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Scottish Regiments
The Black Watch - Story of the "Red Heckle"

The Red HackleSince 1795 the soldiers of the 42nd have worn a red feather or "heckle" in their bonnets, being in this respect distinguished from all the other Highland regiments. The following is the story of the "glorious old red heckle", as told by Lieutenant-Colonel Wheatley, who, we believe, had his information directly from those who took part in the exploit on account of which the Black Watch is entitled to wear the plume.

In December 1794, when the Forty-Second were quartered at Thuyl, as above mentioned, they received orders for the night of the 31st to mark upon Bommell, distant some miles on the opposite side of the river Waal, which they reached by four o'clock on the morning of 1st January 1795. Here they were joined by a number of other regiments, and lay on their arms until daybreak, when they attacked the French army, and drove them across the river on the ice. The British held their position on the banks of the river until the evening of the 3d, when (the French having been reinforced) a partial retreat took place early on the morning of the 4th. The British retired upon the village of Guildermalson, where the 42d, with a number of other regiments, halted, and formed up to cover the retreat through the village. The French cavalry, however, cut through the retreating picquets, and made their way up to the regiments stationed at the village, where they were met and repulsed, and a number of them taken prisoners. Two field-pieces were placed in front of the village to protect the retreat of the picquets; but instead of resisting the charge of cavalry, they (the picquets) retreated to the rear of the village, leaving their guns in possession of the French, who commenced dragging them off. An A.D.C. (Major Rose) ordered Major Dalrymple, commanding the 42d, to charge with his regiment, and retake the guns; which was immediately done, with the loss of 1 man killed and 3 wounded. The guns were this rescued and dragged in by the 42d, the horses having been disabled and the harness cut.

There was little or no notice taken of this affair at the time, as all was bustle; but after their arrival in England, it was rumored that the 42d were to get some distinctive badge for their conduct in retaking the guns on the 4th of January; but the nature of the honor was kept a profound secret. On the 4th of June 1795, as the regiment, then quartered at Royston, Cambridgeshire, was out on parade to fire three rounds in honor of his Majesty's birthday, the men were surprised and delighted when a large box was brought on to the field, and a red feather distributed to each soldier. This distinctive ornament has ever since adorned the otherwise funereal headdress of the old Black Watch.

In 1822, from a mistaken direction in a book of dress for the guidance of the army, some of the other Highland regiments concluded that they also had a right to wear "a red vulture feather". The 42d, however, remonstrated, and their representations at headquarters called forth the following memorandum:-

"For Officers commanding Highland Regiments.

"Horse Guards, 20th Aug, 1822.
"The red vulture feather prescribed by the recent regulations for Highland regiments is intended to be used exclusively by the Forty-Second Regiment: other Highland corps will be allowed to continue to wear the same description of feather that may have been hitherto in use.

"H. Torrens, Adjutant-General".

The below email was received from Joseph Mad...

The article was taken from Canada's Red Hackle Magazine, Written by Mr. Earl Chapman and rewritten by Spaņiard.

THE True Story of the Origins of 42nd Black Watch Red Heckle. We spell it with a A.


Over the years the origin of the Red Hackle has caused some confusion. For some time it was believed the famous Red Feathers were awarded as a campaign Distinction, for the regiment’s service during the British retreat through the Flemish village of  Glendermaisen in January 1795.

It’s historically fact that the first “Official” use of the Red Hackle occurred when the 42nd Regiment at Royston Herttfordshire was issued Red Vulture feathers on June 4th 1795. The 42nd Regiment paraded to celebrate the birth, of King George III.

In fact, we know based on two letters discovered in 1967, stating that the 42nd Regiment had worn Red feathers twenty years earlier during the American War of Independence,  (1775-1781).  These letters are held in the Regimental archives at Balhousie Castle. The first letter was written by Lieutenant-Coronal Sir Robert Dick Commander of the 42nd on September 8th 1822, to General James Stirling who commanded the 42nd  in 1804 and served with the Regiment during the American War of Independence.

In his letter to Stirling, LCOL Dick asks for advice as how the Regiment first acquired the right to wear the Red Hackle, stating that “I always understood that the Red Feather was given for taking or defeating a regiment of Grenadiers. But I can not remember when it took place. Stearling replied; "The origins of their wearing this feather commenced early in the American War of 1776 when the Regiment was Brigaded with the Grenadiers and a light infantry of the army under the command of the late Marquis Cornwallis. At this period there were no regulation feathers. The Grenadiers wore White Feathers, the first battalion light infantry wore Green. The second battalion wore Red, and to make the whole uniform, General Sir William Howe, ordered the 42nd to get Red feathers". Stirling went on to state “When the Regiment arrived in England from Egypt in (1802) they were received by His late Majesty and Colonel Dickson who then commended them and asked his Majesty’s permission for the regiment to wear the Red Feather, in which his Majesty graciously granted.

This tells us the 71st Highland Regiment of Foot, the re-raised Fraser Highlanders, Were the first to wear a red feather while servicing in North America around 1776. In hindsight the original Fraser Highlanders 78th of Foot, were raised in 1757 for Service during the French and Indian Wars and were disbanded in 1763.

LCOL John Maitland, then commanding the Fraser’s and General George Washington. As old acquaintances, although apposed enemies they exchanged some intimidating letters. As one sent by LCOL Maitland to General George Washington warning him that in future his men would be distinguished by a Red feather in their bonnets, so that the General would not mistake them, nor avoid doing justice to their exploits.

