Famous Sayings: #33 — ‘Caught Red-Handed’

October 23, 2016

You were caught red-handed!

caught red-handed, redhanded, red hand
Image originally uploaded by JD Hancock via Flickr.

Often, most people who have heard the term “caught red-handed” are children (with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar). Although, I have seen it used for adults who might be doing the same thing.

But did you how far back the term goes? I certainly didn’t, until today.

Where Did This Phrase Originate?

I basically went to two places to find the origin, but most of my major questions were answered at the first.

Today, I Found Out

A question was posed by Carl F. about the origin of the phrase “caught red handed” on the website Today I Found Out. He had a story about his father, who served in the Navy during WWII. When Carl F.’s father would get a physical, the sailor would have red ink brushed on his hand to signify that he passed the physical. Strangers would say that Carl F.’s father was “caught red handed.”

In answering the question, Daven Hiskey says the phrase has its origins in Scotland, around the 1400’s. The term “red hand” or “redhand” likely referred to people with blood on their hands.

The term “redhand” was first documented in the Scottish Acts of Parliament of James I, which was written in 1432.

That the offender by taken reid hand, may be preserved, and put to the knowledge of ane Assise, befoir the Barron or Landeslord of the land or ground, quhidder the offender by his tennent, unto quhom the wrang is done or not … And uthers not taken reid hand, to be always preserved befoir the …”

There were legal cases in Scotland, in which the term was applied when someone was caught in the act of committing a crime. Terms included “apprehended rehand” and “taken with redhand.”

Additionally, the term as we know it began to take shape by the 19th century. It was first documented in Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott.

I did but tie one fellow, who was taken redhanded and in fact, to the horns of a wild stag.

Finally, the term “caught red handed” first appeared in Guy Livingstone by George Alfred Lawrence (1857).

My companion picked up the object; and we had just time to make out that it was a bell-handle and name-plate, when the pursuers came up – six or seven “peelers” and specials, with a ruck of men and boys. We were collared on the instant. The fact of the property being found in our possessions constituted a ‘flagrans delictum’ – we were caught red-handed.

The Phrase Finder

On The Phrase Finder, Gary Martin basically corroborates all the information I found on the first website, but he adds more context and background information.

To start off, Martin points out that The Red Hand has been a symbol of the Irish province of Ulster. A red hand is in the flag of Ulster. In the 1970’s a group called the Red Hand Commandors was formed. The group was comprised of loyalist paramilitaries in Ulster.

A myth pertaining to the origin of the red hand (in Ulster) involves a boat race to the shores of Ulster in order to determine the leader of that province. According to the myth, one competitor cut off his hand and threw it to shore in order to signify that he had arrived there first.

Martin says with certainty that the term “red-handed” is an allusion to someone having blood on their hands after committing murder or killing an animal. But the origin of the phrase “red-handed” is indeed in Scotland. The term was originally “red hand.”

Martin points out the term “red hand” also appears in records of Scottish legal proceedings, beginning in the 15th century. An example is from Sir George Mackenzie’s A discourse upon the laws and customs of Scotland in matter criminal (1674).

If he be not taken red-hand the sheriff cannot proceed against him.

Martin notes that Scott (the author of Ivanhoe) studied Scottish history and folklore. Scott was undoubtedly inspired by these as it turned up in his writings.


Hiskey linked to his old page on Mentalfloss. He also provided links to Martin’s page and to Google Books.

Scottish Acts of Parliament of James I is contained in An Abridgement of the Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland by William Alexander. The work was published in 1841.

On page 64 of the work on Google Books:

113 This act appears to be in force, with the following exceptions : 1. Persons apprehended in the act, or “taken redhand,” as it is here called, are, by modern practice, tried according to the rules observed in other cases: 2. The criminal jurisdiction of Barons is now limited by 20th Geo. II. c. 43, to assaults, batteries, and smaller offences, punishable.”

This was listed under “22. Against the destroyeris of planting, haning, and policie.”

What Does “Caught Red-Handed” Mean?

It’s pretty straightforward.

Basically, anyone who is “caught red-handed” is caught doing something wrong. Either someone is breaking a rule or breaking a law.

Have I Been Caught Red-Handed?

I didn’t cut the tag on the matress. It wasn’t me.

Hey … This isn’t about me.

Have YOU been caught red-handed. Hmpf.

Works Cited

Hiskey, Daven. “What is the Origin of the Phrase ‘Caught Red Handed’?” Today I Found Out. 22 May 2012. Web. Retrieved 23 Oct 2016. <http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/05/what-is-the-origin-of-the-phrase-caught-red-handed/>.

Hiskey, Daven. “Where Did the Phrase ‘Caught Red Handed’ Come From?” Mentalfloss.  16 Jan 2013. Web. Retrieved 23 Oct 2016. <http://mentalfloss.com/article/33503/where-did-phrase-caught-red-handed-come>.

Martin, Gary. “Caught red-handed – meaning and origin.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 23 Oct 2016. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/caught-red-handed.html>.

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