A Feather in Your Bonnet?

Article by Chris Lindesay
with contribution by Martin Goldstraw of  Whitecairns


Attend any gathering in Australia and one encounters a variety of dress codes. Most folk are very relaxed about their dress, and turn up for the event in smart casual dress. This is sensible in our warm Australian summer months. Many wear their kilts, with a short- or long-sleeved shirt, or indeed a T-shirt. I particularly enjoy the comic headdress of tartan bonnet upon a thick shock of synthetic red hair. But what has intrigued me at past gatherings is the number walking around with one or more feathers in their Balmoral bonnet. I had always understood that wearing feathers in one’s cap was the prerogative of a Chief. As there are not too many Chiefs in Australia, I wondered about this curious situation.

One of the best places to start looking for such details on Scottish cultural tradition is the little book on Simple Heraldry by Iain Moncreiff with delightfully funny illustrations by Don Pottinger. Some more research, consulting various editions of Innes of Learney’s legalistic Scotts Heraldry or the little book on Scotland’s Heraldry by MacKinnon of Dunakin, revealed the same message, as did an exploration of the authoritative tome on The Clans, Septs & Regiments of the Scottish Highlands by Frank Adam.

Researching the Tradition

De facto use of feathers in Australia appears not to have any basis in Scottish tradition. I wondered how this has come about, so I asked a number of feather-sporting attendees at a recent gathering. Many indicated to me that they had been appointed a Clan Commissioner, or indeed a Clan Commander, and wore one or more feathers indicating this status.

 As none of the resources mentioned above could shed any light on the apparent right of Commissioners or Commanders to wear a feather, I approached Martin Goldstraw, a solicitor in Scotland, for his opinion. Martin explained that a Clan Commissioner is not more than an elected President/Chairman of a Clan Society.

 Mr Goldstraw went on to explain that a Clan Commander may be any member of the clan appointed by the Chief to represent him/her for a specified period and within a limited domain in his/her absence. For example, this period may be limited to a one-off Highland Games, or it might be for life. The domain might, for example, be limited to “Commander of the clan in Australia whilst the Chief is absent.” To effect this appointment, the appointee must be granted a Warrant by the Chief, wherein conditions of the appointment are outlined. It is only a Commander properly appointed by Warrant of his Chief who is authorised to fly the pinsel of the Chief.

Who Can Grant the Wearing of Feathers?

A Chief does not have the power to grant the right to anyone to use a feather. Thus neither a Clan Commissioner nor a Clan Commander has a right to wear any feathers, either in Australia or elsewhere. The right to feathers is only obtained through confirmation of one’s status as a Chief or Chieftain, or a grant of arms from the Court of the Lord Lyon in Edinburgh, as outlined below by Martin Goldstraw of Whitecairns.

Who is Eligible to Wear Feathers?

Chiefs wear three feathers, chieftains wear two feathers and armigers wear one.

The advice from the Court of the Lord Lyon is that: “Barons and those with territorial designations are not entitled to wear two feathers unless it has been recognised by the Lord Lyon (in writing) that they are the Head of a major Branch and are recognised as a Chief (or Chieftain) of the larger Clan.”

Lyon Court guidance is also quite clear in stating that those who do not have arms in their own right “These are the Chief’s relatives, including his own immediate family and even his eldest son” should wear the belt and buckle badge. This would seem to indicate that it is only armigers (those who have a coat of arms in their own right) who can wear a feather in their bonnet; (remember that the oldest son bears only courtesy arms and is therefore not an armiger in his own right). There could in fact be circumstances within a family where a younger son who has matriculated his own arms with the Court of Lord Lyon can rightfully wear a feather when his older brother, the heir to the undifferenced arms, can not wear one.

 Mr Goldstraw mentions that it has recently become quite common, especially in the United States and other Commonwealth countries where clan gatherings are held (but not in Scotland), to see Clan Commissioners (who should more properly be called Clan Convenors) wearing one or, horror of horrors, more feathers in their bonnet. If they are in right of Scottish armorial bearings properly recorded in The Register of All Arms and Bearings of Scotland then, according to the Lyon Court guidance quoted above, they are entitled to whatever number of feathers their rank permits. Carl Alexander von Volborth in his book Heraldry of the World perhaps put the matter most plainly when he wrote “The single feather is the mark of the head of a house.”

How Many Feathers?Chieftain_Wears_Two_Feathers

In summary therefore: 

Three feathers = Chiefs

Two feathers = Chieftains

One feather = Armigers

In the context of Clan Lindsay, Lord Crawford, as Chief of the whole name, wears three eagle feathers. Lord Lindsay, Chieftain of the clan, wears two feathers. (Both Earls include their coronet above the circlet). There are a handful of Lindsay armigers entitled to a single feather; some in Scotland, one in Canada and another in the United States, and a couple in Australia. All other members of the Clan are proud to wear the crest badge showing Lord Crawford’s swan crest within a buckle and strap inscribed with his motto.

 Mr Goldstaw concludes by suggesting that anyone who is not an armiger, but who displays a feather, also displays their ignorance of Scotland’s tradition.


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