Scottish Wedding Traditions and Toasts

An Overview of How Scottish Celebrate Their Weddings

A dig on Scottish and Celtic wedding traditions uncovers a continuum of customs and practical ceremonies dating as far back as the 13th century, and maybe earlier. Connecting medieval practices to present day celebrations is almost like putting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, or following a Scotland Yard detective story where revelation after revelation comes to picture. So, alert your eyes and ears, and let's pry centuries old wedding mysteries...


Today's Scottish and Celtic lovers and would-be brides and grooms may no longer empathise with their ancestral counterparts when it comes to courting. In medieval times, a young Celtic suitor would have as much freedom in courting his loved one as a 5-year old today has in going to a film theatre; he would be accompanied and watched by any of their parents, uncles, aunts or a matchmaker entrusted with the custodial task of ensuring the courtship would be just that: a courtship, and nothing more. Presumably, many of them had no idea what kinds of courtship were going to come hundreds of years later...

After those courtships had been properly conducted and the young lovers and both families had finally agreed for their union, they sat down and discussed the good day and time for their children's wedding. And when the day came, they had a festivity and the groom and the bride became husband and wife. (And they lived happily, sometimes sadly, ever after...) Simple, wasn't it?

So, why are there now three different names for what is supposed to be a “waiting period” between initial agreement and the big day? What is “handfasting”? Do Scottish couples promise in a “betrothal” or “engagement”?

If we examine the roots of those concepts and their original purposes, we may come to a little more understanding of the Scottish wedding traditions, and Celtic in general. Engagement seems to have derived from Roman Catholicism when Pope Innocent III in 1215 officiated a decree for marriages to be announced publicly “during a suitable and fixed time so that if legitimate impediments exist, they may be made known.” Since Scotland at that time was under the Catholic Church, it started practising this wait duration in that early period of the 13th century. So when families of a marrying couple announced their plan of their children's wedding, they might have to wait for a longer duration than what they had customarily done before. And perhaps along the way they thought of making the initial announcement a celebration of its own since it would be a while before officially sanctioned union was established.

The second term, betrothal,is likely to have originated in the Middle East and Central Asia. Unlike engagements, most betrothals were seen as being masterminded by the families of the couple out of socio-economic considerations. Therefore, betrothals were almost always articulated with binding rights and obligations in case they were broken. Too much reputation and fortune was at stake.

The last of the confusing three, handfasting, is possibly the most original tradition of them all, as far as Scotland is concerned. Although the records tell us that when it was practised after the 13th century it meant something similar to engagement or even a "trial marriage", some experts in Scottish now argue that it was actually the marriage itself and performed on the wedding day. They say that at the time there was a civil law regulating claims by married spouses to the properties of their deceased spouses. This law stipulated that one year and one day of marriage was the required duration before any spouse could have legal claim to any property left by her or his deceased spouse; if a spouse died before the marriage lasted one year and a day, the living spouse would not be able to claim to any property left. So perhaps out of familial word of honour they started a ritual of fastening the couple's hands during the wedding ceremony as a private pledge that whatever happened during the next one year and a day, his property was hers and hers, his.

When now a Scottish couple undertakes an engagement ritual, they are just continuing a church tradition begun almost eight hundred years ago, although it may be redundant because today this “suitable and fixed time” has evolved into the banns of marriage of a modern church. Similarly, despite in far fewer cases, if a modern day couple makes a promise in a betrothal, they are acting out an age-old tradition that may have been passed and practised from country to country by way of inter-marriages. And if a contemporary Scottish bride and groom agree to have their hands fastened in a ceremony separate from their wedding, they may simply be reminding us that there was such a “one year and one day” law.

If, then, there is an engagement, betrothal or handfasting procession before the wedding ceremony, the bride's father will shift the timing of his traditional speech to this procession, from otherwise the morning of the wedding day. His line, albeit authentically Scottish and originally Gaelic, has now become world famous. In English it goes like this,

If she is willing, I am very willing
and if that weren’t so, then this wouldn’t be so.

After preliminary promise above, if there is any, of a future wedding, the Scottish bride's mother will traditionally stage a “show of presents” event, at her family's residence, shortly before the wedding day. In this event, the mother invites the bride's and her female friends to come over for one last gathering with the bride as an unmarried woman. The friends will usually bring presents of household items to help the bride in starting her own household. The presents will then be opened and displayed while the givers may further give words of advice while enjoying refreshments provided by the bride's mother.

