By Tony Coogan
The origins of the traditional Scottish wedding:
Scotland always seems to do things in it’s own way and style – and a Scottish wedding is no exception to the rule. In the 21st century, the Scottish wedding is an intricate blend of ancient highland tradition mixed in with modern, streamlined rites. Present day Scottish wedding traditions have their origins as far back as the 13th century. Back then the medieval Celtic church would proclaim the ‘banns of marriage’ for three successive Sundays. This practice of announcing a forthcoming marriage lasted for 600 years – until in the latter years of the 20th century it became standard to ‘give notice of intent’ to a registry office several weeks before the intended event.
Medieval Scottish wedding traditions:
It was normal practice in olden times for an entire village to get involved in the preparations for the ‘big day’. People would line the streets to the church to cheer on the happy couple before they took their vows. In pre-reformation times, there is evidence that two Scottish wedding services would frequently take place. One in which the priest would address the party in Scots dialect and lead a ceremony outside the church. Whilst the more formal Latin mass and nuptial ceremony would take place inside.
The exchange of the rings has always been a main feature in Scottish wedding ceremonies from ancient times . A ring has no beginning and no end and as such symbolises the love within a marriage. The kissing of the bride follows on from this exchange of rings, and often leads to a cheer from the body of the kirk.
Following on from the formal church ceremony, a piper or group of pipers would frequently lead the entire group of guests down the streets, often to a relative’s house, for a non-stop night of celebration, feasting and enjoyment. Local musicians led by pipers would get the dancing started and tradition has it that the first dance, normally a reel, would involve the newly wed couple. Following on from their efforts, the rest of the guests would then dance all the way into the sma’ hours. In this respect, little has changed over 800 years – maybe apart from the dress code and the type of beer on tap.
When the wedding celebrations were over, the married couple would then leave to spend the night in their new home. The ancient tradition of carrying the bride over the doorstep was linked to the superstition that evil spirits inhabit the thresholds of doors. Hence the bride is lifted over the thresholds – and into the wedding bed. In medieval times, a priest would often bless the house and bless the wedding bed at this time. Then for the first time, as man and wife, the newly weds would have some quality time on their own.
Other wedding rituals such as the Highland custom of ‘creeling the bridegroom’, involved the groom carrying a large creel or basket filled with stones from one end of a village to the other. He continued with this arduous task until such times as his bride to be would come out of her house and kiss him. Only if she did, would his friends allow him to escape from the ‘creeling’ otherwise he had to continue until he had completed the circuit of the town.
Modern Scottish Wedding Traditions:
In more modern times, a lot of the superstition and rituals have been replaced by more showpiece proceedings. However, many of today’s traditions still hark back to the past.
The bagpipes can be used to add atmosphere and grandeur to a wedding. The piper, in full Highland dress, stands at the church door and plays as the guests arrive. Later he leads the couple from the church to the car. The piping traditions continue, the married couple are frequently piped to the top table of honour along with the bridal party. With the cutting of the cake, again a piper is often asked to perform and a dirk, ‘sharp highland dagger’, is traditionally handed over by the piper to start the ‘cutting of the cake’. As the bride slices the first piece of cake, custom dictates that her hand is guided by that of her new husband.
The bride’s ‘show of presents’ originates from the tradition of the ‘bridal shower’, where local female villagers would gift items that would help a young couple get started successfully in their own home. Nowadays, this often takes place in the home of the mother of the bride and the gifts have a touch more luxury than those in older times.
A bridegroom’s stag night, likewise has ancient roots. The young man accompanied by his friends takes to the town and downs a fountain of beverages. One tradition has it that in smaller towns the groom to be would be stripped of his clothes and left in the street outside his home – or worse still tied to a lamp post! The good news is that he wouldn’t realise what had happened till the next morning.
The wedding ring, until the late 20th century tended to be for the bride and not the groom. In later decades both bride and groom now wear rings for the most part. The traditional Scottish gold wedding band dates back to the 1500’s. This style of ring is still popular as a wedding ring today – as also are Celtic knot work designed engagement and wedding rings.
