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Book of Scottish Story
An Orkney Wedding


By John Malcolm

“To me more dear, congenial to my heart,
One native charm, than all the gloss of art.” - Goldsmith

Gentle reader! you, I doubt not, have seen many strange sights, and have passed through a variety of eventful scenes. Perhaps you have visited the Thames Tunnel, and there threaded your way under ground and under water, or you may have witnessed Mr Green’s balloon ascent, and seen him take an airing on horseback among the clouds.

Perhaps, too, you have been an observer of human life in all its varieties and extremes : one night figuring away at Alrnack’s with aristocratic beauty, and the next footing it with a band of gipsies in Epping Forest. But, pray tell me, have you ever seen an Orkney Wedding? If not, as I have just received an invitation to one, inclusive of a friend, you shall, if it so please you, accompany me to that scene of rural hospitality.

In conformity with the custom of the country, I have sent off to the young couple a pair of fowls and a leg of rnutton, to ply their parts upon the festive board ; and as every family contributes in like manner, a general picnic is formed, which considerably diminishes the expense incident to the occasion; although, as the festivities are frequently kept up for three or four days by a numerous assemblage of rural beauty and fashion, the young people must contrive to live upon love, if they can, during the first year of their union, having little else left upon which to subsist, except the fragments of the mighty feast.

Well, then, away we go, and about noon approach the scene of festivity,—a country-seat built in the cottage style, thatched with straw, and flanked with a barn and a well-tilled corn-yard, enclosed with a turf-dyke.

The wedding company are now seen making their way towards the place of rendezvous; and the young women, arrayed in white robes of emblematic purity, exhibit a most edifying example of economy. With their upper garments carried to a height to which the fashion of short petticoats never reached even at Paris, they trip it away barefooted through the mud, until they reach the banks of a purling stream, about a quarter of a mile distant from the wedding-house. Here their feet, having been previously kissed by the crystal waters, and covered with cotton stockings, which in whiteness would fain vie with the skin they enviously conceal, are inserted into shoes, in whose mirror of glossy black the enamoured youth obtains a peep of his own charms, while stooping down to adjust their ties into a love-knot.

Immediately in front of the outer-door, or principal entrance of the house, and answering the double purpose of shelter and ornament, stands a broad square pile, composed of the most varied materials, needless to be enumerated, and vulgarly denominated a ‘mid-den’, around the base of which some half-dozen of pigs are acting the part of miners, in search of its hidden treasures. It is separated from the house by a sheet of water, tinged with the fairest hues of heaven and earth, viz., blue and green, and over which we pass by a bridge of stepping-stones.

And now, my friend, before entering the house, it may be as well to consider what character you are to personate during the entertainment ; for the good people in these islands, like their neighbours of the mainland of Scotland, take that friendly interest in other people’s affairs, which the thankless world very unkindly denominates impertinent curiosity.

If I pass you off as a lawyer, you will immediately be overwhelmed with statements of their quarrels and grievances; for they are main fond of law, and will expend the hard-earned savings of years in litigation, although the subject-matter of dispute should happen to be only a goose. You must not, therefore, belong to the bar, since, in the present case, consultations would produce no fees.

I think I shall therefore confer upon you the degree of M.D., which will do as well for the occasion as if you had obtained it by purchase at the University of Aberdeen; although I am not sure that it also may not subject you to some trouble in the way of medical advice.

And now having safely passed over the puddle, and tapped gently at the door, our arrival is immediately announced by a grand musical chorus, produced by the barking of curs, the cackling of geese, the quacking of ducks, and the grunting and squeaking of pigs. After this preliminary salutation, we are received by the bridegroom, and ushered, with many kind welcomes, into the principal hall, through a half open door, at one end of which we are refreshed with a picture of rural felicity, namely, some sleek-looking cows, ruminating in philosophical tranquillity on the subject of diet.

In the middle of the hall is a large blazing turf tire, the smoke of which escapes in part through an aperture in the roof, while the remainder expands in the manner of a pavilion over the heads of the guests.

A door at the other end of the hall opens into the withdrawing-room, the principal furniture of which consists of two large chests filled with oat and barley meal and home-made cheeses, a concealed bed, and a chest of drawers. Both rooms have floors inlaid with earth, and roofs of a dark soot colour, from which drops of a corresponding hue occasionally fall upon the bridal robes of the ladies, with all the fine effect arising from contrast, and ornamental on the principle of the patch upon the cheek of beauty.

