They are ubiquitous to the point that, ironically, many of us don’t even notice them any more. Martlets, those footless red birds of mythological fame that have been one of the McGill’s most recognizable symbols for more than 160 years.
Martlets first flew onto campus in 1850, appearing on diplomas and again the following year on the University’s annual calendar. Over the ensuing decades, martlets of all shapes and sizes have appeared on official University items, such as flags, documents and McGill’s coat of arms, to more whimsical items like playbills, sports uniforms and winter carnival floats.
In 1922, Principal Sir Arthur Currie asked architecture professor Percy Nobbs to design a coat of arms, the patent for which was granted that year by the Garter-King-at-Arms in London, England. Different versions of the coat-of-arms were in use until 1975, when McGill’s Board of Governors settled upon the one we see today. This was registered with the Chief Herald of Canada in 1992.
“In our holdings we have lots of martlets that are more serious in nature that link back to the heraldry and James McGill. But we also see martlets being depicted with lots of humour and creativity especially when it comes to student activities,” says Theresa Rowat, Director McGill University Archives. “Seeing the two side by side is really fun.”
As part of McGill’s ongoing 190th anniversary celebrations, Rowat and her team worked in collaboration with Lisa Kisiel from Graphic Design to create two displays commemorating a myriad of martlets through the years. One is located on the first floor of the James Building and the other can be found in the passageway connecting Redpath Library to McLennan Library.
See pages 6-7 in the print edition of the McGill Reporter for more samples of the material from the displays.