The Way It Was...


How about a keek ("quick look, peek" in Scots dialect) at some little-known Scottish wedding customs? (The tradition of serving generous amounts of food and spirits, of course, goes without saying!) Read on, and learn...

The Bride Cake

"In Northeastern Scotland, when the bride passed over the threshold, there was held over her head a sieve containing bread and cheese, which were distributed among the guests or sometimes scattered around her, in which case there was a scramble by the young folks to secure a piece. At times an oatmeal cake was broken over her head, and in later days a thin cake of shortbread, called the bride cake, was substituted for it. This, too, was distributed among the guests, who carefully preserved it, particularly the unmarried."

"It is customary for the mother, or some other near female relative of the bridegroom, to attend at his house to receive the newly-married pair. She meets them at the door with a currant bun, which she breaks over the head of the bride before entering the house. It is considered very unlucky if the bun by mistake should be broken over the head of any person other than the bride."

Marriage and Age

"It was customary in Scotland for marriages to take place when the parties were at a very early age. An Act of Assembly in 1600 endeavored to stop untimely unions by interdicting men from marrying under the age of fourteen years, and women under the age of twelve years; but there are several recorded instances of marriage in Scotland, in the seventeenth century, by persons at the age of eleven and thirteen years."

Apparently, before the Act of 1600, people were marrying at an even younger age than fourteen and twelve, but why did the General Assembly choose those two ages? I assume (and I think I'm right) that the General Assembly simply chose the ages that were considered proper and acceptable by the majority of people at the time.

Bridal Kisses (and Things)

In some parts of Scotland, the bride and her bridesmaids, after the ceremony, would proceed around the wedding company, and kiss every one of the men present. A dish was then passed around in which those kissed would place money.

"The parson who presided over the marriage ceremony uniformly claimed it as his inalienable privilege to have a smack at the lips of the bride immediately after the performance of his official duties." (Fielding) It was believed that the happiness of the bride depended a good deal upon the pastoral kiss.

"In early times," (the Middle Ages) "the Scottish lairds and barons regulated the marriages of their vassals, and had the right to sleep with the wife of any of them on the first night after the marriage."

This ordinance was begun by Eugenius III, and ended with King Malcolm III who decided the groom should, instead, pay the Laird a gift in gold, sometimes called a bed tribute or a virgin tax. With the end of feudalism, the right was exercised, for a time, symbolically, by the Laird's laying of a leg across the bride's bed.

[Ed. Note: Lest this all seem terribly removed from our time, our Chronicler once met a man from the isolated back country of Tasmania, where a great many Scots had settled after the Jacobite risings of the 1700's and the Highland Clearances. According to this fellow, as late as the 1950's the two-feathered local "Chieftain" of his Clan still claimed the bride-right, as well as a great many other chiefly prerogatives.]

Beltane Festivities

Beltane is the name for May 1st. Beltane means “Bright Fire” or possibly “lucky fire” and bonfires were central to the festival. It marks the midpoint between Spring and Summer, the lighter half of the year. We celebrate life, growth, love, fertility, and sexuality with blazing fires, golden flowers, and May Poles. It is the warming of the year, the flowering of trees and plants as summer is arriving.

Relighting the fires
In the Scottish Highlands, villages would put out every fire in every household the evening before Beltane. Then on May Day morning on a hill then a bonfire, known as the “need fire” was kindled with the wood of nine sacred trees. A Scottish rhyme that mentions only eight of the trees, the ninth is a mystery. The eight are the willow, the hazel, the alder, the birch, the ash, the yew, the elm, and the oak. It was from this scared fire that the village fires were relite. .
The bonfire was lit and young men would leap over the fire. To jump over the Beltane fires was sure to bring good fortune, health to your livestock, and prosperity. Cattle that survived the winter were driven between two fires to purify them and to keep them safe from illnesses. When the fire sank lower, girls jumped over the fire to get a good husband. Pregnant women stepped through the fire to ensure and easy birth. Small children were also passed over the flames to ensure good health in the coming year. When the fire died down the embers were thrown among the sprouting crops for good luck, while each family carried some back to kindle a new fire in their hearth.
In parts of Ireland the first milk of Beltane was poured on the ground. This libation was an offering to the faeries. Next the cow was milked straight into a bowl of whiskey, sherry, or mead. This mixture was known as syllabub. It was consumed in the morning, the breakfast of champions.
The Maypole
The flower and ribbon decorated maypole is a symbol of fertility and the returning growth and strength of the summer. It was the focus of community celebrations. A tree/pole was carried to the village green and set up. It was bringing the newly awakened spirit of vegetation into the village. At sunrise, the men and women of the village would gather there and dance round the maypole.
The Green Man
The Green Man is the manifestation of the spirit of vegetation. May Day celebrations are often led by a “May Queen” with her consort being the Green Man. He symbolizes the spirit of vegetation and is crowned by the May Queen in a ceremony known as “Fetching in the May”. This marks the beginning of the warmer summer months.
May Flowers
On Beltane, children would go out to the fields to gather flowers. They would look for golden flowers representing the sun: primroses, cowslips, buttercups, furze blossoms, and the marsh marigolds. These flowers, would be made into posies and tied to doors and windows, or their petals were scattered over the thresholds of the house and barns as protection against the fairies.
Padstow Hobby Horse
On May Day, in Padstow, Cornwall, Obby oss dances down the streets to the docks. There he splashes water on the boats to ensure good firshing. He the dances his way out to the fields to ensure fertility of the crops. On the way to the fields, Obby oss dances through the town lunging into the crowds, capturing a young girl under his skirts. This guarantees that she will be with child before next May Day. As a side note, our own Obby oss has a success rate of about 85 – 90 %. So beware the Oss.
“unite and unite and let us all unite
for summer is i-cummen today,
And whiter we are going, we all will unite
In the merry morning of May.”

By Elspeth