Tying the knot: handfasting through the ages

Handfast: To make a contract of marriage between (parties) by joining of hands; to betroth (two persons, or one person to another) Oxford English Dictionary.

Handfasting is the symbolic act of a couple's hands being tied together, often with cords or ribbons, representing their union. For modern-day couples who choose to be handfasted, it is usually the main focus of their wedding day or engagement and is seen as strongly symbolic and spiritual.

Modern day handfasting

In Scotland, many handfastings are purely ceremonial although they may take place on the same day, or even at the same time, as the couple's legal marriage registration. The ceremony frequently takes place out of doors and the ritual is often closely associated with nature. In 2004, some handfastings became legally recognised in Scotland in their own right when the Pagan Federation of Scotland gained authorisation from the General Register Office for Scotland for their celebrants to legally perform weddings. These weddings typically incorporate a handfasting as the main focus. Celebrant Pauline Kennedy-Allan talks about modern day handfastings:

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Pauline Kennedy-Allan on modern handfasting

Pagan celebrant Pauline Kennedy-Allan discusses some of the history and symbolism behind the practise of handfasting. BBC World Affairs Correspondent Allan Little describes some of the key moments from his career and answer questions about what it is like to report the world in an age of conflict. Bill Boyd reads his poem Hogmanay, written in the style of Robert Burns.

Historical handfasting

The custom of handfasting is often assumed to have its origins in ancient, pre-Christian times, although there is little concrete evidence of this. More is known about the custom as it existed in the Middle Ages.

In medieval times, handfasting represented the betrothal (or engagement to be married) of the intended couple, not the actual marriage itself.

The romanticisation of handfasting

In the late 18th Century a combination of rumour, misreporting and romanticisation led to the belief that handfasting had historically been a trial marriage lasting a year and a day, but which had by then fallen out of use. This myth became even more widely spread after Sir Walter Scott used the imagery in his novel The Monastery (1820). The belief may have formed around the custom of couples meeting at large annual gatherings and taking the opportunity at the next annual gathering to marry or part.

The Marriage (Scotland) Act 1939 and the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006

'Marriage by consent' stopped being legally recognised in most of Europe during the Reformation in the early 16th Century. However, in Scotland, 'irregular' marriages continued to be legally recognised right up until the Marriage (Scotland) Act of 1939. Before 1939 handfastings which took place in lieu of a church wedding were legally recognised as weddings resulting in marriage. Even after 1939 marriage 'by cohabitation with habit and repute' was legally recognised until the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006 was passed.

Other historical wedding customs

" [Reiteach] is characterised by the arrival of the suitor's party, who engage in an allegorical ritual dialogue over the threshold with the girl's father or representative. If those inside are content and wish the match to go ahead, the door is at last opened, those outside enter and approach the hearth and the betrothal is pledged with whisky. "

'Reiteach' is another historical betrothal practice, with its roots in Scottish gaeldom, described here by Dr Neill Martin from the University of Edinburgh Celtic and Scottish Studies department:

Another age-old custom sometimes incorporated into modern weddings is 'jumping the besom'. This ritual has its origins in Welsh, Scottish and Roma cultures amongst others. The couple being married jump over the besom (or broom) together.

Jumping the besom symbolises, amongst other things, the sweeping away of the past and the start of a new life.

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