Born and raised in the Scottish Highlands, I have a keen interest in my local history and culture.
Ancient Traditions With a Modern Twist
Different cultures have their own unique customs relating to important social occasions such as weddings. Scotland is no exception to this, and some of the country's wedding traditions date back as far as the 13th century.
As you can see from the painting above, Scottish weddings have long been associated with music, dancing and people gathering together in celebration of a marriage.
While some modern weddings in Scotland incorporate a few of the ancient customs listed below, many of the traditions are no longer widely practised. These are just a few of those traditions.
Reading of the Banns
The banns refers to an announcement made in church of a couple's intention to marry. From the thirteenth century until relatively recently, the tradition was that the banns would be read out in the kirk on three successive Sundays. Whilst this is still done in some places, it is more common for couples intending to marry to simply give notice of their intent and to apply to the local registrar for a marriage licence.
Creeling of the Bridegroom
In many fishing communities, the bridegroom was made to carry on his back a creel (fishing basket) filled with stones. He had to walk around the village until his intended bride came out of her house and kissed him, signalling her intent to marry him.
This is a ritual that still occurs in some parts of Scotland. It involves older women from a community washing the bride's feet in the hopes of attracting good luck for the marriage.
Showing of the Gifts
Another custom which endures is the practice of gathering together female friends and relations of the bride in order to view the gifts she has received. This usually takes place about a week before the wedding and is similar to the modern concept of the bridal shower.
Stag and Hen Nights
Traditionally these were times when the groom and his bride got together with their friends and neighbours before the wedding. More and more, these celebrations are becoming a little more like the American tradition of bachelor and bachelorette parties.
The stag night has always been a fairly raucous affair with a great deal of drinking that usually results in the half-naked groom being left in the street in front of his house, often tied to a fence or lamp-post.
The Hen Party these days is usually a wild affair, but its origins are much more sedate. The bride's friends and neighbours would give her gifts of food that could be used at the wedding feast, and a few days before the wedding, the women would get together to prepare the hens, which were usually part of the feast. There would be singing and joking together, and a ritual of 'chantie' jumping was performed. This involved the bride jumping over a chamber pot in the street. Those who passed by would drop money into the pot in exchange for a kiss from the bride-to-be, which was considered good luck. Some modern hen nights incorporate this tradition.
'Blackening' of the Groom
This is a tradition which is still carried out in many parts of Scotland. It involves stripping the groom to the waist (some take this a bit farther) and covering him with treacle and flour or feathers. The groom is then paraded through the streets while his friends make as much noise as possible to attract attention and cause him maximum embarrassment. Sometimes the unfortunate groom is left tied to a lamppost in public for an hour or so until he is freed. There are some communities in which the bride-to-be suffers similar humiliation.
This still happens at some weddings in Scotland. As the bride and her father leave the family home to head for the church, the father throws a handful of coins into the streets, and local children scramble to get the money.
A scramble sometimes involved the father of the bride throwing sweets to gathered children as he left the church following the wedding ceremony.
The Grand March
Another tradition which is still carried out at some weddings is the grand march which sometimes takes place instead of a first dance at the reception. Accompanied by a piper (or live band), the bride and groom form a procession in which they are followed by the bridesmaids, best men and other guests at the wedding.
Bride on Left of Groom
It is traditional for the bride to be on the left-hand side of the groom at the wedding, but many people don't realise where this custom originates. It is due to the fact that historically some brides were captured from opposing clans. The groom had to hold onto his bride with his left hand in case he needed to fight off her family or other enemies, using his right hand. This is not just a Scottish custom but was practised in other cultures where warring families may come to blows at a wedding.
Drinking from Quaich
Traditionally the bride and groom drink whisky (known in Scotland as the water of life) from a quaich, which is a two-handled drinking bowl. Quaichs are often given as gifts in some parts of Scotland to commemorate a special occasion such as a person's retirement from work.
No Scottish wedding would be complete without a gathering (ceilidh). Traditionally a community would come together in the house of the newlyweds or their family to celebrate with music, drinking and dancing. Ceilidhs are still popular although most are now held in hotels or other wedding venues. Ceilidh dancing is great fun and the steps are easy to follow so everyone can join in.
- Thursday is generally considered to be an unlucky day to get married.
