Scottish Wedding Customs and Traditions

Scotland is a country with proud, vigorous traditions; little wonder then its wedding customs too are marked as much by deep symbolism as by fun, color and festivities. Scottish wedding traditions actually go as far back as the thirteenth century when they were guided by the regulations of the Medieval Church; contemporary Scottish wedding customs however have evolved according to the folk customs of various regions as well as being influenced by practical considerations of modern times.

Reading of the marriage banns

In the medieval times, the Church would announce a prospective wedding for three successive Sundays. Such announcements were called the “banns of marriage.” And while today it is no longer compulsory to proclaim the marriage banns in the church, it is still necessary for all couples wishing to marry to give notice of their intent and the obtaining of a marriage license from the local registrar.

Pre-wedding customs

Once a woman had accepted a man’s proposal, the Proclamation was made from the pulpit. This was followed by the ‘Bidding’ according to which the best man or maid of honor gave a spoken invitation to the whole community to attend the wedding. A prenuptial custom with traditional significance was the Carrot Sunday wherein the groom-to-be would present his betrothed with a bunch of wild carrots thought to symbolize fruition. Another tradition of gift-giving was known as ‘Fairings’ whereby Love tokens or small gifts like sweets, hair ribbons, jewelry trinkets were given by the groom to the bride as a sign of his affection.

Interestingly traditional Scottish weddings laid down significant responsibilities to be shouldered by the best man as well as the chief bridesmaid. The former was supposed to organize the cleaning and whitewashing of the groom’s house, called Sgeadasachadh while the latter had to oversee the sewing of pillows, bolsters and the making of household items for the bridal couple’s home. It was customary for the main bridesmaid to gift a china tea set to the bride. Likewise the couple getting married had their own share of responsibilities to organize their future home. While the groom was expected to furnish the tables and chairs for their home, the bride was responsible for providing the bed and bedding.

The stag and hen parties in Scottish weddings are rather raucous affairs, especially the former. The creelin’ of the groom is quite well known whereby large basket, or creel, was filled with stones and tied to the bridegroom's back. He had to carry it around the entire town, unless his bride agreed to kiss him. The foot-washing was a common prenuptial custom in times when young people often went barefoot and needed to smarten up before their wedding. In the original wedding tradition of foot washing, the bride was gently treated to a cleansing of her feet but the groom wasn’t quite so lucky. He was often stripped down to his underpants and after wetting his feet, he was 'blackened' by using substances such as feathers, treacle, soot and flour. He was then paraded through the village amid a lot of cheering from his friends so that the experience was as embarrassing as possible for the groom.

On the wedding day

Traditionally a sixpence coin is placed in the bride's shoe as a sign of good luck and prosperity.  Similarly, in the Scottish Borders, a sprig of heather is hidden within the Bride's bouquet. As she steps into the car, it is a tradition for the father to throw a handful of coins for the children to collect. This is known as the wedding scramble and is hoped to bring financial luck to the bride upon marriage. In Ayrshire, a similar custom is known as a 'warsel'.

Like other Christian communities, the highlight of the Scottish wedding involves the church ceremony. Traditionally, this involved two wedding services - the first was held just outside the doors of the church, where the priest would marry the couple in the Scottish language. The second would be performed in Latin, after the priest led the entire procession into the church. Nowadays couples may do away with the double ceremony and settle for a single one. At the end of the ceremony the bride and groom exchange rings. This is usually designed as the circular ring with no beginning and no end as a symbol of never-ending love of a married couple. After the exchange of wedding rings, the priest declares the couple man and wife and they share a wedding kiss in front of all their assembled witnesses.

Post-wedding customs

In the South of Scotland, a married couple is often 'creeled' as they leave the church. Two people at either side of the door hold a fishing basket which is tied with a ribbon across the door. The newlyweds then cut the ties and the basket falls to the ground. It is hoped that this ritual will bring health and prosperity to the newlyweds.

However the main post-wedding tradition in Scotland is a grand bagpipe march. According to this the bride and groom leave the church to the thrilling music of the bagpipes or a live band. As they march, the maid of honour and best man join in, followed by both sets of parents and finally by all willing guests as the wedding congregation heads to the venue of the wedding reception.

The reel is traditionally the first dance at a Scottish wedding reception. Originally the Lang Reel was a dance common in the fishing communities in the North-East of Scotland. At the wedding reception the reel is usually led by the wedding couple, after which everyone joins in and the festivities go on non-stop for the rest of the night.

An important aspect of Scottish wedding celebration is the Bride's Cog. Wedding cogs are vessels from which ale is consumed at weddings but today the term also refers to the celebratory drink consumed at Scottish weddings. The exact mixture which goes into the cog varies with every wedding, as each family tends to have its own favourite recipe. Despite such variations, the base ingredients of this potent alcoholic mixture are usually hot ale, gin, brandy and whisky mixed with sugar and pepper. The bride is the first to drink the cog which is then passed around the hall and constantly replenished so that nobody goes home dry.