After the War the only regiment not to be disbanded was the 42nd. However the trend of wearing a Red Feather appeared to have stopped sometime after the war. Then it was reintroduced at the parade in Royston on the occasion of the King’s birth.

It wasn’t until August 20th 1822 that the exclusive right to wear the Red Feather was finally safeguarded by the Horse Guards.

"For Officers commanding Highland Regiments.

General Order, The Red Vulture feather prescribed by the recent regulations, for the Highland Regiments, is intended to be used exclusively by the Forty-Second Regiment. Other Highland corps will be allowed to continue to wear the same description of feather that may have been hitherto in use.

"H. Torrens, Adjutant-General".

As further reinforcement of the origins of the Red Hackle, a pamphlet publish in 1862 Entitled “An Account of the Scottish Regiments ”with the statistics of each from 1808 to 1861, notes under the 42nd Regiment that,”  We cannot recollect our authority. But have always understood that the Red feather worn in their bonnets was given as a mark of distinction for their gallantry in America” this pamphlet was compiled by MacKerlie, who is know to have access to the old record books.

The Canadian unit, then known as the Royal Scots of Canada, was officially permitted To wear the Red Hackle by General Order dated May 25th 1895.

It’s my Right and privilege to wear a Red Hackle but also my responsibility, Under the Canadian Black Watch general standing orders to keep my Red Hackle Bloomed. In order to distinguish me from my Scottish Cousins.

6 beats to the drum HOY!

Black Watch


Tullymet House. Sept 1822

“Dear General, Colonel Cowell received a letter from Greenwood and Cox some time ago by desire of the Adjutant General to acquaint them for the information of the latter, from what period and by what authority, the 42nd Regiment had worn the red feather the same as is now ordered for the other Highland regiments. So many of the old orderly books have been lost that we have no official document by which to answer their question. I have therefore desired Colonel Cowell to write to the agent to that effect. But as you served in the Corps and Commanded it so many years, I think you may be able perhaps to give me necessary information on the subject and take the liberty of addressing you- I have always understood since I have been in the Regiment that the Red Feather was given them for taking or defeating a regiment of Grenadiers and that the Lt Company of the 48th [sic] who were with them on that occasion got it at the same time, but I cannot remember when I heard this took place. May I beg the favour of a few lines from you soon.
I remain
Dear General
Yours very truly
RH Dick”


“In answer to your letter of 8th inst. relative to know how the 42nd Regt came to wear the Red Feather. The origin of their wearing this feather commenced early in the American War of 1776 when the regiment was Brigaded with the Grenadiers and Light Infantry of the Army under the command of the late Marquis Cornwallis- at this period there were no regulation feathers - the grenadiers wore White Feathers, the first battalion Light Infantry wore Green,- the 2nd Light Infantry wore Red, and to make the whole uniform General Sir William Howe, then Commander- in-Chief, ordered the 42nd to get red feathers which they have wore [sic] ever since.”

When the regiment arrived in England from Egypt they were reviewed by His late Majesty and Colonel Dickson who then Commanded them asked His Majesty's permission for the Regiment to wear the red feather, which he was graciously pleased to grant- at this time the regulation feather had come out. It was great neglect of Colonel Dickson in his not getting a Government order for the Regiment to wear this feather, and to have it recorded in the Standing Orderly Book of the Regiment. This is all the information I can give you on the subject.”

The two mentions of the Regulation Feather in General Stirling’s reply presumably refer to the white feather that was ordered to be worn by all regiments in one of the War Office/Ministry of Defence’s periodic efforts to impose some uniformity on Army dress- as unsuccessful then as it is today.

In addition to these two letters, there is evidence in Stewart of Garth’s ‘Sketches of the Highlanders’ that Fraser’s Highlanders, at least, wore a Red Feather in 1776 or 1777. Taken with General Stirling’s letter it can be assumed that all Highland Regiments engaged in that campaign took to wearing a Red Feather. Of these regiments only the 42nd were not disbanded after the war.

All this proves fairly conclusively that the Red Hackle was not won at Guildermalsen but that it had been worn by the Regiment for at least 20 years before. This means that January 5th is not Red Hackle Day!

Where, then, did Sgt Cameron and Pte Dowie get their version? No doubt they were correct in remembering a parade at Royston in June 1795 and an issue of Red Hackles and no doubt the C.O., at that parade, referred to the Regiment’s action at Guildermalsen the previous January. Where Cameron and Dowie must have gone wrong was in associating the issue of the Hackle with an honour for the action. In any case the award of such an honour would seem to be extremely unlikely for the 42nd’s part in the action at Guildermalsen was not even mentioned in General Dundas’s official despatch and most telling of all, who ever heard of a Ministry of Defence Dress Committee taking a decision stemming from a battle in January in time for a parade the following June!

Sadly, then, there is no short and glamorous answer to the question "How did the Black Watch get the Red Hackle-?" Perhaps it was the result of General Howe wanting a distinctive badge for Lord Cornwallis’s makeshift brigade, perhaps the custom started in Fraser’s Highlanders as a defiant gesture and spread to the other Highland regiments involved in the campaign, perhaps the Red Feather came to the regiment with the drafts from the disbanded Fraser’s Highlanders. However it came, this unique regimental badge has been worn continuously in every form of headdress except the glengarry for over 200 years. Today’s Highlanders can continue to wear it with pride.


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