Monday, 9 July 2012

Orkney Wedding Traditions


(This article was published in SPIN 63 - Scottish Pagan Federation magazine – summer 2012)

May is the time of year when, as a Celebrant, I get most requests for weddings and with the whole fertility / Beltaine thing going on then, I decided to do some research into traditional Orkney wedding practices.  Sadly, few of these traditions are still enacted today, which is a real pity as they are part of a rich folk tradition which has largely died out and been forgotten in less than a century.  I derived most of this information from Marwick’s “An Orkney Anthology”.

Orkney weddings traditionally involved the whole community, particularly so on some of the outer islands.  The traditions come from a time when most people scraped a living in subsistence farming, living in isolated crofts and farmsteads in extended families, and when the birth of healthy children to continue the running of the farm was vital to survival.  Even though the weddings would have been performed by a Christian minister, just beneath the surface of this religious veneer there is homage to the “peedie folk” – the faeries and trows (trolls) – all of whom had to be continually appeased, or else bad luck was risked.

Weddings start with courtship and young lovers in Orkney would perform a simple act of divination to determine their futures.  Each of the couple would take a straw and place it on a glowing peat.  One straw would be knotted and the heat would make it jump, if it jumped towards the other straw, then the couple would marry.

In the mid nineteenth century, it was recorded that “the common people” would meet at Stenness Kirk on New Year’s Day and would dance and feast in the Kirk for several days.  Any young couple who wished to secure each other’s love (a bit like an engagement perhaps?) would sneak away to the Temple of the Moon (the Standing Stones of Stenness) where the woman would fall down on her knees before the man and pray to Wodden that He would assist her in keeping her promises to the young man.  Then they both travelled north to the Temple of the Sun (the Ring of Brodgar), where the man would fall down on his knees to the woman and make the same prayer.  They then both went to the Odin Stone and stood either side of it, clasping right hands through the hole in the stone and making a promise to each other to be constant and faithful.  This ceremony was considered very sacred and binding on all parties and breaking it might be punished by being excluded from society.

On the evening when the bridegroom visited the minister to arrange for the proclamation of banns, the bride took part in “foot-washing night”.  A number of her friends would prepare a tub of water – this tub had to stand in the sunlight for 12 hours and all the dogs had to be shut away because it was bad luck for any of them to look into it.  Then a bucket of fresh well water and a bucket of sea water were added.  The bride would sit on a stool to the left of the tub.  Her father removed her shoes and then her mother took off her stockings and pulled the bride’s feet over the water in a sunwise direction.  Her mother patted each of the bride’s feet, Blessed her, and then plunged her feet into the water, at the same time dropping a ring into the water.  All the bride’s friends then scrubbed the bride’s feet whilst searching for the ring, whoever found it would be the next to get married.

Sometimes the bride and groom would sit on opposite sides of the same tub with both their feet in the water and in such a way that the light of the moon would reflect in the tub.  At other times the water was kept for the couple to wash their hair in on the night before the wedding, in which case the water subsequently had to be disposed of in a special way: by pouring into a round hole dug into the earth, over which the oldest women of the household had to say a Blessing before the hole was refilled.

Before sunset on the evening before the wedding, the bride and groom had to eat the “kissing meat” (limpets boiled in milk), they had to kiss before and after the meal!  Today, we make couples kiss at any kissing gates that might be passed on the way to the wedding site!

Pre-wedding traditions in Orkney today are usually “blackenings”.  The bride is kidnapped by her friends, the groom by his, they are then often tied to a prominent Orkney landmark, covered in black treacle / molasses, and “forced” to drink large quantities of alcohol.  These events are very noisy and rowdy, the pre-weddings parties often being transported around town in the back of an open truck to much merriment and banging of drums and more drinking.  There have been recent campaigns to get these banned or restricted on the grounds of health and safety and “it gives the wrong impression to the tourists”, but for now they continue – Orkney is about as likely to ban the Ba' on the same grounds!

