Marriage: Part Three

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OurWedding-41This article covers marriage in later sources for Scotland and the Isle of Man:

In spite of the Church’s increasing influence – particularly during the Reformation in Scotland, that discouraged many traditional customs that the Catholic Church had tolerated with quiet disapproval – such informal marriages remained legal until 1939 when an overhaul of the Marriage Act in Scotland no longer legally recognised any unions that were not performed by the Church or State. In England, informal unions were no longer recognised by law with Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753, and so for almost two hundred Scotland sat at odds with its neighbour and in peculiar contradiction with itself, frowning on the wicked and impious, and yet having to accommodate, if not condone, informal marriages into the twentieth century.1

Regardless of the kind of marriage that was entered into, it was inevitable that in most cases celebrations and ceremonies of some kind took place. In the surviving folk traditions we see a wealth of customs associated with the courting and then agreeing of the marriage, the timing of it, the location of it, and the preparations that came with it. While certain customs were very localised, we can also see commonalities from across Scotland, and with England and Ireland as well. Given the history of these nations, and the influence of the Church (restrained though it may have been), it is very difficult, therefore, to interpret anything as uniquely Gaelic in origin. What we can say, though, is that they are often very uniquely Gaelic in their expression.

Courtship and engagement

Most of the evidence we’ve seen so far has discussed marriage in legal and historical terms, which inevitably gives more emphasis to those of higher status – arguably, they had more to lose, if not more to gain in making sure that laws and customs gave them adequate protection, and were very strictly adhered to. As a result, with more to lose, high status marriages were often arranged with the advantage to the families in mind, rather than the feelings of the couple involved. What we see then, is often fairly dry and unromantic, and it becomes easy to forget that love and romance was very much a concern throughout history. The songs, poems, and tales of romance and tragic, ill-fated love give a good balance to this.

Unlike early medieval Ireland and Scotland, women who had children out of wedlock in relatively recent times were hugely stigmatised, as were their children. In some parts of the western world people may still whisper at perceived improprieties, but the treatment of ‘fallen women’ was much more severe even a hundred years ago, with the women and her offspring being effectively ostracised from the community. They were effectively made social outcasts, because of the slur against their families good name and their immorality. As a result, in more recent folk tradition, customs evolved to deal with the problem of allowing a couple to get to know each other, and yet make sure that a maiden’s honour remained in tact – an unmarried woman didn’t want to get a reputation for loose morals, since even a hint of this would damage her chances of making a good marriage.

For some couples, the only option to really get to know each other was by clandestine meetings arranged at the dead of the night, with the young man sneaking into his girlfriend’s house after everyone else had gone to bed.2 For others, the solution to the problem was a little more pragmatic in the view of the parents – the practice known as ‘bundling’, or caithris na h-oidhche (‘watching by night’). Once the seriousness of the relationship was acknowledged by the families involved, the young man would be allowed to spend the night with his intended – under her parents’ roof and with their full consent. In order to prevent any funny business, the young woman would have her legs bundled into a large stocking, and they were then tied firmly together. The young man was then allowed in, and they were left alone for the night.3

When the prospective bridegroom was ready to ask for his lady’s hand in marriage, it was only natural that he should first obtain permission from the girl’s father. In Shetland, this was called the spörin’, or the ‘enquiring.’4 Then followed the contracting, which involved the formal negotiations of the terms of marriage, known as a reiteach in Gaelic.5 This stems back to the negotiation of the bride-price and dowry, of course, and even after the formal contracting of betrothals fell by the wayside, it was expected that the financial burden of the wedding and helping the newly wedded couple set up home should fall on the bride’s parents. Even back to the earliest legal evidence, these negotiations depended on the worth of the husband-to-be, and what he could contribute in order to maintain his wife and the family they would be raising together. It was incumbent on the bridegroom to appear in as positive a light as possible, to show that he was worthy of the bride’s affections, and also to make sure the best possible dowry could be secured from her family.