Traditions in Scotland Before the Wedding Ceremony:
Often before a Scottish bride is married, her mother holds an open house for a traditional “show of presents.” Invitations are sent to those who gave wedding gifts to the couple and the wedding gifts are unwrapped and set out for viewing. After the show of presents the bride-to-be is often dressed up and her friends escort her through her town, singing and banging pots and pans, heralding the bride’s wedding day. This tradition has evolved into the legendary ‘hen night’.
The groom, meanwhile, is taken out for a stag night on one of the evenings preceding the wedding. The Stag Night is meant to be a celebration of the last night of freedom, and a way of reassuring friends that being married doesn’t mean that they are shut out of your life. The groom, like the bride, is dressed up and taken around town by his friends and work mates. There is often a great deal of harmless practical joking, of which the poor groom is the main target. When the night winds down, the groom is sometimes stripped of his clothes and covered in soot, treacle and feathers and left overnight tied to a tree or post. In some rural areas an open lorry is hired and the groom is paraded through his local area with much noise and celebration.
Traditional Scottish Wedding Dress:
There is little doubt that traditional Scottish outfits add a touch of class and splendour to the wedding day and its associated ceremonies. The use of highland dress and the kilt, jacket, dirk and sporran in Scottish weddings has continued over the centuries. Whilst the bride’s white gown and veil has its roots in more modern times. A Scottish bride will usually wear a traditional white or cream wedding gown. The groom’s party and her father may come to the wedding resplendent in full Highland dress in the traditional clan tartan of their clans. She might wear a horseshoe on her arm for good luck, or a pageboy might deliver one to her as she arrives at the ceremony. Bridesmaids may wear whatever the bride has chosen to match her dress and it may include a little tartan accessory. Bouquets may include tartan ribbons or bows.
A gent’s highland wedding outfit in its entirety consists of the following:
Bonnie Prince Charlie jacket and waistcoat, kilt, tartan flashes to match kilt, white hose, gillie brogues, kilt pin, sgian dubh, black belt with buckle, formal sporran with chain strap, wing collar shirt, black or coloured bow tie, and a piece of lucky heather on the lapel. He also has the option of wearing a fly plaid, which is anchored under the paulette on the shoulder of the jacket and secured by a large plaid brooch, (Cairngorm).
For the bride ‘something old …. something new’ –
For the bride a universal custom is the ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue’ – of course the ‘something new’ can be the bride’s dress! The ‘something new’ at the wedding can become the ‘something old’ or ‘something borrowed’ at the next generation’ s weddings. The bride sometimes wears a blue garter (symbolizing love) which plays a part later at the wedding reception. It was also traditional in some areas for the bride to put a small silver coin in her shoe to bring her good luck.
Something old –
A gift from mother to daughter to start her off for married life, and symbolising the passing on a bit of mother’s wisdom.
Something new –
A gift symbolising the new start married life represents.
Something borrowed –
The idea here is that something is borrowed from a happily married couple in the hope that a little of their martial bliss will rub off on the newlyweds.
Something blue –
There are two likely sources for this. Roman women used to border their robes with blue as a sign of modesty, love, and fidelity. Also blue is the colour normally associated with Mary the mother of Jesus who is often used to symbolise steadfast love, purity, and sincerity.
After the wedding ceremony, it is traditional for flowers, petals, or pretty paper confetti to be thrown at the departing couple. In some rural areas the couple throw coins to the children who have gathered outside the church to watch. This is called a “scramble”. This is the reason children make a bee-line for local weddings. As the couple leave the ceremony the groom dips his hands into his pockets (or sporran), and throws all his loose change out on the ground for the children to scramble for.
