Eel makes coil to arms

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The Independent Online
DISCOVERING that one has links to nobility, albeit Scottish, came as a pleasant surprise last week. (Notice how easily I have slipped into using the third person.) It all came about when my father bequeathed me some family books. The dedications reveal that, far from being descended from a long line of Cockney barrow-boys, I would almost be on nodding terms with the Queen if previous generations had not headed south to plunder the English.

Of course, I always felt that there was something intrinsically special hidden in the family vaults. On the few occasions that I've fished on the banks of a really expensive trout river, or lounged in the fighting chair of a pounds 500,000 big-game fishing boat, I have felt - well, there's no other word for it - fitted to such a lifestyle. Those blue-blood chromosomes were skirling away, sensing their heritage like a salmon unerringly detects its home river.

Obviously, it was important to discover more before I donned the Elliott tartan. Imagine my delight at discovering Heraldry of Fish, an 1842 book by Thomas Moule, in an antiquarian bookshop. I was convinced that its240 pages would uncover more evidence of aristocratic connections. After all, what else could the family coat of arms bear but some sort of fish, possibly embowed argent on a bend sable?

It isn't easy reading. Moule's 150-year-old prose demands an intricate knowledge of heraldry, a subject they didn't teach at Slough Grammar. But I have battled doggedly on, spurred by an introduction that points out: "As the symbol of a name, almost all fish have been used in heraldry; and in many instances fish have been assumed in arms in reference to the produce of the estate, giving to the quaint device a two-fold interest." What fish, I wondered, would my coat-of-arms bear?

Imagine my relief to see that it wasn't something insignificant, like a stone loach or a gurnard. The Dernfords have got the loach (azure, two fish hauriant); and the Gurneys of Norwich can, if they wish, engrave their ties with a gurnard erect upon a chapeau. But it would be wrong to mock. After all, the lowly miller's thumb or bullhead has an impressive provenance under its French name chabot.

How about this? "Philip Chabot, Count of Newblanch, was installed in 1533 by proxy in the stall formerly occupied by Sir Henry Guldeford, whose collar was, by the King's command, given to the Earl of Suffolk, in exchange for that borrowed by the King from the Earl of Calais, which was delivered to Sir Philip Chabot, the Admiral of France." Wow! I don't understand it, but that was exactly the sort of stuff I wanted to quote when parvenu money brokers, the sort who choose to buy their titles, question my right to have a shield on the dining room wall.

The range of fish used in heraldry is quite astounding. You would expect to find trout and salmon (though things have changed since Moule wrote: "In no country of the world are the salmon fisheries so extensive, or in their value of so much importance, as in Great Britain"). Dolphin, dace and dogfish; garfish, gudgeon and grayling; pike, pilchard and pearl oyster - they all here.

Unfortunately, I'm now more than three-quarters through and things are not looking good. I'm down to creatures of the seabed such as winkles, mermaids, scallops and sea urchins. Still no mention of the name Elliot. Except . . .

The closest I've come was a reference to the Ellis family of Treveare in west Cornwall (argent, three eels embowed in pale, sable). The Elleis of Southside and the Ellice family of Clothall, Hertfordshire, can lay claim to a gauntleted hand clasping an eel, while the Elwes of Clare, Suffolk, can boast five arrows entwined by an eel. It's looking serious. Those first three letters, I fear, have condemned me to at least one eel in the family crest. I always wanted to be well-heeled - but not this way.

It's not looking good. Far from being represented by a dolphin, a mahseer or even a cod, it seems increasingly like the only fish I can possibly lay claim to is one that is snake-like, slimy and, I'm afraid, beloved by Cockneys. Was I saying that blood will out?