The Stevensons', for obvious reasons, includes a lighthouse. As the world-famous Scots engineering family, whose legacy shines out from lifesaving beacons around the world, they were unsurprisingly regarded as "virtuous and well-deserving" enough to be allowed to order and display a Scottish coat of arms.

Tomorrow it will be among 12,000 official heraldic records for Scotland, dating from the first registered coats of arms from 1672 up until 1905, which will be added to the online research service, ScotlandsPeople.

Instead of having to go to New Register House in Edinburgh to trawl through weighty centuries- old registers, anyone in the world researching their Scottish heritage will be able to log on to the new genealogy centre website anytime, anywhere - and for free - to see whether their ancestors had a coat of arms.

Over more than three centuries all kinds of people, from shipbuilders and soldiers to train drivers and postmen, have successfully applied for and registered their own heraldic bearings in honour of their contribution to society.

With around 100 people a year granted either new arms or a re-recording of their ancestral arms by Scotland's heraldic authority, the Court of the Lord Lyon, more and more Scots will find that they too can lay claim to a colourful piece of personal history.

Arguably works of art in their own right, and in a range of bright hues including reds, blues and yellows, the arms help bring people's ancestors to life by literally painting a picture representing their achievements.

Each coat of arms also has an accompanying text, in carefully crafted calligraphy, which often includes facts that can be hard to find in other official records.

The heraldic records are the latest official documentation to be added to the nation's new online service provided by the ScotlandsPeople Centre, the renamed research centre at New Register House.

Written records from the General Register Office for Scotland and the National Archives of Scotland such as births, marriages and deaths were launched on the website earlier this year, in a bid to tap into growing interest in ancestry fuelled by popular TV shows such as BBC1's Who Do You Think You Are?

The addition of thousands of coats of arms spanning more than 200 years of Scottish history is expected to further heighten the public's fascination with the past.

Explaining the draw of Scotland's heraldic records, Elizabeth Roads, Lord Lyon clerk and keeper of the records since 1986, said: "A lot of people do a family tree but it is black and white and they want to make it colourful. They often come to get a coat of arms because it makes it more interesting. I always say to people, Don't just get names and dates, get something about where people lived, or what they looked like'.

"The majority of people searching probably have some tradition in their family that there is a coat of arms, particularly if it was relatively recent. It will be on bookplates, or they will have heard their granny talking about it."

Anyone can type in their surname, or that of someone they believe they are related to, and at the touch of a button they can see whether or not their family has a coat of arms. For £10 a digital image of a coat of arms can be downloaded.

Famous names including the writer Sir Walter Scott, are included on the register, along with the artist Sir Henry Raeburn, whose coat of arms of a "ghastly" roe deer at a burn is an example of truly bad heraldry, Ms Roads said.

Heraldic traditions vary, with family names particularly important north of the border.

Ms Roads said: "In Scotland heraldry is very bound up with the surname. All people called Murray will have silver stars on a blue background somewhere in their coat of arms, all people called Campbell will have the same basic symbols. Added to that will be symbols from the maternal line and for geographical location.

"They heraldic designers try not to include signings to indicate occupation because it will not be relevant to descendents, except, for example, with the Stevensons where generations of the family were engineers, so they have a lighthouse on their coat of arms."

For families of great importance there are "supporters", generally human figures or creatures on either side of the design acting as status symbols.

For example, the 1902 coat of arms for the first Marquess of Linlithgow, a former governor of Australia, includes two female figures, both with anchors, symbolising hope, which was his surname.

Other meanings, however, are less obvious, such as that of a rainbow arching over a globe.

Far easier to interpret are the nuggets of information that can be buried within the text describing the bright heraldic symbols, where amateur sleuths can find previously unknown information which they can then type into the website's 1901 census records to obtain more details.

Ms Roads said: "What makes the register so fascinating is having these illuminations, but it is the text which is so important.

"Very often it will tell you if an elder brother died without issue or only left daughters. That is quite difficult to find in other public records."

There are all kinds of reasons for delving into the past. With many people living overseas in nations to which countless Scots emigrated in years gone by, it is hoped that the service will benefit not just those researching their roots, but also Scotland's tourism industry - supporting the Scottish Government's Homecoming 2009 drive to lure the diaspora back home.

To increase the chances of securing that, genealogy experts in the US and New Zealand were asked to help test the new online research service before it goes live tomorrow.

Deputy Registrar General Paul Parr, who has played a key role in launching the service, said: "This will increase interest in a very colourful part of Scots history. Not everyone necessarily can have a coat of arms in their family, but we think it appeals to affinity' Scots, and that might lead to people wanting to come and explore their ancestry further."

The salmon and the flower that reveal footballer's past THE relevance of a fist holding aloft a bright yellow flower on a coat of arms for one Sir John Ure Primrose is easy to see.

For two-times Scotland footballer Bob Wilson, who was born in England, the primrose is also a vivid symbol of his much-questioned Scottish heritage.

He has long endured accusations that he had no right to play for the Scots team after a rule change allowed footballers to represent the country of their parents' birth.

Thanks to the new online records launched by the genealogy centre, ScotlandsPeople, Mr Wilson's son, Radio 4 presenter John Wilson, was able to trace direct links to Sir John, Bob Wilson's great uncle, a former lord provost of Glasgow and chairman of Rangers football club.

The footballer, now 66, who also used to play for Arsenal, had already been told by his mother that he was related to Sir John. However, the trawl through the births, marriages and deaths records on the website revealed proof of no less than eight Scottish generations of the family.

That in turn led to the nation's ageing heraldic records, which are about to be added to the online register, allowing Dorset-based Mr Wilson to see his family crest from 1903 for the first time.

An array of other symbols on the coat of arms revealing the story of Sir John's life include a brown salmon with a ring in its mouth.

It represents his time as the lord provost of Glasgow in the early 1900s.

There is also a red cross-like symbol known as a mill-rind, part of a corn mill, making a reference to Sir John's father and grandfather's professional trade as merchant millers.

John Wilson, 43, who has viewed the original coat of arms in the register at the Edinburgh centre, said: "It was a real revelation to see it, it's so incredible."