Separated from the dwelling-house only by a puddle dotted with stepping-stones stands the barn, which, from its length and breadth, is admirably adapted for the purposes of a ball-room.

Upon entering the withdrawing-room, which the good people with admirable modesty call ‘the ben’, we take our seats among the elders and chiefs of the people, and drink to the health of the young couple in a glass of delicious Hollands, which, unlike Macbeth’s " Amen," does not stick in our throats, although we are well aware that it never paid duty, but was slyly smuggled over sea in a Dutch lugger, and safely stowed during some dark night, in the caves of the more remote islands.

The clergyman having now arrived, the company assembled, and the ceremony of marriage being about to take place, the parties to be united walk in, accompanied by the best man and the bride’s maid,—those important functionaries, whose business it is to pull off the gloves from the right hands of their constituents as soon as the order is given to "join hands,”—but this they find to be no easy matter, for at that eventful part of the ceremony their efforts are long baffled, owing to the tightness of the gloves. While they are tugging away to no purpose, the bridegroom looks chagrined, and the bride is covered with blushes; and when at last the operation is accomplished, and perseverance crowned with success, the confusion of the scene seems to have infected the parson, who thus blunders through the ceremony :

"Bridegroom," quoth he, "do you take the woman whom you now hold by the hand, to be your lawful married husband ?”

To which interrogation the bridegroom having nodded in the affirmative, the parson perceives his mistake, and calls out, "Wife, I mean.” "Wife, I mean,” echoes the bridegroom; and the whole company are in a titter.

But, thank heaven, the affair is got over at last; and the bride being well saluted, a large rich cake is broken over her head, the fragments of which are the subject of a scramble among the bystanders, by whom they are picked up as precious relics, having power to produce love-dreams.

And now the married pair, followed by the whole company, set off to church, to be ‘kirked’ as the phrase is. A performer on the violin (not quite a Rossini) heads the procession, and plays a variety of appropriate airs, until he reaches the church door. As soon as the party have entered and taken their seats, the parish clerk, in a truly impressive and orthodox tone of voice, reads a certain portion of Scripture, wherein wives are enjoined to be obedient to their husbands. The service is concluded with a psalm, and the whole party march back, headed as before by the musician.

Upon returning from church, the company partake of a cold collation, called the ‘hansel’ which is distributed to each and all by the bride’s mother, who for the time obtains the elegant designation of ‘hansel-wife’. The refreshments consist of cheese, old and new, cut down in large slices, or rather junks, and placed upon oat and barley cakes,—some of the former being about an inch thick, and called ‘snoddies’.

These delicate viands are washed down with copious libations of new ale, which is handed about in a large wooden vessel, having three handles, and ycleped a ‘three-legged cog’. The etherial beverage is seasoned with pepper, ginger, and nutmeg, and thickened with eggs and pieces of toasted biscuit.

These preliminaries being concluded, the company return to the barn, where the music strikes up, and the dancing commences with what is called the Brides Reel ; after which, two or three young men take possession of the floor, which they do not resign until they have danced with every woman present; they then give place to others, who pass through the same ordeal, and so on. The dance then becomes more varied and general. Old men and young ones, maids, matrons, and grandmothers, mingle in its mazes. And, oh! What movements are there,—what freaks of the ‘fantastic toe,’—what goodly figures and glorious gambols in a dance; —compared to which the waltz is but the shadow of joy, and the quadrille the feeble effort of Mirth upon her last legs.

Casting an eye, however, upon the various performers, I cannot but observe that the old people seem to have monopolised all the airs and graces; for, while the young maidens slide through the reel in the most quiet and unostentatious way, and then keep bobbing opposite to their partners in all the monotony of the baclk-step, their more gifted grandmothers figure away in quite another style. With a length of waist which our modern belles do not wish to possess, and an under-figure, which they cannot if they would, even with the aid of pads, but which is nevertheless the true court-shape, rendering the hoop unnecessary, and which is moreover increased by the swinging appendages of huge scarlet pockets, stuffed with bread and cheese, behold them sideling up to their partners in a kind of ‘echellon’ movement, spreading out their petticoats like sails, and then, as if seized with a sudden fit of bashfulness, making a hasty retreat rearwards. Back they go at a round trot; and seldom do they stop until their career of retiring modesty ends in a somersault over the sitters along the sides of the room.