Another tradition frequently seen during the evening wedding festivities involves the bride throwing her bridal bouquet, usually white roses, over her left shoulder. Her female non-attached bridesmaids and other single women in the bridal party stand in a line behind her. The girl who catches the thrown flower posy is by tradition going to be the next in the group to get married.
Traditional wedding reception festivities can easily last all night and the newly-wed couple lead off the dancing. Before the evening is finished the bride and groom leave as quietly and secretly as they can and go to a pre -arranged destination for their wedding night – often leaving for the honeymoon the next day.
More Scottish Wedding Ideas:
Give a Scottish brooch (called Luckenbooth) as a token of your love or as a betrothal gift. This is usually made of silver and is engraved with two hearts entwined. Some couples pin this on the blanket of their first-born for good luck.
Weddings and receptions are sometime held at a Scottish castle if there is a suitable one nearby. For something simpler and less expensive, the village hall, an outdoor venue or, for an even more traditional option, the ceremony can be in the house. If money is very tight, try arranging a “Penny Wedding,” in which guests are expected to bring their own food and drinks to the church to celebrate after the ceremony is over.
The difference between Scotland and the rest of the U.K. is that, in Scotland, it is the person who is licensed to conduct a marriage service and not the building that is licensed to hold a wedding.
Local Scottish Wedding Traditions:
Wedding customs have changed dramatically over the years. Some parts of weddings seem steeped in tradition whilst you will be glad to hear of some customs which have died out over the years!
In Aberdeenshire even now, the ‘blackening’ is a ritual performed with great relish. The engaged couple are captured one night by so-called ‘friends’ and covered with foul substances such as treacle, feathers, soot, etc. They are then paraded around the village and usually the pubs. It takes days to wash clean!
In the eighteenth century, the custom of hand-fasting was observed. A couple would live together for a year and a day, at which time they could decide whether to part or make a lifelong commitment. It was considered more important for the bride to be experienced and fertile than to be a virgin.
Tradition says sew a hair onto the hem of a wedding dress for luck, or let a drop of blood fall onto an inner seam. The bride must never try on a complicated dress in advance of her wedding day. To facilitate this tradition a small section of the hem is left unsewn by the dressmaker until the last moment.
Lastly, the bride, when she leaves home for the last time as a single girl, should step out of the house with her right foot for luck.
Penny Bridal or Silver Bridal:
These festivities, also known as Penny Weddings, were renowned for feasting, drinking, dancing and fighting and were enjoyed by all except the clergy – who disapproved of such raucous behaviour. Gifts were made to the newly-weds towards the cost of the wedding feast and the celebrations started on the eve of the wedding with singing, toasts and the ceremony of ‘feet washing’, which is described below.
A tub of water was placed in the best room, in which the bride placed her feet, her female friends then gathered around to help wash them. A wedding ring from a happily married woman was previously placed in the tub and it was believed that whoever found the ring would be the next to get married.
The men folk were outside the door making jokes and attempting to watch through the doorway. The bridegroom was then seized by the women and made to sit at the tub. His legs were none too gently daubed with soot, ashes and cinders – quite a painful procedure as you might guess!
The following day, the bridal party made their way to the church with flower petals being thrown in front of the bride. If they encountered a funeral or a pig on the way, it was considered bad luck and they would return home and set out again. The first person they encountered was called the first- foot and would be given a coin and a drink of whisky by the bride. He would then have to accompany the bridal party for one mile before being allowed to continue on his way.
Adopted Scottish Wedding Traditions:
Tying shoes to a car bumper
This tradition represents the symbolism and power of shoes in ancient times. Egyptians would exchange sandals when they exchanged goods, so when the father of the bride gave his daughter to the groom, he would also give the bride’s sandals to show that she now belonged to the groom. In Anglo-Saxon times, the groom would tap the heel of the bride’s shoe to show his authority over her. In later times, people would throw shoes at the couple. Now folks just tie shoes to the couple’s car.
The taking of each other’s right hand
The open right hand is a symbol of strength, resource and purpose. The coming together of both right hands is a symbol that both the bride and the groom can depend on each other and the resources that each brings to the marriage.