The prospective bridegroom gathered some close friends and went off to the bride’s house to speak with her father, armed with a generous amount of whisky and port wine. This was usually done on a Friday evening, by prior arrangement and so they would be expected, and the bride herself might have some friends of her own around her. Sometimes the group would arrive at the house and speak as if they were strangers seeking hospitality for the evening, to which the bride’s father would agree to.6

The bridegroom himself did not generally speak much upon being received by his soon-to-be father-in-law, instead leaving the business of negotiation up to one of his friends – often a close relative. Often the negotiation was done by means of euphemism – the best man would use metaphors based on whichever way the father made his living, in order to ‘procure’ the bride on behalf of the bridegroom. Thus, if the father was a sheep farmer, the best man would discuss the fact that his good friend was interested in purchasing the father’s finest sheep in his flock, and so on. Where the father was receptive to the idea, the negotiation was done in good humour, with the father initially agreeing to all terms on a feigned misunderstanding of what the best man was really talking about and offering the hand of his flock, or the other women in the room – all but the bridegroom’s intended. Eventually it would come to the point where an agreement was made, and the celebrating could begin.7

In the early- to mid-twentieth centuries, things changed a little, with the reiteach being performed under more direct and straightforward circumstances. After a round of whisky had been had, the appointed speaker would pour out another and then, standing up, would start his speech. He would start with why they were all there, and talk his friend up to the father – showing off his good points of character, his future prospects, and whatever it was that he could bring to the marriage in terms of property or assets. The father would listen gravely and when the speaker had finished, the father would then take his stand and wish the couple well in their marriage with a toast (the reiteach being more of a formality in latter times, than a negotiation as such, but clearly it has its roots in the custom of formal betrothal). In theory, based on what the bridegroom was bringing to the union, the father would use this to decide the dowry he was to give for his daughter, and there may have been some bargaining on both sides to reach an agreement that satisfied both sides. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, this aspect of the reiteach had all but disappeared.8

After the toast, the parties would split up. The friends would move to the kitchen while the bride and bridegroom, parents and the appointed speaker would discuss the details of the wedding (over more whisky, of course) – who to invite, where to have it, and so on. Then, with the formalities over, there were songs and tales, more drink to increase the cheer, and a careful eye kept on any possible ill omens. In this respect, a glass breaking, or a light going out at an inopportune moment was considered to be a bad sign for the couple’s future, and everyone was keen to make sure that no such calamities happened.9

Bennett records that these reiteach gatherings lasted well into the twentieth century, albeit in a slightly watered-down form – more an acknowledgement of tradition than its strict upkeeping – with an interviewee for her Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave noting that she attended one such modern “reiteach-of-sorts” in 1988.10 Naturally, with the traditions of the bridegroom asking for his bride’s hand in marriage from the father falling out of favour in modern traditions, there isn’t much motive for these kind of customs being upheld any more.

Preparation for marriage

In the run up to the wedding, there was plenty to prepare for. On the night before the wedding, the bride and her friends and neighbours would prepare the chickens for the feasting the next day – plucking, gutting, and so on.11 These were often donated by other families in the village who were invited towards the wedding, to help towards the cost of the wedding.12 This is where the term ‘hen night’ comes from,13 which today is more likely to involve the bride going out on the town and getting horrendously drunk with friends, than any dead chickens… In this sense, it has become a parallel of the bridegroom’s ‘stag night’, one last alcohol-fuelled fling of freedom before marriage, usually ending with the bridegroom chained to a lamppost or finding himself waking up on a train to who knows where without a ticket thanks to the machinations of his friends…14

For the modern bride, the hen night generally involves the bride being dressed in a ridiculous outfit, with help and spurring on from her friends, followed by large amounts of alcohol. In the west coast of Scotland in particular, this is often accompanied by the custom of ‘pots and pans’ – the bride-to-be is given a potty (sometimes filled with salt), a dummy (pacifier) and other paraphernalia like learner plates to mark the bride out. Her friends carry the pots and pans and anything else that can make plenty of noise, and then they go round the pub, or travel from one pub to another, making a racket and singing. As she goes round, the bride asks any men present for money, in exchange for a kiss.15

The custom is thought to date back to at least the nineteenth century, and it was originally a chamberpot that was taken round, rather than a child’s potty. The symbolism is less to do with fertility as the child’s potty and the dummy might suggest, as it is to do with a handy receptacle for collecting coins and cash in (the salt also symbolising prosperity), but it is a custom that remains popular today.16