The lucky day for a wedding was a Thursday, closely followed by a Tuesday and Sunday.  A waxing moon and flowing tide were also lucky.  I think most folk magicians would still consider these conditions fortuitous?

On the wedding day itself, at forenoon, the guests would arrive at the bride’s house.  Then there would be a "wedding walk", led by a piper or fiddler.  The guests formed into couples and walked to the church in a long line.  The bridegroom walked with the head bridesmaid and the bride walked with the best man.  The wedding walk had to pass over running water twice, and guns were fired to scare away the “peedie folk”.

Eynhallow Church

On the way home, the groom walked with the bride and the best man walked with the head bridesmaid.  Once they had all returned to the bride’s home, the oldest and most respected woman – the “Hansel-wife” – offered the guests bread and cheese.  Meanwhile, another woman would rush out to throw the bridescake over the bride’s head – prompting a scramble to grab the biggest bit for luck.  The bridescake was made from oatmeal, butter, sugar and caraway seeds and hidden within it was a ring and a button.  It was lucky to find the ring, but whoever found the button would never marry ...

Sometimes the Hansel-wife would place the Hansel-bairn (the youngest child in the community) in the bride’s arms.  If the Hansel-bairn raised its left foot first, the bride would have mainly boy children, if its right foot, then mainly girl children.  This is probably a reference to the Scandinavian traditions of Orkney’s Viking ancestors.

Between the time of her marriage and the first sunrise, the bride was regarded as being vulnerable to bad luck and the peedie folk being able to steal her away, so the wedding house was watched by two young men who ensured that no-one walked around the house carrying dried fish in an anti-sunwise direction.  During this whole time, the bridegroom might keep his left arm around the bride, with his left hand over her heart, as further protection.  Sometimes the party would go on until sunrise.

The wedding feast was traditionally boiled goose, barley bannocks, and a bride’s cog.  The bride’s cog is a wooden “bucket”, made of alternate staves of light and dark wood, which would be filled with hot ale, gin, brandy, rum, whisky, plus pepper and sometimes eggs and bits of pancake.  The bride would drink first and the cog would be passed around the guests sunwise.  The bride’s cog is still seen today at Orkney weddings, usually at the reception.  Orkney wifeys (i.e. women) still compete today to acquire a reputation for making a “good cog”, these being secret and pungent combinations of alcohol sufficient to floor your average niggly rhinoceros.

Many thanks to Emma Maxwell for permission to use this photograph of her Bride's Cog and "coglets".

Many farmers complain about the numbers of Greylag geese in Orkney today (their population has increased dramatically in the last 20 years and they are accused of eating grass that was intended for cattle) and would probably be pleased to see the reintroduction of goose as part of the wedding feast as it would provide a perfect excuse for the cull that is periodically threatened.

The bride’s friends would undress her on her wedding night.  The older women would burn her shood – a narrow ribbon used to tie up the bride’s hair and the symbol of her virginity – on a hot stone from the fire as a further act of divination.  The shape the shood made as it burnt would indicate the bride’s future.

Some of these traditions seem bizarre today and hint at forgotten symbolisms, other traditions (such as the emphasis on sunwise actions) are familiar and reasonable to me as a practitioner of folk magic.  Then there are the practices that are so sweet I am hoping they will be revived.  I am particularly fond of the idea of the bridegroom keeping his left arm around his bride, with his left hand over her heart, as protection during the liminal time between their wedding and their first sunrise together as husband and wife.  How romantic!  But how impractical too!

I am also struck by the constant need to placate the “peedie folk” who, in Orkney folklore, can be both a bane and a Blessing on a household.  Since moving here, we have created an outdoor altar where we periodically leave a mead toast or the first slice of a freshly baked honey cake for the “peedie” folk.  We think they accept the gift, for our home has been kept safe through storm and snow and torrential rain.

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