Tying the knot
This wonderful expression originated from Roman times when the bride wore a girdle that was tied in knots which the groom had the fun of untying. As a side note, this phrase can also refer to the tying of the knot in hand-fasting ceremonies, which were often performed without the benefit of a clergyman.
Wearing of a veil
Originated with arranged marriages. In these, the groom’s family informed him that he was to marry, but they very rarely let him see the bride. After all, if the groom didn’t like the bride’s looks, he might not agree to the marriage. With this in mind, the father of the bride gave the bride away to the groom who then lifted the veil to see his wife of all eternity for the first time.
Like most rituals handed down through the ages, a wedding wouldn’t be complete without fertility symbols, like the wedding cake. Ancient Romans would bake a cake made of wheat or barley and break it over the bride’s head as a symbol of her fertility. Over time, it became traditional to stack several cakes on top of one another. The bride and groom would then be charged to kiss over this tower without knocking it over. If they were successful, a lifetime of good fortune was certain for the new couple. Finally, during the reign of King Charles II of England, it became customary for such a cake to be iced with sugar.
Leap year proposals
The right of every woman to propose on 29th February each leap year, goes back many hundreds of years to when the leap year day had no recognition in English law (the day was ‘leapt over’ and ignored, hence the term ‘leap year’). It was considered, therefore, that as the day had no legal status, it was reasonable to assume that traditions also had no status. Consequently, women who were concerned about being ‘left on the shelf’ took advantage of this anomaly and proposed to the man they wished to marry.
It was also thought that since the leap year day corrected the discrepancy between the calendar year of 365 days and the time taken for the Earth to complete one orbit of the sun (365 days and 6 hours), it was an opportunity for women to correct a tradition that was one-sided and unjust.
For those wishing to take advantage of this ancient tradition, you will have to wait until February 29th 2008!
Throwing confetti over newly-weds originated from the ancient pagan rite of showering the happy couple with grain to wish upon them a ‘fruitful’ union. Pagans believed that the fertility of the seeds would be transferred to the couple on whom they fell. The throwing of rice has the same symbolic meaning.
The word confetti has the same root as the word confectionery in Italian and was used to describe ‘sweetmeats’ that is, grain and nuts coated in sugar that were thrown over newly-weds for the same pagan reason. In recent years, small pieces of coloured paper have replaced sweetmeats, grain and nuts as an inexpensive substitute, but the use of the word confetti has remained.
Carrying the bride over the threshold
Earlier we looked at the medieval Scottish tradition of carrying the bride over the threshold – to avoid contact with ‘evil spirits’. The Romans similarly believed that it was unlucky if the bride tripped on entering the house for the first time. So they arranged for several members of the bridal party to carry her over the threshold. Nowadays the groom is expected to do the job himself.
All the best bridal carriages used to be pulled by grey horses and it is still considered good luck to see a grey horse on the way to the church.
Lucky horse shoe
Horseshoes have always been lucky. There is a nice story about the devil asking a blacksmith to shoe his single hoof. When the blacksmith recognised his customer he carried out the job as painfully as possible until the devil roared for mercy. He was released on condition that he would never enter a place where a horseshoe was displayed. A horse shoe carried by the bride is considered a symbol of fertility.
A peal of bells as the bridal couple leave the church is one of the oldest traditions. Before the days of widespread literacy and newspapers this was how the local people knew a wedding had taken place. The sound of bells was also said to drive away evil spirits.
Lucky Chimney Sweep
Brides still consider it fortunate if they pass a chimney-sweep on the way to the wedding as the old fashioned soot-covered sweep had magical associations with the family and hearth – the heart of the home.
Lastly, Don’t look in the mirror!
It is bad luck for the bride to look in the mirror wearing her complete outfit before her wedding day – old beliefs say that part of yourself goes into the reflection and therefore, the bride would not be giving all of herself to her new husband.