Lord Lyon King of Arms and law academic

Born: 27 February 1941;

Died: 26 January 2019

DAVID Sellar, who has died aged 78, was a gently urbane academic and author who as Lord Lyon became Scotland’s greatest officer of state.

He cut a majestic figure: tall, impassive, pale eyes above a fine beard. If appearances mattered – and in the post of Lord Lyon they surely do – then the 37th holder of this ancient office brought credit and dignity to one of the nation’s most historic roles.

As Lord Lyon, he held reins like no other in the world, with personal charge of heraldry, and as a judge on genealogical questions relating to family representation and pedigrees. Through his post in jurisprudence at Edinburgh University, he brought to the office the force of the law. But his lifelong study – a minor passion – was the study of genealogy and thus he was possibly the first genealogist appointed to the office.

William David Hamilton Sellar was born and raised in Glasgow, educated at Kelvinside Academy and Fettes College, read history at Oxford and law at Edinburgh, and after qualifying as a solicitor, worked briefly at the Scottish Land Court, before joining the law faculty at Edinburgh University. That was in 1969, and he remained there for his entire academic career.

Keenly interested in the promotion of Scots law, history and culture, he founded the Centre for Legal History in 1992, now one of the leaders of its kind anywhere in the world, serving Scottish legal history as an academic discipline.

In his research and in a prodigious published output, he raised questions around the nature and identity of Scots law, querying how far back the history of it can be traced. He demonstrated how our distinctive common law acted as a pillar of national identity from the wars of independence of King Robert Bruce onwards, and he examined whether this operated the same way across the Highlands as the Lowlands. He examined how much Scots law contained influences of Celtic, Roman, canon, and English law, and queried what effect the Reformation had.

His answers formed an essential framework for the interpretation of Scottish legal history, emphasising both the antiquity and the continuity of our legal system, as well as aiding the establishment of an innovative course in Scots Law and the Western Legal Tradition at Edinburgh.

His deep knowledge of sources written in Latin, Scots and Gaelic shone through when he wrote his magisterial paper on the origins of the Lordship of the Isles, the title to which is now held by Prince Charles. Mr Sellar wrote on the origins of a clutch of Highland families, including Campbells, MacDonalds, MacDougalls, MacLeods, Lamonts, MacNeills and Nicolsons, as well as editing many publications.

His output also included a treatise on Galloway genealogies, besides writings on the history of various branches of Scots law including marriage, divorce, incest, homicide and unjust enrichment.

Appointed Lord Lyon in March 2008 in succession to Robin Blair, Lyon Sellar knew that he was 36th in succession to Lyon Henry Greve of 1399. His keener eye soon fell upon the genealogical blanks, that he was 37th in succession to an unnamed Lyon inaugurated in the rank of knight by King Robert Bruce at Arbroath Abbey in 1318.

In a major lecture to the Heraldry Society of Scotland a decade ago, he not only demonstrated his expertise in Scots law, genealogy, clan history, and heraldry, but via the research of Dr Adrian Ailes, managed to put a name to a Lyon of circa 1290, one Jack Caupeny.

His research made clear however that such a pedigree is only a beginning, for his office descends from the Seannachie of Celtic times, someone who may have participated in the inauguration of kings back at least to King Kenneth MacAlpin in 843.

Mr Sellar was O’Donnell Lecturer in Celtic Studies at Edinburgh in 1985, Stair Lecturer in 1997 and Rhind Lecturer in 2000. He has been a member of the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland, vice-president of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, literary director of the Stair Society, chairman of the council of the Scottish History Society, and chairman of the conference of Scottish Mediaevalists. He has served on the council of the Scottish Genealogy Society, and of the Heraldry Society of Scotland. His formal entry into heraldic practice came with his appointment as Bute Pursuivant of Arms in 2001.

Lyon Sellar possessed his own fine sense of belonging. Great-grandson of William Sellar born in 1837 in Mortlach, Banffshire, and descendant of “400 years of blacksmiths” in the neighbouring parish of Botriphnie, his own arms recall his ancestral origins by the inclusion of a blacksmith’s hammer.

Married and a keen “walker and island hopper”, Mr Sellar once confessed “I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t interested in genealogy”, recalling “I must have been very young – possibly six or seven – when I first started pestering great-aunts and elderly relatives”. In adulthood, this led to researches into consanguinity, from which emerged the fact that in pre-Reformation Scotland, the prohibited degrees of marriage included descendants of the same great-great-grandparent: in simple terms, even third cousins could not marry.

Mr Sellar died after a short illness, and is survived by his wife Susan, step-son Andrew, and sons Duncan, Niall and Gavin, and five grandchildren.