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A Wedding in the West

“KATRINA has contracted with Callum Callum,” said our friend Norman, the morning after this important preliminary ceremony to the marriage of the couple had been gone through. “They are going into town on Wednesday" he added, this being, of ‘course, to buy the braws and the whisky, preparatory to the great event, which was expected to come off in a fortnight. In the Lews there is always this “contract” previous to marriage. To this a few friends of both parties are invited, when they pledge their troth to each other. As one lad described it, “They sit looking at one another and laughing, and the friends look at them and they laugh, and when all are tired sitting and laughing the friends make them take hands before them all, and promise to be man and wife.” Then - the spirit of unrest, till then corked in a whisky bottle, is let loose. The select coterie of friends now drink to the health of the pair, and agree as to the extent of their liberality to them ; after which, outsiders are allowed to enter, and help to pass the evening merrily. Thus, often these contract parties wind up by singing and dancing through the evening. Immediately thereafter a visit is made to Stornoway by the pair, on foot—or, if fortunate, in a cart—from whence they return gaily bedizened for the sacrifice. The day is now fixed to suit the minister, who is always the autocrat of the district, and may refuse to marry them on account of some trifling crotchet. If they happen to be in luck, however, they may return “one flesh” after a walk of twenty-five miles. This the younger members of the marriage party undertake, walking couple by couple after the bride and bridegroom, neatly dressed and stoutly shod, for the winter season, when marriages are mostly perpetrated, rarely vouchsafes a dry journey. On their return from the religious ceremony they proceed to the house of the bride’s parents, where a- large party of friends are assembled, ready and anxious to begin the dancing.

It is the month of December in the Hebrides, with its miserably short days and its long evenings by the peat fire. We have shouldered our guns about two hours after nightfall, and are now seeking our uncertain way “o'er muir and mire” to the hut at present occupied by a happy party. Scrambling and tumbling along over awkward stones, soaking “lazybeds,” unexpected ditches, and moss holes to be expected and avoided, we at length fancy ourselves near the spot. We fire off our guns as both a notice and an honour, and are soon rushed upon by some wild dancers in their shirt-sleeves, carrying blazing peats to direct our steps. This precaution is rendered far more necessary by our approach to the clachan, where a biped and quadruped host always combine to trample the neighbourhood into a quagmire. The wild figures with their peat torches, directing us, by winding ways, through layers of filth, to the door of a low miserable-looking dwelling, resembling the erections in an Arab “tribu,” would almost lead one to anticipate an encampment of more than half-naked savages. Stoop well as you enter the door, and tread warily up the bed of accumulated manure, several feet thick, that marks the portion of the dwelling assigned to the quadrupeds. Hullo friend! you are bumping against a cow; a quick step aside, and you are trampling on a recumbent calf; a half turn in the dim light, and you narrowly escape going headlong over a placid old ewe; while your awkward route up the long room sets all the hens cackling and the cocks crowing at the plunges of the clumsy Sassenach.

Emerging from the “midden” on to the earthen floor, you find a fire blazing in the centre, a few rude chairs around, and a quiet corner beyond between two beds. The hook pendant by an iron chain from the roof supports a potato pot; cakes of oats and barley-meal rest against gridirons around the fire, about which the matrons come and go on their domestic errands. Between the beds a deal table is set with a little mutton, fowls, and potatoes, not forgetting the whisky bottle, from which to drink the health of the couple—always freely offered to a stranger, and taken neat.

The meal over, a narrow doorway leads into the barn, which has been cleared for the dancing, with the exception of a large pile of straw at one end. The uneven earthen floor has been carefully swept, and spread with a little sawdust, while long boards, set on meal-bags and herring-barrels, extend round the apartment, and already are decorated with stout hearty men and buxom blooming lasses, all ready for action. Savages, indeed! they meet the stranger with the well-bred ease of men and women of the world; no clownish shamefacedness among these quick-witted Celts; no awkward attempts to excuse their primitive hospitality. With that quiet self-contained readiness which is the outward exponent of inbred manliness, they meet your grasp and find you a seat.

Meantime those seated join hands all round, and beat time to the wild Gaelic air sung by two of the girls, all joining in the chorus.

These songs come in as interludes to the dancing every now and then, and may be carried on ad infinitum, the number of verses being apparently as unlimited as the powers of memory of the musicians. Many of the girls are also endowed with a facility of improvising extra verses referring to those present, the chorus giving time for composition. The effect of these wild airs filling the rude barn, from the thatched roof of which depend one or two rude lamps, is strange and picturesque. All beat time with great energy, and vie with each other in fluency of utterance. Some restless youngsters now propose a dance, and forthwith two couples are on the floor, dancing to their partners and swinging round, more in the fashion of an Irish jig, dashed with the Reel of Houlachan, than any other known performance. The girls in this take in general the initiative, and, as might be expected when they do all the hard work, show far more energy, enterprise, and endurance than the miserable male creatures who occasionally do a little fishing, to enable them to eke out the potatoes planted and harvested by their wives or sisters ! The only music to which they dance is the human voice. A strathspey or other air is sung in capital time and in thrilling unison by two or three girls, to whom constant practice in the long winters around the fire, or on the lonely moor attending the kine, has given super-excellent and untiring lungs. Hour after hour, with slight intervals, will the same girls continue to give tune after tune, until you begin to fancy them musical boxes. The airs get mixed up with your ideas interminably, refusing to leave your aching brain, from chamber to chamber of which they re-echo for weeks. Wonderful to relate, with an occasional but rare glass of whisky, this cheerful, happy, pleasure - loving race, little accustomed to variety or severity of excitement, continue to sing and dance the same half-reel, half-jig, until three or four in the morning, when the girls are called off to the bedding of the bride in another apartment. This ancient ceremony completed, the men, headed by the “best” man, proceed to the same room and undress the bridegroom, placing him in bed also. From this position he hands a glass of whisky to each of the friends who have been admitted thus far, to drink longevity and fertility. They then return to the dancing-room, where they trip it till daylight. Some few may then go home for an hour or two to. rest until mid-day, when they awaken the bride, this being the completion of the time - honoured “bedding ceremony” begun on the previous night. The wedding breakfast is then partaken of, and dancing recommences, if it has ever been really stopped; for it is a universal custom for the wearied dancer to throw himself down with his partner on the adjacent bed, awakening after a short nap, refreshed and invigorated for another spell, leaving the bed for another couple, for it is seldom unoccupied during the whole time of the wedding. During the afternoon of this, the second day, it is customary for the bridal party, headed, as usual, by the married couple, to set out for a walk of half-an-hour or so, returning to the close and superheated dwellings with a few mouthfuls of fresh air.

