curiosity without any official status. The depiction on the Town House was not carved for placement there. It was actually commissioned for the old Bridge of Ness, whose modern replacement can be seen down the hill from the Town House.
Many folk will say the camel is a Dromedary, but they are wrong. It is a Bactrian camel which is distinguished from the Dromedary by dint of having two humps. Just down the road in the Highland Wildlife Park, which is well worth a visit while you are in the area, you can find Bactrian camels close to Inverness.
The Asian or Indian elephant is distinguished from the African elephant by its domed head and relatively small ears. Both are actually unusual as support animals in heraldry. It is also unusual for the support animals to dominate the coat of arms yet these characters are bigger than the shield.
The cornucopia is a heraldic item representing both strength and nourishment, coming from the story of Zeus, who broke off the horn of his nursemaid Amalthea who was in the form of a goat.
The confusion of the Commission
In 1685 an Edinburgh mason named James Smith was commissioned to carve the arms from a bare description issued by the town council. The councillors wanted to revise the instructions to clarify exactly how the earlier arms had been portrayed, with two elephants supporting the single camel in the shield instead of Jesus. Today, inside the Town House, a panel, probably from 1686, depicts an earlier coat of arms that depicts a Dromedary (one hump) camel standing normally (statant – in heraldry) on a red shield with two elephants supporting it. The elephants are portrayed standing on their hind legs (salient – in heraldic terms). James Smith had already completed the work described in his initial brief and wanted payment for a second carving. So, rather than finding more funds to correct their mistake, the councillors decided to accept and adopt this new form of arms for the Burgh!
We can therefore explain how Jesus on the Cross became the central motif, and the camel gained a hump, but why the elephant and camel were there in the first place remains a mystery. Traditionally in heraldry, the camel represents patience and perseverance, while the elephant denotes great strength. Sometimes the elephant has been used to indicate those who have distinguished themselves in the East, and some commentators have remarked that the symbols reflect early trade links between Inverness and the Far East. Such links are not reflected in archaeological evidence gathered around the town or the few historical records available. Certainly, in the seventeenth century, international trade was minimal, and before that, links were with the lowlands and France rather than far away exotic locations.
We do know that what became Inverness was an important Pictish centre around the time of Saint Columba. Could those elephants supporting a camel have started as Pictish beasts? What might the camel have been in the days of King Brude? That would be fun. As you look across the river towards Craig Phadrig from the Town House steps, it’s something to think about.