Back in the days of plucking chickens, though, other foods would be prepared for the wedding feast as well – in Shetland, huge oatmeal bannocks about three feet in circumference, then cut in half, would be toasted by the fire and then set on the table with the cut edge facing the fire, constantly being toasted from the morning before the wedding well into the day of the wedding itself. This was the work of two women, while the men would bring in the sheep and slaughter as many as needed for the next day.17 Care was taken with the cakes to make sure that none broke – a bad omen, but particularly with the first one that was baked. A bridal ale was brewed as well, and if the wort boiled up on the far-offside of the pot in which it was being brewed, the omen was not considered to be a good one. Conversely, the omen was good indeed if the wort boiled up at the front, and if the beer fermented good and strong, it was taken as an excellent sign indeed.18

Others would help to take all of the bride’s presents and her outfit to the house she would begin her married life in, and according to Napier the best maid would go first, carrying ‘a certain domestic utensil’ filled with salt (presumably this was a chamberpot, as mentioned above, which would explain Napier’s reluctance to name it explicitly), which was then sprinkled over the floor for protective purposes against the evil eye.19

On returning to the bride’s parents house, the glanadh-nan-cas, or ‘foot-washing’ would be performed, and in his own home the bridegroom would also be subjected to it. The aim of the rite was to wash the feet – a simple purification but with a twist. While some washed the bride or bridegroom’s feet, others tried to blacken them with soot, black treacle, or anything else that would do the job. Sometimes it wasn’t just the feet that were subjected to this treatment, but the legs, arms and even face – whatever presented an opportunity. Eventually, with the rite over and some semblance of cleanliness attained, it was time for dancing and singing and relaxing before the big day.20

Napier is of the opinion that the rite is Norse in origin, “in all probability a survival of an old Scandianvian customs under which the Norse bride was conducted by her maiden friends to undergo a bath, called the bride’s bath, a sort of religious purification.”21

A seeming variation of the rite can be found in Aberdeenshire, where brides often visited the ‘Brides Well’ in Corgarff on the evening before the wedding, and there, with her friends, she went “atween the sun an’ the sky to it” – naked, presumably, or at least partially. Her friends washed her feet and upper body in the waters drawn from the well, in order to ensure a family. Before leaving, the bride would sprinkle in the crumbs of some bread and cheese, to make sure her future offspring would be kept safe from hunger and want.22

Of course the bride would also need a dress in which to get married. The traditional white dress was introduced by Queen Victoria in the nineteenth century, but it didn’t catch on amongst ‘ordinary folk’ until the twentieth century. Before then, a bride would simply marry in her best dress – one she already had, or one she made specially for the occasion. The colour wasn’t so important, but green and black were generally avoided because of their negative associations with fairies and mourning respectively. Silver was a popular choice for those who could afford it, while blue was also popular because it represented constancy – “Marry in blue, love ever true.”23

The wedding day

We have several detailed descriptions of the kinds of celebrations that took place for a wedding, and overall the impression we get is that the actual ceremony – whether performed in church or elsewhere – was but a small part of the proceedings. The wedding was as much about the day as it was the ceremony, and consisted of a series of customs and traditions that all had the underlying aim of ensuring luck to the couple.

It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that church weddings became the norm in Scotland, and before then weddings were often performed in the bride’s parent’s house, or at the local laird’s house or manse, or even on the church steps. The nuptial mass, after the couple had been married, took place in the church itself, but the exchanging of vows was just as valid outside of the church as it was in it.24

On Shetland, where we have one of the most detailed descriptions, weddings ideally took place at a new moon to ensure luck to the couple (with the three winter moons being the most common timings),25 and weddings during the waxing of the moon were common elsewhere in Scotland, as well.26 It was considered good luck to have clear and sunny weather for the day, and likewise if it was dull and wet then no good omens were to be seen at all.27

The day of the wedding dawned bright and early at around six for the bride and bridegroom and their respective parties, and they would sit down to eat and talk for a good long while, presumably to give the bride and her party time to prepare and dress. When the bridegroom was ready he would go to the bride’s house, with his party following, and they would line up at the door and fire a shot off to announce their presence. The bride’s party would ignore this, prompting another round being fired, which was ignored again until a third round went off. Then:

