Courtship and Marriage Customs
Prophecies. Young people learned from an early age how to foretell who their marriage partner would be or what they would be like. For example, they pared an apple so that the skin came off in one length. As the clock struck 12, the peeled skin was swung round the head and thrown over the left shoulder. When it landed it would form the first letter of the name of the future spouse. Also, two nuts were burnt in a fire – if they burnt quietly all would be well, if they exploded and burst, true love would be hard to find.
Courting. “Walking out” was a popular activity for the young men and women in towns. They would gradually pair off and when they became betrothed, they stood on opposite sides of a burn (river), dipped their hands in the water and joined hands.
Bundling. The custom of bundling was found in many parts of the country but was particularly common in Orkney. The courting couple were encouraged to share a double bed – but they were fully clothed and the girl had a bolster cover tied over her legs! The idea was to allow the couple to talk and get to know each other but in the safe (and warm) confines of the girl’s house.
Bottom Drawer and Dowries. A bride was expected to have a collection of bed-linen, blankets, table linen and bedroom furnishings to take to her new home. The father was also expected to provide a dowry – perhaps a few cattle or sheep or money.
Leap Year. In the 11th Century Queen Margaret introduced the custom of allowing girls to ask the boy to marry her on 29 February in a Leap Year. Later, it developed that if the boy refused, he had to buy her a dress and kid gloves instead!
Minimum Age. Until 1929, a girl could legally get married at the age of 12 or above, and a boy at 14 (though marriage at such a young age was extremely rare). In 1929 the age was raised to 16. However, in Scotland no parental consent is required from that age. In England the consent of parents was required under the age of 18. So young English couples went to Scotland if they didn’t have their parents’ permission. Since the first town of any size over the Scottish/English border was Gretna Green, this became a frequent place for marriages to take place. The tradition of the local blacksmith there carrying out a form of wedding ceremonies added to the romance. There are now over 4,000 weddings a year at Gretna in Scotland’s “wedding capital”.
Types of Weddings. “Free” weddings were where the father of the bride paid for all the food and drink. Penny weddings meant each guest provided some food and drink and these often lasted for more than one day.
Scramble. This started as the bride throwing a decorated ball as she left the church. It evolved into the bridegroom throwing coins as he left home and on leaving the church. Young boys scrambled to pick them up but this caused lot of accidents as they jostled for the coins.
Wedding Cake. This was once a “bride’s cake” (shortbread) baked by the bride’s mother. A piece was broken over the bride’s head. If it broke into small pieces, the marriage would be fruitful. Everyone got a piece of cake and one was sent to all who had given a present. When the more modern, fruitcake-covered-in-icing style of cake came into fashion, it was customary to have small trinkets baked inside so guests had to be careful as they ate!
New Home. In early times there was rarely a honeymoon and the young couple would go to their new home after the wedding and reception. The groom carried the bride over the threshold to avoid the bad luck of her tripping on the way in.
Weddings in the Highlands. The marriage invitations of traditional Highlanders were given by the bride and bridegroom in person, several weeks before the ceremony, and included friends living many miles away. When they had completed their rounds, the married women of the invited families returned the visit within a few days, carrying large presents of food.
On the wedding-day, the bride and bridegroom avoided each other till they met before the clergyman. The joyous morning began with the bagpipe. A party of pipers, followed by the bridegroom and his friends, made early morning calls to remind the guests. Before the circuit (sometimes taking several hours) had ended, hundreds had joined the wedding parade before they reached the groom’s house. The bride made a similar round among her friends. The groom then gave a dinner for his friends, and the bride for hers.
The marriage ceremony was performed after dinner when a large procession went to the clergyman’s house. The young men fired guns and pistols until a late hour. Throughout the day fiddlers (in the house) and pipers (in the field) continued to make sweet music. The company enjoyed the pleasure of dancing in and outside the house.
The Highlanders took marriage vows seriously. Separation was almost unknown and rarely did a husband attempt to get rid of his wife, however disagreeable she might be. The church punishment for broken marriage vows was that “the guilty person was made to stand in a barrel of cold water at the church door, after which, the delinquent, clad in a wet canvas shirt, was made to stand before the congregation, and at close of service the minister explained the nature of the offence.”
Intercourse before marriage between the sexes rarely took place, since this brought great shame. This was remarkable, since early marriages were discouraged, and younger sons were not allowed to marry until they obtained sufficient means to keep a house and to rent a small farm, or support a family.
The number of marriages in Scotland today is 25% less than it was 25 years ago and the percentage of children born out of wedlock is amongst the highest in Europe.