Having gently advised and maybe lectured, those friends will then take the bride outside for a tour around the town. They bring, among other things, a pot to allow people met in the streets to drop in any coins and notes they feel expendable for helping this married-to-be woman. According to one tradition, the cash dropped is usually returned with a kiss by the bride. But kisses or no kisses, this tour is basically a boisterous press release by the bride's friends announcing that the bride is soon to be wed and this evening is her last public appearance as an unmarried woman. The noise is produced by pounding metal kitchen utensils such as pans and pots. The term “hen's night” has arisen out from this conspicuous and noisy entourage.

While the bride is having a good time with her friends, the groom will also traditionally be accompanied by his friends, although their roles are not quite the same as those of the bride's friends'. In what is now called the “stag night”, the groom's friends usually intoxicate the groom (and themselves) at a local bar (or bars). Their presence will tell everyone in the bar that the young man is about to become a husband and, depending on the moods of the visitors, the groom may experience one of the most intoxicated nights of his life. Upon returning home, the friends could play a practical joke of stripping the groom, partially or naked, and sometimes tying him to a post. In another tradition, the friends would cover the groom's body with soot and other similar substances.

Wedding Ceremony

Recovering from the hubbub and drunkenness, the bride and groom will be calm and sober and look much better in their wedding attire. Although most wedding gowns today are in whitish hues, traditional Scottish dresses have been more colourful. In fact, as late as the beginning of the 20th century, it was common for brides to wear blue wedding outfits. And some of them even had boots on!

Wearing a blue dress might have started as an observance of a traditional Scottish saying which, when read correctly, is a rhyming short poem:

Something old, something new
Something borrowed, something blue
Silver six pence in her shoe

Now, although inserting a six-pence coin (or any other coin, for that matter) in the bride's shoe is no longer considered to be practically viable, many Scottish brides still go by the previous lines. They could carry something that their mothers carried at their own weddings; so this is something old. When the bride is wearing a specially made wedding dress, she is wearing something new. She will have something borrowed when her gloves are her aunt's. If her wedding dress is not blue, she could put on a blue hat and will have something blue, although her designer may object to the vehement combination of a white dress and a blue hat.

Esthetical or not, when followed, the saying is believed to bestow benevolent blessings upon the bride. Something blue indicates her sincere fidelity and pure love, so she is stating her worthiness. Something borrowed suggests the transferring of the owner's happiness and good luck to her. Something new symbolises a strengthening of her mental preparedness on her new journey onward. And something old signifies a bequeathal of wisdom culled from bitter and sweet experiences of her predecessors.

While the bride has a beautiful and timeless saying as her guide in adorning herself, the groom has only less elegant rules of thumb, even though it could mean he is freer in making a decision for his outfit. A traditional Scottish groom is expected to wear a kilt of his clan's tartan, so his identity is clearly established among the clan-cultured Scots. However, some male elders who are fashion conscious will rather have the young Scot wear a modern male attire than risk him flop his performance due to his unfamiliarity with it. Their advice to the groom would be along the line, “Practise first wearing it, and use it in your wedding only after your cold sweats have stopped pouring out.” As people who have gone through a wedding of their own and others, they are too wise to let a wedding break apart just because of an irrationally obstinate demand of kilt wearing.

Apart from gender-specific clothings, there is a Scottish heritage of putting on a traditional brooch called the Luckenbooth Brooch. It seems that either the bride or the groom (or both) may put one on. In one tradition, the groom gives one Luckenbooth brooch to the bride and pin it on her chest. Whether given by the groom or not, a Luckenbooth brooch worn on their wedding day will be kept and, later, pinned to the shawl of their first baby as a means of protection from evil spirits. The brooch is also legendary as a symbol of love and devotion due to the fact that Mary Queen of Scots gave one to Lord Darnley, supposedly out of love and devotion.

