The scallop shell has been used to represent the Way of St James (El Camino), since the 12th century. Medieval pilgrims would arrive at Santiago de Compostela to complete their journey and take a scallop shell as a memento of their pilgrimage.
Many medieval pilgrims were so proud of their achievement that they were buried with their shell. Archaeologists have excavated a number of sites, such as St Mary’s Cathedral in Tuam, where scallop shells have been found alongside human remains. Modern pilgrims continue the tradition, wearing the scallop shell throughout their journey, either as badges or hung around the neck.
A number of legends explain the significance of the scallop shell.
One story tells of a horseman who had been riding along the beach when his horse bolted into the sea. The two were carried out to sea nearly sealing their fate to drowning in the ravage waves of the Altantic ocean. However, he and his horse were washed ashore unharmed, their bodies covered in scallops. The miracle was attributed to St James.
By the 12th century the scallop was considered by ‘The Pilgrim’s Guide’ to be the “insignia of St James”.
The connection was cemented and entered into common parlance, particularly in France where the common name for the scallop is the shell of St James (Coquilles St Jacques).