The old men, in like manner, possess similar advantages over the young ones ; the latter being sadly inferior to their seniors in address and attitudes. Nor is this much to be wondered at, the young gentlemen having passed most of their summer vacations at Davis’ Straits, where their society consisted chiefly of bears ; whereas the old ones are men of the world, having in early life entered the Company’s service (I do not mean that of the East Indies, but of Hudson’s Bay), where their manners must no doubt have been highly polished by their intercourse with the Squaws, and all the beauty and fashion of that interesting country.

Such of them as have sojourned there are called north-westers, and are distinguished by that modest assurance, and perfect ease and self-possession, only to be acquired by mixing frequently and freely with the best society. Indeed, one would suppose that their manners were formed upon the model of the old French school; and queues are in general use among then—not, however, those of the small pigtail kind, but ones which in shape and size strongly resemble the Boulogne sausage.

And now, amidst these ancients, I recognise my old and very worthy friend, Mr James Houston, kirk-officer and sexton of the parish, of whom a few words, perhaps, may not be unacceptable.

His degree of longitude may be about five feet from the earth, and in latitude he may extend at an average to about three. His countenance, which is swarthy, and fully as broad as it is long, although not altogether the model which an Italian painter would select for his Apollo, would yet be considered handsome among the Esquimaux; or, as James calls them, the ‘Huskinese’. His hair, which (notwithstanding an age at which Time generally saves us the expense of the powder-tax) is jet black, is of a length and strength that would not shrink from comparison with that of a horse’s tail, and hangs down over his broad shoulders in a fine and generous flow. The coat which he wears upon this, as upon all other occasions, is cut upon the model of the spencer; its colour, a "heavenly blue," varied by numerous dark spots, like clouds in a summer sky; while his nether bulk is embraced by a pair of tight buckskin ‘ unmentionables’.

Extending from the bosom down to the knee he wears a leather apron. This part of his dress is never dispensed with, except at church; and though I have not been able to ascertain its precise purpose with perfect certainty, I am inclined to think it is used as a perpetual pinafore, to preserve his garments from the pollution of soup and grease-drops at table.

The principal materials of his dress are, moreover, prepared for use by his own hands : Mr Houston being at once sole proprietor and operative of a small manufactory, consisting of a single loom; when not employed at which, or in spreading the couch of rest in the churchyard, he enjoys a kind of perpetual ‘otium cum dignitate’.

His chief moveables, in addition to the loom, consist of three Shetland ponies and a small Orkney plough, by the united aid of which he is enabled to scratch up the surface of a small estate, which supplies him with grain sufficient for home consumption, but not for exportation.

His peculiar and more shining accomplishments consist in the art of mimicking the dance of every man and woman in the parish, which he does with a curious felicity, and in executing short pieces of music on that sweetest of lyres, the Jew’s harp.

Like most of his profession, he is a humorist ; and though he has long "walked hand-in-hand with death,” nobody enjoys life with a keener relish at the festive board or the midnight ball, which he finds delightful relaxations from his ‘grave’ occupations during the day; and yet even these latter afford him a rare and consolatory joy denied to other men,—I mean that of meeting with his old friends, after they have been long dead, and of welcoming, with a grin of recognition, the skulls of his early associates, as he playfully pats them with his spade, and tosses them into the light of day.

But it is in his capacity of kirk-officer that Mr Houston appears to the greatest advantage, while ushering the clergyman to the pulpit, and marching before him with an air truly magnificent, and an erectness of carriage somewhat beyond the perpendicular, he performs his important function of opening and shutting the door of the pulpit, and takes his seat under an almost overwhelming sense of dignity, being for the time a kind of lord high constable, with whom is entrusted the execution of the law. And that he does not bear the sword in vain is known to their cost, by all the litigious and church-going dogs of the parish ; for no sooner do they begin to growl and tear each other, with loud yells, which they generally do, so as to chime in with the first notes of the first psalm, than starting up with a long stafi,—the awe-inspiring baton of office, —he belabours the yelping curs with such blessed effect as to restore them to a sense of propriety, and prevent them from mingling their unhallowed chorus with that of the melodious choir.

Having given this brief outline of Mr Houston, we shall proceed through the remaining part of the scene. A large and very substantial dinner forms an agreeable variety in the entertainments of the day; and in the evening the scene of elegant conviviality is transferred to the ball-room, where dancing again commences with renovated spirit. The perpetual motion, also, seems at last to be discovered in that of the ‘three-legged cog’, which circulates unceasing as the sun; —like that, diffusing life and gladness in its growing orbit round the room, and kissed in its course by so many fair lips, bears off upon its edges much of their balmy dew, affording a double-retined relish to its inspiring draughts.

