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Displaying Feathers
By W. Neil Fraser

The origin of the Scottish custom of displaying a Golden Eagle feather, or feathers, is not clear; however, the Court of the Lord Lyon provides guidelines for entitlement to display one or more Golden Eagle feather(s) at and, at least in Scotland, that protocol is respected.  Real Golden Eagle feathers are displayed tucked behind a crest badge on a Balmoral or Glengarry cap so that the large pointed end of the feather projects above, with the quill is tucked behind the badge, as a mark of rank in a clan/family.  The custom is not exactly heraldic, but it is observed and respected in Scotland.

Sadly, not all descendants of expatriate Scots understand the meaning of the display of feathers, as evidenced by those often seen at overseas Highland Games events around the world.  At some such events there are so many feathers being displayed it must terrify the remaining population of the Golden Eagle, now considered an endangered species in Scotland.

In practice, most hereditary Clan Chiefs, subsidiary Chiefs and Scots Armigers (those who have the right to bear personal arms) now choose to display feathers as part of a Silver crest badge with a plain circlet surrounding the crest from their personal arms and embossed with their personal motto.  Genuine Golden Eagle feathers are usually displayed only on ceremonial occasions.

While customs associated with Scottish clans and heraldry are governed by the laws of Scotland, I have always considered that those of us who seek to celebrate our membership in a clan should follow the rules anywhere in the world. What we are celebrating is, after all, a Scottish tradition.

Pipers in pipe band uniform also display a device made from Cock feathers splayed, usually behind the badge on a Glengarry.  Side drummers and rank and file soldiers in Highland Regiments, when wearing the full dress uniform, wear a Feather Bonnet made with black Ostrich feathers and a feather hackle in White (or Red for The Black Watch Unit).

Drum Corporal Neil Fraser (16) Cadet Pipes and Drums, Seaforth Highlanders of Canada.

During the 1992 Scottish World Festival in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, there was a Highland Games event held adjacent to the fort on St. Helen’s Island, home of the re-raised 78th Fraser Highlanders. Clan Fraser Society of Canada shared a large tent with the 78th Frasers and had an information table where I was on duty to recruit new members.  There was a large crowd in attendance that day with visitors from all over Canada and the U.S.  Most men wore the kilt and many were sporting feathers in their bonnets so that the field was a sea of various feathers, large and small.  I was standing at the Clan Fraser desk when a large gentleman wearing three feathers on his Balmoral, accompanied by his wife, ducked under the opening to the tent and came up to the desk.  Having seen so many people displaying all manner of feathers, I looked at him and asked: “Do you understand the meaning of the feathers you are wearing?”  He looked sternly at me and said: “I bloody well should, I am Sir Torquil Matheson of Matheson, Chief of Clan Matheson” (and so he was).  To make up for my rudeness, I invited Sir Torquil to join me in the private area at the rear of the tent where I had a litre bottle of Glenfiddich single malt (for emergency purposes only).  Lady Matheson and my wife Marie, who had witnessed the exchange, thought it was hilarious.  After a few drams, Sir Torquil had forgiven me and we had a lively discussion about how many feathers were being displayed, inappropriately, on the field.  We parted fast friends and kept in touch until Sir Torquil passed away a few years later and was succeeded by his younger brother.

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