Another legendary, and deeply romantic, clothing ornament for a Scottish wedding, is white heather. Although both of the bride and groom today may each don a twig of heather—one in the bride's bouquet and another in the groom's buttonhole—originally the flower was used for the bride's decoration only. Why? Well, to make a long story a little longer, there was a young woman by the name of Malvina, a daughter of a certain Ossian. She was in love with a brave warrior by the name of Oscar, and Oscar loved her back. They got betrothed but shortly afterwards Oscar had to leave for a battlefield. She waited and kept waiting for his return. On an autumn day, Oscar's loyal messenger showed up and approached Malvina, who was sitting and waiting as usual. Fatally wounded himself, the messenger gathered his last strengths and told her of the saddest news a girl in love might hear: Oscar her lover and would-be husband had been killed in the battlefield! Before the messenger took his last breath, he handed her some purple heather Oscar had asked him to pass on to her as his last message of eternal love. Malvina fell into sadness so deep only her sobbing was gargling up and down her throat and her tears pouring out and down her cheeks. But something miraculous happened. For every tear dropped on to the purple heather, that spot of the flower turned into white; her tears kept coming and dropping and the entire purple heather became white heather. Seeing this miracle, Malvina prayed that whoever would find white heather, her flower of sorrow, would be blessed with good fortune. So today in Scotland white heather is a symbol of fortunate fate.

Adorned with white heather, the couple then exchange vows and rings. A typical, traditional Scottish couple uses rings made of gold from Scotland. The band itself will be one of two types: Celtic knot engraved or Claddagh shaped. And the stone, if any, may be from any existing type available as Scots' preferences for ring stones are as varied as their tartans and clans.

After exchanging rings, the groom will almost always do another age-old Scottish ritual. He will take out a specially prepared plaid or sash and pin it to the bride. Of course, the plaid or sash has his clan tartar on it because this ritual is an official admission of the bride to the groom's clan.

Exiting the church after the wedding ceremony is finished, the bride and groom are greeted by the sound of car honks. And those who are honking are pushing as hard as they can because this act is an evolved form of the original church exit greeting by gun firing. The gun firing itself may have originated in an era when wars were prevailing. So, if you aspire to re-liven old traditions and ask for gun firing, even where it is permissible, think twice. You may send a different signal to other guests and passers-by. Rather than thinking of and honouring you as a traditionalist, they may see you as a gun proponent making a political statement.

Before the couple is headed to the reception venue, the groom is expected to empty his pocket of all coins and toss them in the air. There will be children who will have been eagerly waiting for this moment and ready to do a little exercise of catching the coins in the air and picking them up from the ground.

Wedding Reception

A traditional Scottish wedding would have a piper accompanying guests while they arrive at the reception hall. The piper may have also been tasked at the ceremony beforehand.

When guests arrive they will enter the hall past a receiving line composed of relatives of the couple, but traditionally of the bride. While they go past this receiving line, the guests introduce themselves.

A typical collection of food and drink includes mutton, scones, poultry, cheeses, wine and, yes, Scotch! Champagne is usually reserved for the toasts.

The first toast, if there are more than one, will be led by the bride's father. The groom will then respond, and his response often speaks on behalf of the bride as well. The best man will get his turn next, and his toast is almost always preceded by a speech. The speech itself is expected to provide humorous accounts of the bride and groom and therefore a source of entertainment for the guests and families present. Following the best man's toast, there is an optional toast by the chief bridesmaid.

Afterwards, the bride will cut the wedding cake helped by the groom. The wedding cake is traditionally a two- or three-tier fruit cake and may be decorated with tartans of the marrying clans. During this cake cutting the piper may perform again to provide dramatic and romantic surrounding.

The families and guests may later partake in a ritual recently added to a Scottish wedding. This is when a quaich, a bowl with two handles on the sides, is filled with Scotch and passed around for people to drink from. This drinking from a common bowl is a symbol of a close relationship, especially between the families of the bride and groom.

Another old tradition is giving an engraved teaspoon by the groom to the bride. This gift of teaspoon is symbolic of the groom's promise that he will provide for the family, food most of all.

When stomachs have been filled and throats soaked, it will be time for dancing. This dancing may now continue all night long at some receptions when the organisers are following contemporary trend in reviving a traditional Gaelic social dancing and music called céilidh. Originally meant for young people in courting and finding marriage prospectives, céilidh has gained as much popularity among married couples and other not-so-young adults as well. With céilidh, a Scottish wedding is not over until the night is over.

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