Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Handfasting in Scotland

by Kristin Gleeson

Handfasting rituals, especially in Scotland, has long been surrounded by mythical images of couples binding their hands and even drawing blood to form a trial marriage that would last one year, after which, the couple could in mutual consent, stay together or part. The real ritual of handfasting is not quite the same. To understand handfasting it’s important to know first that legal marriage in the British Isles in late Medieval times was understood in terms of either exchanging consent in the present tense (i.e. I take you to be my wife) or exchanging consents in the future tense (i.e. I will take you to be my wife). Exchanging consents in the present tense (I take you to be my husband, etc.) by sexual intercourse on the strength of that promise. There was no need for witnesses or the consent of the parents. There was no need for a priest. Witnesses would strengthen the proof of the marriage, but they weren’t necessary. Two people could exchange vows and that was enough. There was no need for banns or a mass to bless the marriage, just two people consenting. It wasn’t even necessary to have sexual intercourse, the marriage was binding. This legal position was made from about 1200 onwards with the support and direction of the Church.

 In Scotland there was a third type of marriage called “marriage by habit and repute.” This was a marriage established when a couple lived together as if married and presented themselves to society as married; a kind of common law marriage. Any denial by either person could counter the legal status of the marriage, though. This type of marriage was commonly invoked after one or both had died and the heirs were trying to establish their claim.

Like elsewhere, in Scotland, divorce wasn’t possible. A couple were married for life. The only avenue out of a marriage was to get it annulled or to separate legally, but in that case remarriage wasn’t possible. Grounds for annulment were a couple were too young (under 12 for a woman, 14 for a man); too closely related, impotent at the time of the marriage, insane or already married/betrothed to someone else. Even if they were too young at the time they were initially together, if they didn’t stop living together once they came of age they were considered legally married from that point onward. It wasn’t until the Scottish Reformation in 1560 that divorce and remarriage became possible.

 The common process for a marriage in the late medieval time up until the Reformation included a betrothal, a proclamation of the banns and consent in the present tense. The betrothal was a formal ceremony in which the couple exchanged future consents and marriage contracts were officially agreed. Proclaiming the banns involved announcing the forthcoming wedding in church and the consent in present tense was the wedding, usually followed by a priest blessing it and conducting a mass. Afterwards the couple would live together. All of these steps could be separated by some length of time.

 Though the Church and the law recognized clandestine marriages (marriages made without witnesses and the usual Church presence) they did everything they could to discourage them. It could sometimes cause legal and other complications with families. Those couples who married clandestinely the Church tried to compel to marry again in a church in front of witnesses and with a clerical blessing. With the Reformation many Protestant countries changed their marriage laws and required a minister or priest to be present to make it valid. In 1563 the Roman Catholic Church changed the canon law at the Council of Trent and required the priest to conduct the marriage ceremony for it to be valid. In Catholic countries, a simple exchange of present tense consents and an exchange of future consents followed by sexual intercourse were no longer valid ways to get married.

Since Scotland became a Protestant country in 1560 the changes in canon law made at the Council of Trent weren’t adopted. So both Scottish civil law and the Church essentially kept what made a marriage unchanged. Consent in the present tense, or consent in the future tense followed any time later by sexual intercourse. The only changes were to permit divorce and remarriage and a reduction in the degrees of consanguity. The Protestant church wasn’t any less happy about clandestine marriage than its predecessor, and it continued to censor those who had done it and encouraged them to repeat the ceremony in church, in a more formal setting. By the 18th century, though the Church no longer recognized marriage in future tense, but the civil law continued to support it and that remained unchanged until 1940.


Handfasting was the term used for betrothal in late Medieval early modern Scotland and northern England. It meant the ceremony in which future consents to marriage were exchanged and the marriage contracts were agreed. The origins of handfasting are traced back to the Lothians and other Germanic peoples who inhabited the area. The couple plited their troth and the contract was sealed, like any other contract by a handshake. This joining of hands was called “handfaestung” in Anglo-Saxon and other Germanic languages and its meaning is a pledge by giving of a hand. This joining of hands became a feature of betrothals in Medieval Scotland. The protocol book of a notary public of 1556 describes the betrothal of Richard Lawder to Jane Hepburn who “with their hands joined betrothed the said David and Janet who took oath as is the custom of the Church”. The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue gives several examples that illustrate handfasting in late Medieval and early modern Scotland. Those examples involved the exchange of future consents to marry. If a couple was handfasted and then had sex on the basis of that handfasting they were no longer handfasted but married, legally binding for life. But if they didn’t have sex and didn’t exchange present tense consents then they weren’t married. The betrothal, or handfast, could be dissolved, then.

Though the civil law essentially remained the same the cultural customs surrounding marriage did change over the 4 centuries between the Scottish Reformation and 1940. Handfasting fell away about the late 17th century or at least were no longer called “handfasting.” In the late 18th century a kind of a myth arose around handfasting among some amateur Celtic scholars who felt it had ancient Celtic roots. It understood handfasting as a kind of trial marriage for a year and a day, after which the couple could part freely or remained married. This myth was taken up by the Romantic novelist in the 19th century, and it continued on until the 20th century and eventually became incorporated in the neo-Pagan rituals still practiced today.


Kristin Gleeson has a Ph.D. in history and a Masters of Library Science. She writes historical novels and non-fiction history. Her series, The Highland Ballad Series is set in Tudor Scotland. The Hostage of Glenorchy is the first. In the series, and the second, The Mists of Glen Strae is to follow at the end of November. You can find out more about Kristin Gleeson and her books on her website.


  1. Absolutely fascinating and a very clear exposition of the various positions, thank you

  2. Excellent description, Karen. Handfasting was very common among the 'lower orders' who couldn't afford a priest even if there were one available (not many in the depths of the highlands or the Debatable Lands of the borders). Handfasting often occurred at a fair eg Lammastide when a couple promised to bide together for 'a year and a day' presumably to find out if the bride was fertile! Even now there are people in Scotland who think a 'common law' marriage is legal.

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