- In order to be assured of good luck, someone should put a sixpence, or more commonly these days, a penny, into the bride's shoe to bring her good luck.
- Horseshoes are considered to be lucky, and especially so if a small child, preferably a toddler, hands one to the bride.
- Bridesmaids were originally used as decoys to confuse evil spirits and therefore keep the bride from harm.
- It is considered very unlucky to get married in May. This is because the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots married The Earl of Bothwell in May 1567, and this ended in disaster.
- It is also unlucky to marry due to Lent due to the tradition of abstinence during this period.
- Before leaving home to get married, a quick look in the mirror is considered good luck, but a bride will bring disaster upon herself if she views her whole body or goes back to look in the mirror after beginning her journey to the church.
- Carrying a sprig of 'lucky white heather' can bring good fortune, and many Scottish brides incorporate some into their bouquets.
Traditionally when the bride retired to bed following the wedding celebrations, the other guests would rush to the bridal chamber and perform the ceremony of 'beddin' the bride'. This involved putting the bride to bed with a bottle of whisky and some bread and cheese, which she would share with the gathered friends and family. Her left stocking was then removed, and she had to throw it over her left shoulder—this is similar to throwing a bouquet—and the person who won the ensuing fight to take possession of the stocking would be the next to marry,
Carrying the Bride Over the Threshold
This is a common practice in many cultures, which originated as a means of the groom protecting his bride from being entered by evil spirits lurking on the doorstep. By carrying her over the threshold, he ensured that she would have good luck whilst living in the house. It is also considered bad luck for a bride to enter her new home by stepping over the threshold with her left foot first. If the groom picks his bride up, they can avoid her making a misstep.
A Second Night
Some communities still keep up the tradition of having a second night of celebration following a wedding. Although the bride and groom may have left on their honeymoon, their friends and family continue to celebrate by keeping the party going.
- It is customary for the maid of honour or chief bridesmaid to give the bride a tea set. The best man is supposed to present the newlyweds with a clock to bring good luck.
- Traditionally, the groom paid for the wedding dress, and in exchange, the bride would give him the gift of a shirt to wear at the wedding.
- The bride was traditionally given pieces of crockery by her neighbours. The amount of crockery she received and its quality reflected her standing in the community.
- Another wedding gift which was traditionally given is a bell. It was intended that if there was an argument between the married couple that could not be resolved, one of them would ring the bell to call a halt to marital hostilities. Tranquillity would be restored, with neither husband nor wife receiving the blame for starting the argument.
Ann Leung from San Jose, California on August 30, 2012:
I was surprised to learn that the traditional gift for the newly-weds is a "clock to bring good luck." In Chinese custom, one should never give a clock as a gift to anyone because "giving a clock" in Chinese has the same sound as "sending a person to his/her coffin." It is a taboo among Chinese.
It is interesting how one object has such a big different meaning in different cultures.
I just learned something new from you today. Thank you for sharing!
Mandeeadair from California on August 30, 2012:
I love the bell idea as well!! What a very cool, informative hub. :)
Nettlemere from Burnley, Lancashire, UK on August 30, 2012:
I had no idea that bridesmaids were originally there as decoys for the devil. It's a wonder any marrying got done with all of the complicated things happening around the event!
Mary Strain from The Shire on August 30, 2012:
I love the bell idea... a no-fault ruling! My paternal ancestors were from Scotland, so this is fascinating to me. Thanks for sharing these customs!
Susan Zutautas from Ontario, Canada on August 30, 2012:
I found this very interesting as my grandmother was from Scotland. She met my grandfather in Canada though and they married here. I will share this with some of my family members as I'm sure they'd love to read it too.
alliemacb (author) from Scotland on August 30, 2012:
Thanks,Melovy. The second night seems to be popular on the West Coast and Western Isles as well. Personally, I'm all for it!
Yvonne Spence from UK on August 30, 2012:
Interesting hub. I've heard of several of these traditions, but not all. Our wedding was definitely not traditional. In Shetland (where I come from) the 2nd night tradition seems to be currently having a big revival.
alliemacb (author) from Scotland on August 30, 2012:
Thanks, moonlake. I love going to a wedding where some of these traditions are still practised.
moonlake from America on August 30, 2012:
Very interesting hub enjoyed reading it. I'm sure some of my Scottish ancestors practised some of the traditions. Voted uP and shared.