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Old Scottish Customs
Chapter XVIII

Some old Highland customs—Courtship in former times—Marriage ceremonies—Manner of inviting guests—The bridegroom and the bride—The procession—Winning the kail—The Marriage feast—The dance — Funeral customs — Laying out the corpse—The lyke-wake—The coronach—The fiery cross—A Fasten’s Eve custom—Some Lowland and general customs—Penal statutes at Galashiels— Peebles to the play—Marriage and kirking customs again—Family spirits or demons.


A HIGHLANDER used formerly never to begin anything of consequence on the day of the week on which the 3rd of May fell. This day was styled by them La Sheachanna na bleanagh, or the dismal day.


The ancient courtship of the Highlanders had these curious customs attending it. After having privately obtained the consent of the fair one, the enamoured swain demanded her of her father. The lover and his friends assembled on a hill allotted for that purpose in every parish, and one of the latter was dispatched to obtain permission to wait upon the daughter. If he proved successful, he was again sent to invite the father and his friends to ascend the hill and partake of the contents of a whisky cask, which was never by any chance forgotten.. The lover then advanced, took his father-in-law by the hand, and plighted his troth, whereupon the maiden was handed over to him.


When a young couple proposed to get married, the nearest relations of both parties met to take the case into consideration. This ceremony, which was called the booking or contract, was generally ratified by no other ceremony than a few bottles of whisky. If the parties came to an understanding, the lovers were immediately declared bride and bridegroom, and some Tuesday or Thursday in the growth of the moon was fixed upon tor the celebration of the nuptials. Meanwhile, to sustain the dignity of the bridal pair, from motives of policy as well as of state, they selected from their kinsmen two trustworthy persons each, who were delegated to the others—the male to protect the "bride from being stolen (a practice once common), and the female to act as maid of honour.

A few days prior to the nuptial day the. parties, with their attendants, perambulated the country inviting the guests, on which occasion they met with marked attention from old and young. The invitations were all delivered to the parties in propria persona at the fireside ; and if the wedding was to be a cheap one, a small present was sometimes offered to and received by the bride. On the morning of the bridal day, some lady above the ordinary rank, who had been constituted mistress of the ceremonies for the day, arrived to deck the bride in her bridal attire, which was as splendid as ribbons and muslin could make it. The bridegroom was also provided with a decorator, who adorned him with marriage favours and other ornaments suited to the occasion.

Meanwhile volleys of musketry summoned the guests to the wedding. On their arrival they were invited into the breakfast apartment to partake of the prepared entertainment. Afterwards they repaired to the bail room. Here the bride and bridegroom were seated at the upper end of the room, and received the company. The dancing and mirth were prolonged for some hours.

At the hour appointed the bridegroom selected a party of young men, who were despatched to summon the bride and her party to the marriage ceremony. Their approach was announced by volleys of musketry fired by some of the bride’s men, most of the guests being furnished with pistols.

Then the bride and her maidens prepared themselves for the procession. The bride was mounted upon a steady horse, then drams went round to her health and happiness. The company being all in readiness, she left the home of her childhood amid the cheers of the assembled crowd. Marching to the inspiring sound of bagpipes-and the discharge of musketry, the bride’s party proceeded to the place appointed for the marriage. The bridegroom’s followed at some little distance, and when both parties had arrived at the rendezvous, the bridegroom’s party stood in the rear till the bride’s party entered the meeting-house, she and her -attendants having the precedence throughout the day.

During the marriage ceremony, great care was taken that no dogs passed between the bridal pair, and particular attention was paid to having the bridegroom’s left shoe with--out buckle or latchet, in order to prevent witches from casting their unlucky spells over him and his bride. As soon as the nuptial knot was tied, the candidates for the honour of “winning the kail,” as they styled it, drove ofi pell-mell, striving who was to he the lucky person. Both part ies, now mingling together, proceeded with boisterous mirth to the bridegroom’s house, the scene of the further festivities of the night.

A volley of fire-arms announced the approach of the couple, and soon the bride was assailed by her well-wishers with the bridal bread and cheese. The newly-married pair then seated themselves at the upper end of the principal banqueting table, and the guests were arranged according to their quality round the other and far-stretching tables. The attendants who waited upon the guests presented each with a spoon, which he was obliged carefully to return at the conclusion of the feast. The spoon was followed by the hardly-contested kail, &c. The dinner being over, the shemit reel was the next object of attention. All the company assembled on the lawn, with flambeaux, and formed into a circle. The bridal pair and their retainers then danced a sixsome reel, each putting a piece of silver into the musician’s hand. Those wishing to do so, might then succeed and dance with the bride and the two maids of honour, and were rewarded both at the commencement and termination of each reel by the usual salutes. The shemit reel over, the guests re-occupied their seats in the original order, and dancing and mirth concluded the evening.


At a funeral, a fall sustained by one of the bearers of the body was considered ominous of the person’s speedy death. It was also esteemed very unlucky to look at a person’s funeral from the door of a house or from windows having a stone lintel. On the death of a Highlander, the corpse being stretched on a board covered with a linen wrapper, the friends laid on the breast of the deceased a wooden platter containing a small quantity of salt and earth, unmixed. The earth was meant as an emblem of the corruptible body, while the salt was an emblem of the immortal soul. All fire was extinguished where a corpse was kept, and it was accounted so ominous of evil for a dog or cat to pass over it that the poor creature was instantly deprived of life.


