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.
Celtic Scottish wedding
practices were part of ceremonies for many hundreds of years and had roots
in pagan rituals. Tying the knot originated from the bride and groom
ripping their wedding plaids (clan tartans) and tying the two strips
together as a symbol of the unity of the two families.
According to Gaelic
tradition it is unlucky to marry in the month of May or during a waning
moon. The remote Scottish Islands have Celtic wedding traditions and
superstitions unique to their culture. On Barra, for example, it was
traditional to sprinkle water on the marriage bed and bless it. In Mull,
it was customary that the young couple sleep in a barn for their first
night and in Lewis they lived for a week with the bride's parents before
going to their own home.
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
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
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
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
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.
Traditional Gaelic hymns are often played at Scottish weddings and the
bride is frequently piped down the aisle. The 'Highland Wedding' tune is
still a feature today at many ceremonies in Scotland.
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
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.
The reason for wearing the rings on the third finger is down to the Romans
again. They believed that the vein on this finger ran directly to the
heart, and so a symbol of your wedding pledge was thought to be bound to
love and life itself.
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
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 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
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,
a morning or day wedding, tweed Argyle jackets and day sporrans are
appropriate. For a morning wedding, Scottish morning dress would also be
appropriate - ie black Argyle jacket.
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
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.
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.
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. At the end of the evening guests often gather in a circle before
leaving and sing "Auld Lang Syne".
More Scottish Wedding
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
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
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
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. It also represents the merger of their lives together into one.
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
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.
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.
Don't look in the
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
We hope you have enjoyed
reading this section on Scottish and universal marriage traditions and
superstitions. Don't let it put you off 'tying the knot' if you are