“After a third shot, the door is opened, and the bride, leading all her maidens in single file, walks to the spot where the bridegroom and his men are standing, when every lad must kiss every lass. On re-entering the house, an ancient and peculiar custom is observed. The bride, with her maidens, on coming out of the house, does not walk direct to the spot where the bridegroom is standing, but turns to the left, and goes so as to form a half-circle, following the course of the sun; and on re-entering, the circle is completed. Observing an order of procession as old as the hills, they walk to the manse.”28

This apparent reluctance on the bride’s behalf was sometimes played out more forcefully by the bridegroom and his party, with the bride being essentially carried off rather than going willingly. Mostly this reluctance was for show, although in times past in arranged marriages, the bride’s reluctance may have been more genuine.29

In Shetland, the couple were led to the place they were to be married by the ‘honest folk’, a married couple who took on the role of host, effectively, while the couple were otherwise engaged with their matrimony. A fiddler would often accompany the procession to the manse, and Pennant notes that for marriages, as at baptisms, it was customary to go round the church deiseal (sunwise) before the ceremony was performed.30

Once the ceremony was done there was great rejoicing, and as the couple kissed, in some parts of Scotland, there would be a scramble from the young men in attendance to get their kiss in for the bride as well. With gunshots and bag-pipes, she would then be carried on her way.31

In Shetland again, as the ceremony was completed and the rejoicing began, the ‘honest man’ took around wine or brandy to offer to everyone, and the ‘honest woman’ went after him with biscuits or cake. Shots were fired off in rapid succession, and then followed the procession home to where the celebrations would take place. In some parts of Scotland, the newlyweds would gather at the door and throw pennies for the children to make a mad scramble for before leaving for the wedding feast.32

The mother of the bride (sometimes the mother-in-law) would go on ahead to be prepared with the bride’s cake for her arrival; this cake was sometimes called the ‘dreaming-bread’, and was generally a sweet cake made with caraway seeds, which she would break over her daughter’s head as she crossed the threshold.33 On the mainland, it was sometimes an oatcake, or in more recent times, a plain shortbread that was broken over the bride’s head, and those who had yet to marry would scramble for the crumbs so they could take them home and put them under their pillow, in order to dream of their future spouse (hence the name, ‘dreaming-bread’). Sometimes it might be bread and cheese held in a sieve that was scattered,34 but the oatcake, or other kind of cake, seems to have been the more popular version.

After the cake, the bride was taken to the hearth where her hands were placed on some tongs:

“The besom was at times substituted for the tongs, when she swept the hearth. The crook was then swung three times round her head, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and with the prayer, ‘May the Almichty mack this umman a gueede wife.’ The last act of her installation as ‘gueedwife’ was leading her to the girnal, or mehl-bowie, and pressing her hand into the meal as far as possible. This last action, it was believed, secured in all time coming abundance of the staff of life in the household.”35

Modern day wedding favours, by Corey Balazowich

Modern day wedding favours, by Corey Balazowich

The bride’s mother-in-law would then hand her the keys to the house, a symbolic gesture that also acknowledged the bride and transferred the care of the mother-in-law’s son to his new wife. All of this was accompanied by toasts and drinks from those who stood watching, and once the bride had been officially installed as ‘goodwife’, the remains of cake that had been broken over her head were passed around (if they hadn’t been scrambled for already). These days the more familiar wedding cake – often a rich fruit cake – has taken the place of the dreaming-bread, but it is still a tradition for unmarried folk to place a little under their pillow.36 While they are now more usually bought from a baker, they were more often than not made by a member of the family or a close friend, carefully and thickly iced and decorated with symbols of good luck – small horse-shoe charms, or white heather, for example, which were then given as favours to some of the young women who were there as guests.37

With these ceremonies for the bride done, it was time for the feasting. Larger parties in particular were held in the barn – usually in the bride’s parents barn – and it was often seen as bad luck to hold the wedding celebrations in the house.38 In families who were well off, the feasting and drinking could be a lavish and elaborate affair, with many different courses being served. Gregor tells us that typically, there would be milk-broth served to start, followed by barley-broths of beef, mutton or chicken, and then various kinds of meats for the third course. The puddings that followed were plenty and varied as well, served with vast amounts of cream.39 In Shetland, vast amounts of ‘stove’, made up of up to six freshly slaughtered sheep, chopped into small pieces and well seasoned with plenty of salt, pepper, caraway seeds, and then boiled up in a large ‘kettle’ before being served with oatcakes, in huge dishes and eaten with special spoons of cowhorn (with longer than usual handles, to accommodate the amount of grease and fat in the ‘stove’).40

