HANDFASTING HISTORY: Traditional Scottish & Irish Celtic Weddings


Handfastings have been performed since very early times in Ireland and Scotland. Apart from the love element, the ceremony became especially important for helping to forge alliances between the fierce warrior clans of the Gael.


Unlike other civilisations such as that of the Romans, in which women came second to men, under Celtic law there was greater equality between the sexes, with females owning land and property. In ancient times they could be warriors and traders. Some of the landed Gaelic ladies of Ireland and Scotland had a retinue of gallóglaigh or galloglasses. These fighting men were highly prized as mercenary troops, huge of body, clad in chain mail and armed with two handed swords and sparth axes. As these warriors would make up part of the bride's dowry in marriage, the groom got some of the most formidable fighting men of the time on his side. In the year 1259 the daughter of Dugall Mac Ruaraidh the Lord of Garmoran married Aodh O'Connor of Connacht. Her dowry was eight score (one hundred and sixty) of these warriors led by Alan MacSorley.


The Clan Morrison or Clann MacGilleMhoire were the breitheamh (brieves) or lawmen in the Mac Donald Lordship of the Isles, which comprised the entire Hebrides, Knoydart, Ardnamurchan and the Kintyre peninsula. It was the biggest realm in Britain after the kingdoms of Scotland and England. The office of brieve was indistinguishable from that of the old Norse logsogumaðr (lawman) in the Viking Gaelic state of the Kingdom of Man and the Isles. His very presence, on foot or on horseback, was considered a court of law. The brieve made judgements on all legal matters and also conducted legal ceremonies, which would have included handfastings. According to the old Gaelic Brehon Laws of Ireland and Scotland, handfastings in early times took various grades. The first kind was a marriage between a man and woman of equal standing and property. The second kind was between a woman with lesser means and a man of greater who supported her. The third kind was between a woman of greater means and a man of lesser, who would then take on the work of her cattle and fields. Another form of handfasting included the man and woman being married yet living in separate houses. And yet another that involved stealing the wife of an enemy beaten in battle. The latter gives some idea of the colourful lives our ancestors lived.


In Celtic warrior society all men went armed, including those conducting the handfastings. A Gaelic gentleman's weapons comprised the claidheamh mor (claymore) or two handed sword that later gave way to the basket hilted broadsword. He also wore a twenty inch biodag (which was a dirk or dagger) and a sgian dubh, the small knife that slipped into the sock or boot top. Later, after the invention of firearms, a brace of heavy pistols was added to this ensemble.

Today such armament is purely ceremonial, usually taking the form of the sgian dubh and occasionally the dirk in honour of old warrior custom. The dirk can be given to the bride to cut the cake.


In a handfasting between the leading members of two clans, the son of a Gaelic chief was wedded to the daughter of another lord and they stayed together for a year and a day. If after this period there was no child, the couple were free to part and move on. In the event that a child was born the couple would remain together and the infant would legally become the inheritor of the estate. This is referred to by the famous Scottish historian W.F. Skene.

Today of course those couples being married in a handfasting do so on a permanent basis from the outset.

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On the night before the handfasting bridesmaids would wash the bride's feet so that she might step freshly onto her marital path. A piper would play a celebratory tune at her arrival and at her departure and receive a dram of whisky for his playing. The handfasting ribbons or cords were often three, which was a number of good fortune to the Celts.

Couples with Gaelic roots can plait thin strips of their two tartans together, symbolic of their union. Others can simply use colours of special significance to them. After the exchange of rings the groom might also place a sash or plaid in his own tartan over his bride's dress.
Heather, ever an important plant in Gaelic tradition, was included in a bride's floral bouquet for luck.

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