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 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.
Young lovers in Orkney would take a straw each 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.
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 (i.e. clockwise). 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 fount 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.
Sometimes 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” (i.e. limpets boiled in milk), they had to kiss before and after the meal.
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, 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.
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.
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”.
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.
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 (left). This 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, Orkney wifeys (i.e. women) often have a reputation for making a “good cog”, these being secret and pungent combinations of alcohol sufficient to floor your average niggly rhinoceros.
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. The shape the shood made as it burnt would indicate the bride’s future.
This information derived from Marwick’s “An Orkney Anthology”.