The alcohol flowed freely, but in a general order starting with ale to be drunk with the food, and then whisky punch, freshly made with great show and encouragement. This job was given to some of the older men of the village, whose punch-making abilities were well known and greatly appreciated. Large bottles would be brought in, and the punch-makers would pour them into great punchbowls set before them. Boiling water and sugar would follow, all measured by eye, and then once the sugar had melted and was well mixed, the punch-maker would taste it, and pass a glass to another taster. If it was declared good, the punch was served to all of the guests, and toasts to the health of the bride and bridegroom were offered, with more rounds and toasts quickly following.41

McNeill, on the other hand, says that it was Het Pint that was made – warmed ale mixed with whisky, pepper, ginger, nutmeg, thickened with beaten eggs, and pieces of toasted biscuit added. This was passed around in the Bride’s Cog, a large wooden ‘loving-cup’ with three ‘lugs’, or ‘ears’ for passing round a group so that everyone would drink to the newlyweds as it was passed around.42

With these formalities finished, and plenty more to drink on offer, the dancing would begin – accompanied by pipes and fiddlers, of course – and this carry on until the wee hours of the morning.43 Every now and then the dancing would stop and refreshments served – bread, cheese, ale and punch. In large parties the men who made the punch were on hand to keep a continual flow going. This was often done in the quieter surroundings of the best room of the house, and the men would make the punch and chat, supping and toasting each other’s health as they went, with young women helping to carry it to the barn for serving and letting everyone know how the party was proceeding in the barn.44

At some point, during the course of the celebrations, someone would often surreptitiously try slip some salt into the bridegroom’s pocket without it being noticed, to ensure good luck,45 and in order to ensure an abundance of children from the marriage it was considered necessary for the bridegroom to have any knots in his attire loosened.46

In Ireland, there is the famous tradition of the strawboys, but I have seen only one reference to it in a Scottish context, recorded in the mid-nineteenth century in Shetland. Here, Jamieson tells us:

“About nine o’ clock, commotion and whispering being observed among those nearest th door, the fiddler stops, dancing ceases, and the ‘honest man’ informs the company that the ‘guisers’ have arrived. On the best man’s announcing that there is plenty of both meat and drink for all comers – five gallons of whisky, it may be, yet untouched – the fiddler is told to ‘play up the guisers’ spring.’ In walks a tall, slender-looking man, called the ‘scuddler’, his face closely veiled with a white cambric napkin, and on his head a cap made of straw, in shape like a sugar-loaf, with three loops at the upper extremity, filled with ribbons of every conceivable hue, and hanging down so as nearly to cover the cap. He wears a white shirt, with a band of ribbons around each arm, and a bunch of ribbons on each shoulder, with a petticoat of long clean straw (called ‘gloy’) which hangs loosely. The moment he enters he gives a snore, and having danced for a few minutes, another enters, called the ‘gentleman,’ somewhat similarly attired: he, too, having danced, a third, called the ‘fool,’ appears, and so on till all are in. And it is really a strange sight to see six tall young men dressed thus fantastically, and dancing with so much earnestness. They are careful to speak not a word lest they reveal their identity; and not a sound is heard but the music of the fiddle and the rustle of the straw petticoats, the thud of their feet on the earthen floor, the laughter of the ‘fool,’ and the whispers of the bride’s maidens guessing who the guisers may be.”47

Their dancing continued on until the wee hours, until they finally paused for refreshments in the form of sowans and milk. They then left, and were not seen again until the next morning when they met up again for breakfast and then processed around the village, still dressed up in their distinctive costumes, before stopping for lunch.48

The couple’s retirement to bed formed the last part of the celebrations for the wedding day, and this too was accompanied by certain customs, aimed at ensuring the luck and bountiful progeny of the couple, just like everything else. In the north of Scotland, this was called the beddan,49 or else the bedding,50 and really to our modern eyes the couple involved might seem to have retained very little dignity in this formality of being put to bed by the wedding party, in expectation of the newlyweds consummating their marriage. No pressure, like… But in essence, it was a support, and a recognition of an important rite of passage.

