The full Scottish – Weddings north of the border

Published date: 2nd January 2019

Though every culture has its own wedding traditions, Scotland can boast more than most. Sadly some of the more interesting ones have died out, or nearly so at least. English readers will perhaps be surprised at how different certain Scottish wedding customs are to those South of the Border.

Perhaps the cruellest is or was ‘the blackening’, where the intendeds were captured by friends, and then covered in treacle and feathers, or something equally unpleasant, before being paraded round the village or neighbourhood. Folklore experts probably spot deep meaning in it, to us it just seems mean.

Rather more understandable is Scotland’s foot-washing tradition on the eve of the wedding. The bride has her feet washed in a tub placed in the best room in her family home, the washing done by older women or married friends. After this the groom is plonked in the tub and has his legs greased and sooted (anyone spot a theme here?). For we Sassenachs the most shocking thing about that is the couple seeing one another the day before the wedding.

Similarly, it is traditional in some parts of Scotland to have a full bridal party procession to the church, groom and maid of honour to the fore, bride and best man behind them, and a piper leading the lot. Again, the groom sees his bride before she reaches the church. On the way the first person they encounter – known as the first foot – is given a small gift of money or a dram for luck, and persuaded to accompany them for part of the way.

What the couple wear is also rife with tradition and meaning. The groom’s shirt (sark) should have been a gift from the bride, and he pays for her dress. The Scottish wedding is arguably different again in that the groom’s clothing may outshine the bride’s. She wears the usual white (customarily the last stitch done by her own hand), with a veil, and in her bouquet a sprig of white heather (for luck). He may don kilt or tartan trews; if kilted the socks may be equally colourful, and natty brogues atop them, with a sgian dubh (black knife) tucked in one sock. A note of caution – any blade longer than 3.5 inches would have the police interested, and in theory even with a shorter version you’re reliant on constabulary common sense if it’s seen (don’t expect leniency if the blade is flashed about).

As the party nears the church the bride’s father often throws a handful of coins for ‘the wedding scramble’ by children, symbolic of luck being spread around. And for more evident symbols the Saltire, thistle and Celtic knots often feature in the decor.

And so to the meal (too cruel to suggest the alternative in Edinburgh of ‘You’ll have had your tea then?’). Scotland has wonderful fare to offer the planner from smoked salmon to Aberdeen Angus beef, via haggis and clootie dumpling, and fine drink too in the form of whisky, and thanks to the Auld Alliance there’s better claret supposedly shipped to Edinburgh than London, so a menu rife with meaning is not hard to concoct. Even the way the whisky is drunk can be particularly Scottish – use a Quaich, two handled, given and taken with both hands to show there are no weapons to worry about, and passed around to show unity and good intentions.

Last comes the party – possibly a ceilidh? – often with the bride and groom kicking things off with the Grand March to martial music, the rest of the wedding party joining in as they go. More whisky (and other equally restorative beverages) may possibly be downed during the remainder of the convivial evening.

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