The party have now transferred themselves to the dwelling of the 'bridegroom's father, and here we are once more assembled. As no . barn has been cleared out, we are seated round the blazing fire, and dancing still vigorously on the “ house ” side of it, the other being occupied principally by the live stock. The peat-reek is pungent, the fire terribly hot, the floor uneven, and the atmosphere close; but the people are determined to enjoy themselves, and we enter heartily into their mirth, dancing through the whole circle of strathspey and reel steps until the assembled eyes are heavy, the feet weary, and the feelings unable to respond to the continued merriment. Ha! there is a fresh face! You must get a partner at once and get up ! But the new comer continues stubborn, until a hearty little singer and dancer from the neighbouring village approaches us once more. He is greeted with “Here comes Tolsta,” and under his nickname of “Aulach,” or “the strong man," is called upon to drag up the new comer, but in vain. We then endeavour to incite the emulation of the various villages, and start “Garnin,” the strong and tireless, once again. An active partner and rattling singers from the same clachan soon infuse fresh spirit, and for another hour Garnin jumps against Kiriwig, Carloway against Boroston, and Tolsta against Knock. At length, the tired performers turn upon the guest, and insist that he should still again represent the Dunan, of which he is the only inhabitant. Choosing a sprightly partner for a farewell strathspey, the stranger rises, and for twenty minutes the mischievous lasses ring out the Highland Fling at racing speed, until singers and dancers are alike exhausted. As he turns to his seat, he observes the mother of the bride, still fresh and handsome, just entering. Willing to make a last effort to please, he takes her hand and returns to the floor. Alas! for appearances: the buxom dame dances with the foot of fifteen, fresh voices shake a wild strathspey through the curling smoke, and the stranger in his distress anathematizes alike his gallantry and good - nature. At last, thank heaven! he is leading her to a seat, when a shout comes of “Here is another!” “You must dance with this one too,” and a bright-eyed dame, still stouter than the last, gives promise of still greater activity and endurance. She fulfils it too; and with shaking knees and bumping heart the stranger makes his adieux and stumbles out through the kine, hurrying off to dream of interminable rows of matrons of gradually increasing size and weight, whom he has to whirl round in an endless dance. And where do the others go? Well! truth is strange, and the truth is that, in this year of our Lord, the “bundling” system is still universal in the Lews, and most of the dancers take home their partners and court them in bed until morning!

In this place, we shall say a few words respecting this strange custom, which is too important and universal a habit among the people of the West to be passed over in silence or with a shrug. An intimate acquaintance with the people among whom we were sojourning enables us to assert that most of the unmarried young men pass the winter nights with their sweethearts. The want of light in most dwellings, the numbers of dark corners even in daylight, and the general habit among the people of throwing themselves down on the straw, simply divested of their outer garment, gives every facility for courtship in the Hebridean fashion. As the girls are, at the same time, “very kind,” court assiduously, and are possessed of far greater energy than the men, they acquire a great hold on their affections, and seriously influence those youths who might otherwise have enterprise enough to emigrate to the colonies and attempt to better their condition.

Sincerely deprecating the wrath of any Island fair one, we assert that the girls not only work hard to support a husband when captured, but labour assiduously to obtain him. Not only in household matters, but in the labours of the field they never spare themselves, and may often be seen wielding the spade with energy, when the lazy worse-half does nothing but fill and empty his everlasting pipe. Surely nowhere more than in the Hebrides does Ruskin's statement hold good, that smoking is only a wretched excuse for idleness, enabling a man to do nothing without being ashamed of himself.

Thus courting and working, affectionate and good-tempered, never reproaching their lounging mates for idleness, but thankful when they exert themselves to procure a few fish, which the women willingly creel home, the Lews women do everything that women can to render their homes happy, and, let us add, are generally successful. Rarely does one hear of unfaithful wife or cruel husband : nay, we verily believe that a happier class of people, a people thinking less of to-morrow and enjoying themselves more to-day, does not exist. Illegitimacy in the country is so rare as to be merely nominal, while most married couples are eminently fruitful: the children are fat, intelligent, and frolicsome; the men stout, hearty, and keenwitted; their active good dames crowning a social edifice of health, peace, and contentment, though it be of the humblest.

Considering all this, one turns away from the marriage-party of a Lews cotter without any unpleasant forebodings as to their future, concluding that if their “lot” is good, their lot is happy; and as we look round among the men and maids and consider their ways, we thank Providence that women may be fond and men affectionate to an extent of mutual confidence long expelled from the more civilised regions of the earth.

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