In anticipation of the beddan, on Barra, the mothers of the couple would bless the marriage bed and sprinkle water over it as they did so,51 although in some parts the couple were supposed to sleep in the barn for their first night together, as it was considered unlucky to spend it in the house.52 First the bride retired to bed, and with the help of some of her female friends, she undressed and got into bed. Before the women left the room the bride was given a bottle of whisky, some bread and cheese, which she then shared out to everyone. Then the bridegroom went in and got undressed with the help of his friends, and the men all kissed the bride.53 Finally, everyone would pile in to the room, and the bride would be given one of her stockings, which she would then throw over her left shoulder into the crowd. Whoever got it was said to be the next one to marry, much like the throwing of the bouquet by the bride today. Then there was another round of whisky, drunk to the health of the couple, and so they were left to it.54

In the morning, the bride would set aside the stiom, or ‘snood’ – a narrow head band of white linen, wool, silk, or satin – that maidens traditionally wore, for the first time in her life, and she would put on the breid, or ‘kertch’ (or ‘closs cap’, or ‘mutch’) of a married woman.55 Unlike the narrow band of the stiom, the breid was a square of white linen (or other material), shaped into three angles – “symbolic of the Trinity, under whose guidance the young wife was to walk” – and formed into a sort of cap.56 Her mother, or sometimes a group of neighbourhood women accompanying the mother, would help arrange her hair in the breid beannach (a pointed coif), as well as help with the breid itself, and on the bride’s first outing, the first man she should meet would give her a blessing on her fine new headgear, and praise her beauty and give a little advice on what makes a good and successful marriage.57

A good wedding celebration lasted at least three days or so, even a week. The couple would go to church on the Sunday following their marriage to be kirked, and the drinking, dancing, feasting, and entertaining would carry on for days to come.58 This, of course, cost money. Those of less substantial means would often opt for a ‘penny wedding,’ or ‘penny Bridal,’59 whereby some of the cost (at least) was mitigated by the contributions of the guests. Given the excesses associated with weddings, but in particular, it seems, with these ‘penny bridals’, the Kirk Session of Cullen had this to say in 1708:

“The session considering that many abuses are committed at penny weddings by a confluence of idle people that gather themselves mainly to hear the musick did and do hereby enact that whoever afterwards shall have pypers att their wedding shall forfeit their pauns and that they should not met in a change hous the Sunday after their marriage under the same pain.”60

In other words, the couple’s kirking the following Sunday was to be denied them – about as much as the Church could do to clamp down on such extravagant and licentious behaviour, and evidently, considering the above, they didn’t get very far.

In Kenmuir, on the banks of the Clyde near Carmyle, it was traditional for the couple to visit the ‘Marriage Well’ on the day after their wedding. The well – really a spring – is said to have taken its name from two trees that grew over it, the branches intertwining, and the couple, and their wedding guests, drank a pledge to the couple, “in the draughts of its sparkling water.”61

Divorce

Inevitably, sometimes, marriages didn’t work out for one reason or another. Regardless of the laws and legal procedures of the time, some customs of what might be termed as ‘unofficial’ divorces, just as there were ‘unofficial’ marriages, have been recorded.

On Orkney, just as there was a distinctive betrothal customs carried out at the Odin Stone near Stenness, there was also a rite of divorce available to couples who wished to dissolve their marriage vows. This rite is described in an eighteenth century source, but even then was described in the past tense:

“It was likewise usual, when husband and wife could not agree, that they both came to the Kirk of Stainhouse, and after entering into the kirk the one went out at the south and the other at the north door, by which they were holden legally divorced, and free to make another choice.”62

Likewise, St Cowie is shown to have been a proponent of couples freeing themselves from an unhappy marriage, unlike his counterpart St Couslan. Couslan, it seems, was staunchly in favour of allowing an unhappy couple a second chance at holy (and happy) matrimony, and so:

