Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy


Old Scots wedding customs revealed

THEY’RE steyin’ up the gether!’ Years ago this said about a couple in an unmarried relationship would have met with disapproval from the most broad minded, A marriage Guidance Council recently reported that forty eight per cent of their clients were unmarried. The term once used was ‘Living in sin.’ Yet in the sixteenth century it was quite in order to have a trial period when a couple lived together for a year and a day. This was called handfasting and usually took place at fairs. If all went well and they agreed to be wed they could take their marriage vows in the usual way. If not, they split and were free to rind some one else and start again.
The origins and meanings of the customs and rituals once observed concern ing two people promising to take each other for life were more involved.
It was held by some that those who marry in lent live to repent. Others who followed old pagan rites believed that May was an unlucky month, ‘marry in May and your baims will decay,’ was the doleful admonition. They said that June weddings brought prosperity but they that wived twixt sickle and scythe would never thrive.
There were mixed blessings in store for those who chose to wed between harvest and Christmas time when supplies were most plentiful. ‘Marry in September’s shine, your living will be rich and fine.’ On the other hand, ‘If in October you do many, love will come but riches tarry,’ but ‘Jf you wed in bleak November only joy will come remember.’ Also ‘When December’s showers fall fast, marry and true love will last.’
Attention had to be paid to the phases of the moon, which should be waxing or full. Not only months and moon phases influenced brides when to take the important step to the altar. Certain days of the week were preferred as this medieval rhyme shows: – Monday for wealth, Tuesday for health, Wednesday the best day of all. Thursday for crosses, Friday for losses and Saturday no luck at all.
Deciding when the day should be was just the beginning. The names of the bride and groom were called from the pulpit of the kirk where the wedding would take place. Known as reading the banns, the procedure was followed for three Sundays before the big thy, and still is in most places in Scotland. It was thought to be unlucky for the couple to be in the kirk when the banns were called. The bride’s married name was never used before the wedding, not even jokingly, or the wedding could have been cancelled. The bride could not make her own wedding dress nor try it on complete before making her way to the kirk. The way to do this was to leave a stitch out and it would be finished at the final moment before she left her mother’s home for the last time. Only then must the bridal veil be put on. This was often a family heir loom and kept the custom of wearing something old, as in ‘Something old something new, something borrowed something blue.’
The parents of the bride who were lucky enough to have sailed through life with their fortunes still afloat spared no expense to provide the best for their daughter’s wedding. Often the celebrations lasted several days. The invitations were sent out early arid it was usual to send with them a pair of white kid gloves for each guest. In Perth where the ceremony often took place on a Friday, the proceedings began on Wednesday evening with parties at the homes of the bride and groom. On the eve of the wedding the young friends of the couple met at their respective homes for the ceremony of feet- washing. This was a ritual which was practised in Scotland up until the early part of the eighteenth century. As part of the fun before they got down to the actual ablutions, the bride’s ring was bor rowed and thrown into a tub of water. The girls had to scramble for it and the wet and winsome winner was acclaimed as the one likely to be next to marry.
There were serious pitfalls which had to be avoided. The bride did not see the groom before she met him at the altar nor dared she look back on her way to the kirk. Encounters with funeral processions, mourning women, or open graves were all catastrophic. All was not calamitous. Sweeps were lucky to meet and it was a good sign if a spider, toad or a cat crossed her path.
Having arrived safely, the bride being traditionally a little late, had to take care not to stumble when she was walking up the aisle. If she tripped it would mean that her road through married life would never be smooth. The groom should not turn to see his bride but the best man may do so. In more daring times it was the best man’s duty to guard against rivals who may have had ideas of last minute attempts to kidnap her.
Another of the best man’s duties was to snatch the bride from unwilling parents. Now the best man guards only the ring which is a plain gold band usually worn on the third finger of the left hand. It was once accepted that a vein from that finger led directly to the heart. To drop the ring in church was a dire omen, and to hold the happiness of that glorious day the ring should never be given to anyone else to wear. To lose the wedding ring has a similar significance.
Before the ceremony began some were appointed to undo every knot in the bride and groom’s clothing. Garters, petticoat strings, shoe laces, and ties. When the wedding was over the bride had to retire in one direction and the bridegroom in another to tie them up again. This was done because of the magical effect that knots could have in obstructing human activity resulting in non-consummation of the marriage.
After the ceremony as the newly-weds left the kirk they were greeted by the sound of the bells to scare off evil spirits. Now in Scotland the bagpipes are also played but without the notion of scaring away the demons.
Leaving the building it is still custom ary for the couple to pass through an archway of friends bearing suitable objects. Once it was swords if the husband had a military connection. This can now be spades or pitchforks for farmers, brooms for cleaners, and even bedpans for nurses.
Confetti is thrown over the happy couple, though at one time rice was more symbolic of fecundity.
The gates of the church used to be tied against the bride and groom and would be opened in return for a forfeit, usually a small amount of coins. Now some places just have a scramble where the coins are thrown from the taxi and children try to see how many they can pick up. In some parts the coins were called Waddin’ bawes.’
Conventionally the cost of the wedding reception is borne by the bride’s father. The cake has to be cut by the couple as their first task in life together, and they lead off the dance after the wedding feast. The throwing of an old boot or shoe after the bride and groom goes back to ancient Egypt when the bride’s father handed over his daughter’s sandal to the groom as a symbol of transferring authority. The safer way now is just to tie the footwear to the departing taxi.
Concealing the destination of the honyemoon was once supposed to foil irate parents of runaways, now it is done to discourage pranksters. In more uncouth days the couple were bedded down by the wedding party.
Next day the bride’s plenishing, usually furniture, was sent to her new home. The first requirement of her dowry was that it should be serviceable, it consisted mainly of one chest containing sheets and blankets and another full of clothes, a large press and a chest of drawers, a reel and spinning-wheel, also a quantity of butter and cheese. Other items varied according to family circumstances.
Sometimes the newly married couple went straight to their new home. When they reached the door a male attendant stepped forward carrying a large two handled wooden bowl full of strong ale and drank their health. Then while the toast went round, one of the bridesmaids broke oatcake over the bride’s head, or scattered over her a sieveful of short bread, and there was a general scramble for the luck bearing fragments. Imagine the result of such treatment to a bride today after the trouble taken and the cost of having her hair done.
As if all this hadn’t been enough for the newly-weds to contend with, they had still to be cautious on entering the house. The bride had to be carefully carried over the threshold of their dwelling so that evil spirits would be discouraged from following her.
Is it any wonder that some couples in bygone days chose to elope and escape all the archaic ceremonies which were to be adhered to if they desired a long and happy married life together. Now ‘steyin’ up the gether,’ is one way to avoid all the hassel and of course, the expense.
Today virginal white gowns are almost universal though these are considered unsuitable for divorcees and widows. A very old custom was for divorcees to marry in their undershirts thus symbolically recognising any former husbands. Some thrifty brides still perfer the old traditions of a wedding dress they can subsequently alter and wear as a Sunday best. If so they must consider the colour carefully.
Marry in while, you’ve chosen right.
Many in green he ashamed hi he seen
Many in grey you’ll go far away.
Marty in brown never live in a town,
Marry in red you’ll wiah yourself dead.
Marry in blue, I live ever true.
Marry in yellow, you’ll be ashamed of your fellow
Marry in black you’ll wish yourself back.
Marry in pink, you’ fortunes will sink.’
Celebrating the partnership.

By GEORGE SMART. Reproduced from Scottish Memories by kind permission

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