At length the supper is announced, and a rich repast it is : quarters of mutton, boiled and roasted, flocks of fat hens, in marshalled ranks, flanked with roasted , geese, luxuriously swimming in a savoury, sea of butter, form the ‘élite’ of the feast; from which all manner of vegetables are entirely excluded, being considered as much too humble for such an occasion.

The company do ample justice to the hospitality of their entertainers; and even the bride, considering the delicacy of her situation, has already exceeded all bounds of moderation. This, however, is entirely owing to her high sense of politeness ; for she conceives that it would be rude in her to decline eating so long as she is asked to do so by the various carvers. But now I really begin to be alarmed for her: already has she dispatched six or seven services of animal food, and is even now essaying to disjoint the leg and wing of a goose; but, thank Heaven! — in attempting to cut through the bone, she has upset her plate, and transferred its contents into her lap; which circumstance, I trust, she will consider a providential warning to eat no more.

And now, before leaving the wedding, we will have a little conversations with some of my country friends, who are fond of chatting with those whom they call ‘the gentry’ ; and who, being particularly partial to a pompous phraseology, and addicted to the use of words, of which they either do not understand the meaning at all, or very imperfectly, are all of the Malaprop school, and often quite untranslatable. A fair specimen of their style may be had from my friend Magnus Isbister, who has taken his seat upon my left hand, but at such a distance from the table that his victuals are continually dropping betwixt his plate and his mouth. I will speak to him.

"I am glad to see you here, Magnus; and looking so well, that I need not inquire after your health.”

"Why, thanks to the Best, sir, I’m brave and easy that way; but sairly hadden down wi’ the laird, wha’s threatenin’ to raise my rent that’s ower high already; but he was aye a ‘rax-ward’ man, —and, between you and me, he’s rather greedy.”

"That’s a hard case, Magnus; you should speak to the factor, and explain your circumstances to him.”

"Oh, sir, I hae been doin’ that already ; but he got into a ‘sevandable’ passion, an’ said something about ‘his eye and Betty Martin;’ I’m sure I ken naething about her ; but ye maun ken he’s a ‘felonious’ arguer, an’ ower deep for the like o’ us puir ‘infidel bodies’.”

"Had you not better sit nearer to the table, Magnus? You are losing your victuals by keeping at such a distance."

"Na, na, sir; I doubt ye’re mockan’ me noo; but I ken what gude manners is better than do ony siccan a thing.”

"Where is your son at present?"

"Why, thanks be praised, sir, he’s doing bravely. He follows the ‘swindling’ trade awa in the south, whaur they tell me the great Bishops o’ Lunnon are proclaiming war wi’ the Papists.”

"That they are, Magnus, and ever will do."

"Can ye tell me, sir, if it’s true that the king’s intending to part wi’ his ministers? I’m thinking it would be a’ the better for the like o’ us boons folk, and wad free us frae the tithes.”

"You misunderstand the thing, Magnus; the king’s ministers are not those of the Church, but of the State.”

"Oh—-is that it? Weel, I never kent that before. But can ye tell me, sir, wha that gentleman is upon your ither side?"

"He is a young Englishman, who has come north to see this country."

"Is he indeed, sir? And, by your leave, what ‘ack co’ parliament’ does he drive?”

"He is, I believe, a doctor of medicine.”

"Just so, sir; I wonder if he could tell what would be good for me?”

"I thought you told me you were in good health?”

"Weel, as I said before, I’m brave and easy that way, indeed; but yet I’m whiles fashed wi’ the ‘rheumaticisms’ and sometimes I’m very ‘domalis’.”

"Domalis! —what’s that, Magnus?”

"Weel, never might there be the waur o' that; I thought you, that’s been at college, wad hae kent that; —domalis is just ‘flamp ’ (listless).”

"I would advise you to keep clear of the doctors, Magnus; believe me, you don’t require them at present; —but come, favour me with a toast.”

"Weel, sir, [filling his glass] … I’se do my best to gie ye a gude ane [scratching his head];—weel, sir, ‘Here’s luck.’ ”

"An excellent toast, Magnus, which I drink with all my heart; and, in return ‘ Here’s to your health and happiness, and that of the bride and bridegroom, and the rest of this pleasant company, and a good night to you all.’ "


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