“…he instituted an annual solemnity, at which all the unhappy couples in his parish were to assemble at his church; and at midnight all present were blindfolded and ordered to run round the church at full speed, with a view of mixing the lots in the urn. The moment the ceremony was over, without allowing an instant for people present to recover from their confusion, the word cabbay (seize quickly) was pronounced, upon which every man laid hold of the first female he met with. Whether old or young, handsome or ugly, good or bad, she was his wife till next anniversary of this strange customs, when an opportunity was afforded him of getting a worse or better bargain.”63

Given the custom of handfasting, or betrothal, and the confusion with informal marriages often at play, it’s difficult to say whether or not these customs were associated with actual divorces of married couples, or the breaking of betrothal contracts, which may have led to marriage-by-default, essentially, and in turn led to some confusion between all of the terms. While the Church would have disapproved of such informal marriages, to all intents and purposes, their somewhat liberal approach to allowing the breaking of betrothal contracts at least in some parts of Scotland may have made sense to encourage Church sanctioned unions in future.

The Isle of Man

The evidence for the Isle of Man is sparse, but seems to have followed much the same customs as those found in Scotland, particularly Galloway.64 Before the wedding took place, there was the delicate matter of arranging it, and so the moyllee, ‘a praising man’ would speak on the bridegroom’s behalf in order to secure the marriage, both in terms of persuading the bride, and the bride’s parents.65

On the wedding day, there was the procession to the church, with the bridegroom going to pick up his bride along the way, and then carrying on with the men in the lead and the women behind. On his way, just as he left the house, the bridegroom would have an old shoe thrown after him, and the same would be done as the bride left her home. Then, as they began the procession to the church together, there were attempts made to take the shoes off the feet of the bride, which resulted in her bridegroom having to ransom them back for her.66

At the church, it was customary to go round it three times sunwise,67 and for the ceremony it was considered to be ‘the luckiest thing’ for the bride to have borrowed a pocket handkerchief for the day.68 After the wedding the party came home for the feasting and dancing, “and between that and drinking, pass the remainder of the day.”69 Broth, geese, hogs, sheep and even whole oxen, “divided but into quarters” were all part of the usual lavish fare on offer in the eighteenth century, according to Waldron,70 and for those of lesser means, penny weddings were common, just as they were in Scotland and England.71

Summary

Many of the wedding traditions found in Scotland varied from place to place in terms of detail, but certain elements remained constant –

  • The gathering of the two separate parties, for the bride and bridegroom, at their respective houses
  • The collection of the bride by the bridegroom and his party, often with a challenge or test of his resolve involved
  • A procession to the place where the couple were to be married
  • The ceremony
  • The procession back to the place where the wedding feast was to be held
  • The ‘initiation’ of the newly-wedded wife into her role as ‘goodwife’
  • The feasting and celebrations

While the evidence for the Isle of Man is less detailed, we might assume that the general outline was the same there as well. Now, we will take a look at Irish customs and traditions.

