The Lowly Scallop in Heraldry

The scallop, often a symbol of heraldry, was popularized by pilgrims travelling to the shrine of St. James in Spain, becoming a symbol of pilgrimage. The shrine is in Santiago de Compostela.

In English, its also called an escallop or cockle. In French, it’s a ‘coquille St. Jacques’, meaning 'cockle of St James'. The German word is Jakobsmuschel, or 'mussel of St. James'. In Dutch, the word is Jacobsschelp, meaning 'shell of St James'.

The first thing that comes to mind is the ditty about Molly Malone wheeling her wheelbarrow through the streets of London, calling “cockles and mussels, alive, alive-o”.

While at the shrine, pilgrims would pick up a ‘Coquile St. Jacques’ from the shores of Galicia as a souvenir and a passport. Worn as a cap badge, the shell proved they had been to the shrine. It also told bandits and authorities they traveled in peace, on pilgrimage.

The lowly cockle shell also served as a modest spoon of small capacity. When begging for food, the shell tucked into their cap proclaimed they wouldn't eat much.

Thus this lowly shell with the big French name, ‘Coquile St. Jacques’, has come to symbolize one who has made long journeys to far countries, one who has borne considerable naval command, or one who has gained great victories.

As a baptism symbol, it has been found in artwork discovered in ancient Christian catacombs and also in Renaissance art. Often John the Baptist is depicted baptizing Jesus by pouring water from this symbolic shell.

An escallop shell symbol is seen in many family crests, including that of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. It was on her Spencer family crest and carried forward onto hers as well.

Image courtesy Wikipedia

Another famous cockle shell is the Shell Oil logo. The tale of it’s evolution is an intriguing one…

During the Victorian Era, Japan opened up for trade. A family in London's East End began to import and sell trinket boxes, covered in shells. The company name was Shell.

Seashell Trinket Box image
courtesy Debarj on Ebay

As times changed they began transporting oil. Eventually they evolved into Shell Oil Company, carrying their name forward and adopting the ‘Coquile St. Jacques’ as their logo.

Shell Oil image
courtesy Wikipedia

A second reason for the Shell logo was an early financier who could trace his ancestry back to the Graham family. On the family crest were three scallop shells.

Image courtesy All Family Crests

Everything on a family crest, or coat-of-arms, has a reason behind it. Way back when, a Graham went on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James. This was considered the third most important holy town in Christendom.

After his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, family heraldry was created. Thus the three scallop shells in the Graham family crest.

So when those little scallops beacon to you as you walk along the shore, remember its meaning, and collect a few …just like pilgrims have for ages.

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