This was a custom formerly celebrated at funerals. The evening after the death of any person, the relations and friends of the deceased met at the house, attended by bagpipes and fiddles. The nearest of kin, be it wife, son, or daughter, opened a melancholy ball, dancing and crying violently at the same time. This custom was derived from their northern ancestors. It continued till daybreak, and wan attended with very unseemly gambols and frolics amongst the younger portion of the company. If the corpse remained unburied for two nights, the same rites were continued. In imitation of the Scythians, the Highlanders rejoiced at their friends’ delivery from the misery of this world.


The Coronach, or singing at funerals, is still kept up, to some extent, in some parts of the Highlands. The songs are generally in praise of the deceased, or a recital of the valiant deeds of his ancestors.


When a chieftain wished to summon his clan on any sudden or important emergency, he killed a goat, and, making a cross of light wood, burned its extremities in the tire, and then extinguished the flames in the animals blood. This was called the Fiery Cross, also Crectu Toigh, or the Cross of Shame, because disobedience to what the symbol implied inferred infamy. This cross was transferred from hand to hand, and sped through the chiefs territories with incredible velocity. At sight of the Fiery Cross, every man from 16 to 60 was obliged to repair at once to-the appointed place of meeting. He who-neglected the summons exposed himself to-the penalties of fire and sword, which were emblematically denoted by the bloody and burned marks, upon the fiery herald of woe.


Fasten’s Eve corresponded ' with Shrove Tuesday. The entertainment peculiar to this night was the matrimonial brose. This wholesome dish was generally made of the soup of a jigget of beef or mutton made into brose. Ere ever the soup was put into the plate, a ring was placed in the meal, which it was the aim of each partaker to get. Should any of the candidates for matrimony iind the ring more than once, he might rest assured of his marrying before the next anniversary. The brose being despatched, the Bannich fun it, or Sauty Bannocks, were next produced.


Under the somewhat strange name of penal statutes, there existed in Galashiels the following kind and friendly old custom. The tenants of the barony—namely* the farmers — -had, it seems, to pay a penny of line at the bailie's court every time they “loupit” the laird’s dykes. At Candlemas, when the tenantry dined at the tavern with the laird, the pence were regularly paid with the rents, and went towards the defraying of the reckoning.


The ancient and oft-referred-to town of Peebles is celebrated as being the scene of the quaint old poem, Christ’s Kirk, ascribed to the royal poet, James I., and said to have been composed by him with a view to promote a love of archery among his subjects.

“At Beltane quhen alle bodie boune
To Peebles to the play
To hear the singin and the soundis
The solace suth to say.

 Be firth and forrest furth they sound,
They gray that them full gay,
God wot that wold they do that stound,
For it was their first day,

They said,

Of Peebles to the play,”

In his poem the author represents a great annual festival of music, diversions, and feasting

"Was never in Scotland heard nor sene
Sic dancing and deray,
Nowhir at Falkland on the green
Nor Peebles at the play,”

This festival, which was attended by all the inhabitants of the south of Scotland, arrayed in their best apparel, took place In May. The Beltane fires at Peebles must be considered as the representative of” the ancient play Till about the middle of last century the annual fair was distinguished by a horse race and other festivities approaching nearer to the character of the Play than the mere tryst to 'which it afterwards-degenerated.


To refer to marriage and kirking customs again. It was formerly the custom in many parts of Scotland for the bride, immediately after the wedding, to walk round the church unattended by the bridegroom. And matrimony was avoided in the mouths of January and May—

"If you are fond of proverbs always say,
No lass proves thrifty who is wed in May"

After baptism the first meat that the company tasted was crowdie, a mixture of meal and water, or meal and ale. Of this every person took three spoonfuls. The mother-never set about any work till she had been kirked. In the Church of Scotland there is-no ceremony observed on such occasions, but in this Instance the woman, attended by some of her neighbours, entered the church, sometimes in service time, hut often when it

was empty, went out again, walked round it, and then returned home. It has happened that after baptism, the father placed a basket filled with bread and cheese on the pot-hook that hung suspended over the fire, in the middle of the room, in which the company were, and the child was handed across the fire, with the design to frustrate all attempts of evil spirits, or evil eyes. This custom seems to have been designed as a purification, and was of idolatrous origin, as the Israelites made their children to pass through the fire to Moloch.


Almost every Highland and Lowland family possessing any claims to distinction had in former times its spirit or demon with its own peculiar attributes. Thus the family of Rothiomurchus had the Bodach-an-dun or ghost of the hill; Kincardine's, the spectre of the bloody hand; Gartinberg House was haunted by Bodaoh Garten; Tulloch Gorm by Mang Mulloch, or the girl with the hairy left hand. The little spectres called Tarans, or the souls of unbaptised infants, were, it is said, often seen flitting among woods and secluded dells, lamenting in soft voices their hard fate. The Macleans of Lochbuv had their headless horseman, who has been heard in the silence of the night careering on horseback round the castle ringing his bridle-rein ; the Ogilvies of Airlie, fairy music; Kincardine Castle had its lady in green, who-sat weeping beneath a particular tree when the dark shadow of death hovered near the family of Graham; the house of Forbes of Balmano, their Lady Green Sleeves, and so on.

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