Continue to Part Four –>


References

1 Grant, Highland Folk Ways, 1961, p362; See also Marriage, Scottish Way of Birth and Death from the University of Glasgow website.
2 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p87.
3 Newton, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, 2000, p154.
4 Spence, Shetland Folk-Lore, 1899, p288-289.
5 Newton, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, 2000, p158-159.
6 MacDonald, Story and Song from Loch Ness-side, 1914, p143-8 in Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p154.
7 Newton, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, 2000, p158-159.
8 Owen, North Uist, 1953 in Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p160.
9 Owen, North Uist, 1953 in Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p160.
10 Interviewing Christina Stewart, Urray, 1991 – Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p165.
11 Livingstone, Scottish Customs, 1996, p36.
12 Interviewing Christina Stewart, Urray, 1991 – Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p164.
13 Livingstone, Scottish Customs, 1996, p36.
14 Charsley, Rites of marrying: The wedding industry in Scotland, 1991, p109-110.
15 Charsley, Rites of marrying: The wedding industry in Scotland, 1991, p102.
16 Charsley, Rites of marrying: The wedding industry in Scotland, 1991, p108.
17 Jamieson, Shetland, writing in Reid, Art Rambles in Shetland, 1869, p60-62, in Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p169.
18 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p89.
19 Napier, Folk Lore, or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p31.
20 Alexander MacDonald, Story and Song from Loch Ness-side, 1914, p143-8, and Capt Ed Burt, Inverness, 1726, in Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p154-155.
21 Napier, Folk Lore, or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p31.
22 McInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p235.
23 Livingstone, Scottish Customs, 1996, p39.
24 Anton, ‘Handfasting in Scotland’, in Scottish Historical Review Vol XXXVII, 1958, p93-94.
25 Spence, Shetland Folk-Lore, 1899, p189; Robert Jamieson, Shetland, writing in Reid, Art Rambles in Shetland, 1869, p60-62, in Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p167.
26 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p88.
27 Napier, Folk Lore, or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p31.
28 Robert Jamieson, Shetland, writing in Reid, Art Rambles in Shetland, 1869, p60-62, in Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p169-170.
29 Newton, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, 2000, p158.
30 Pennant, A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1776, p309.
31 Revd. J. L. Buchanan, 1782, p163-8, in Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p149.
32 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p93. This tradition can be found in England as well, I once took part in a scramble at a wedding in Cumbria, when I was about ten years old or so – we just happened across it but were allowed to take part because it was seen as good luck.
33 Robert Jamieson, Shetland, writing in Reid, Art Rambles in Shetland, 1869, p60-62, in Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p169-170; Vernon and McNairn, Pictures from the Past of Auld Hawick, 1911, p93-97 in Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p180.
34 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p92-93.
35 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p92-93.
36 Napier, Folk Lore, or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p34.
37 Vernon and McNairn, Pictures from the Past of Auld Hawick, 1911, p93-97 in Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p180.
38 Alexander MacDonald, Story and Song from Loch Ness-side, 1914, p143-148 in Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p155.
39 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p94-95.
40 Robert Jamieson, Shetland, writing in Reid, Art Rambles in Shetland, 1869, p60-62, in Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p169-170.
41 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p94-95.
42 McNeill, The Scots Cellar, 1992, p50; McNeill, The Scots Kitchen, 1929, p234.
43 Alexander MacDonald, Story and Song from Loch Ness-side, 1914, p143-148 in Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p155-156; Grant, Highland Folkways, 1961, p365; Napier, Folk Lore, or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p35; Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p95-96.
44 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p95-96.
45 Livingstone, Scottish Customs, 1996, p40.
46 Grant, Highland Folk Ways, 1961, p365.
47 Robert Jamieson, Shetland, writing in Reid, Art Rambles in Shetland, 1869, p60-62, in Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p169-170.
48 Robert Jamieson, Shetland, writing in Reid, Art Rambles in Shetland, 1869, p60-62, in Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p169-170.
49 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p97.
50 Napier, Folk Lore, or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p35.
51 Livingstone, Scottish Customs, 1996, p40.
52 And probably let the couple get on with it without an audience listening in, as would be the case in most houses if they were still having to share a house with the bride’s parents before moving into their own home. Grant, Highland Folk Ways, 1961, p364.
53 Grant, Highland Folk Ways, 1961, p364.
54 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p97; Napier, Folk Lore, or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p35.
55 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume II, 1900, p384; Napier, Folk Lore, or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p35-36.
56 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume II, 1900, p214 (notes to song 215).
57 Napier, Folk Lore, or, Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within this Century, 1879, p35-36; Newton, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, 2000, p160.
58 William MacKay, ‘Life in the Highlands in the Olden Times’, 1914, p47 in Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p158-159.
59 Meigle, 1931, Bennett, p109; and William MacKay, ‘Life in the Highlands in the Olden Times’, 1914, p47 in Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p158-159.
60 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p93.
61 McInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p234.
62 Low, A Tour Through the Islands of Orkney and Shetland in 1774, pxxvi, in Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992.
63 Guthrie, Old Scottish Customs: Local and General, 1885, p167-168.
64 Train, Historical and Statistical Account of the Isle of Man, 1845, Chapter 17.
65 Moore, Folklore of the Isle of Man, 1891, Chapter 18.
66 Train, Historical and Statistical Account of the Isle of Man, 1845, Chapter 17.
67 Moore, Folklore of the Isle of Man, 1891, Chapter 18.
68 Gill, A Third Manx Scrapbook, 1963, p280.
69 Moore, Folklore of the Isle of Man, 1891, Chapter 18.
70 Moore, Folklore of the Isle of Man, 1891, Chapter 18.
71 Gill, A Third Manx Scrapbook, 1963, p281.