7 April 2021

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John Grant’s The Penny Wedding (London, 1836) is a rare item, and a rather late exercise in aquatint, that records the wedding customs of the Scottish peasantry (Plate 1). As such, it is a nostalgic tribute to vanishing ‘manners and customs,’ since the observance of ‘penny weddings’ had been prohibited by ecclesiastical courts on grounds of disorder and scandal. To the author, this is one of various unwelcome recent changes in the customs and manners of Scotland, and one that destroys a practical and thrifty Scottish peasant tradition. The three or four hundred guests typically attending such a penny wedding expected to pay for their food and entertainment, and the profit on what was supplied would set up the newly-weds with a useful sum upon which to start married life.


It is in the spring of 1810 when he is in his eighteenth year that Johnny Stuart, the son of a small farmer near Elgin (‘a very handsome youth … being naturally of a very bashful disposition’), is smitten with Jeanny Buie, whom he first sees at church. After a year’s courtship they decide to marry the following Martinmas (11 November) to allow for fattening one cow and eight or ten sheep for the wedding. Jeanny, who is in service, gives up her employment and returns to her parental home, so as to devote herself to spinning wool for blankets and lint for sheets, ‘as it was considered a great disgrace to the bride if she was not well provided with these necessary articles before she got married’.


On the evening before the wedding is ‘The Ceremony of the Feet-Washing’ (Plate 2). Invited guests are treated to a good supper and by 10.00 are very merry. A tub with warm water is placed in the middle of the room, and a married woman throws a ring from her finger into the water. Whereupon ‘the bride, deeply suffused in blushes, pulled off her stockings and placed her feet in the tub’. All crowd round to help wash the bride’s feet and hopefully retrieve that ring for themselves, since it will go to the next person to be married. However, the bride’s young brother secretly daubs her legs with candle grease mixed with soot to embarrass her at the moment when she should appear most clean. (This is a sub-theme of the plates, most of which show small boys up to no good on the margins). All ends happily, and Aunty hands round ‘a glass of genuine Glenlivat whiskey’.


On ‘The Wedding Day’ (Plate 3) the bride’s family load a cart with the bride’s possessions –  including a chest of drawers, feather bed, and other household articles – and set off for the manse, the house of the Church of Scotland minister, where the marriage ceremony will be performed. Preceded by a bagpiper, they walk three abreast, a woman flanked by two men, a man flanked by two women, and so on. The first person they meet (the ‘First Foot,’ here shown as a Highlander) will be presented with a glass of whiskey with which to toast the bride, and will then walk along with the company for a mile or two. Some pennies and half-pence are scattered for the children to catch. The bridegroom and his party are waiting at the manse, and ‘the clergyman soon tied the indissoluble knot’. The company now proceed towards the couple’s new home, singing, and with the firing of pistols and bag-piping, joined along the way by more and more guests.


At ‘The Bride’s Welcome Home’ (Plate 4) Granny is throwing pieces of wedding cake over the newly-weds’ heads as a token that the bride is ‘welcome to a house with plenty in it’. The winner of ‘the kiles’ will ask the bride for a kiss. (The kiles was a race between the young men over the last two hundred yards to the new bride’s home, with the winner to receive a kiss from the bride).


For ‘The Wedding Dinner’ (Plate 5) the family squeeze into the bride’s home for their meal, while other guests eat in the barn and nearby houses. Fiddlers and bagpipers entertain. The first course is of broth, followed by roast fowl and meat. As the text notes and the plate shows, those who did not come provided with their own cutlery must use their fingers and drink their broth from the bowl. A collection is made and all attending contribute a shilling for their dinner. Proceedings conclude with a glass of whiskey.


In ‘The Shamit Reel’ (Plate 6) the bride and groom and another couple dance the Shamit Reel, so called because calculated to ‘take away the shame and bashfulness which the bride laboured under before so many people’. Dancing is kept up with much spirit all evening. When the fiddlers pause, young men would shout ‘kissing time!’, kiss their partners, and have the tune repeated two or three more times. By this stage, whiskey (‘the exhilarating liquid’) is being passed round in large tin jugs instead of glasses.


Finally comes ‘The Bedding and the Throwing of the Stocking’ (Plate 7). At midnight the bride slips away to her bedroom and is undressed by her bridesmaid. The groom is informed. Soon the bedroom is crowded with as many people of both sexes as can squeeze inside, and the groom ‘stripped to his shirt and drawers in their presence’. The moment the groom gets into bed ‘the bride took off one of her stockings, which had been allowed to remain when she was undressed, and threw it over the heads of the company’. The ensuing scrum might last ten minutes as the company compete for the stocking, which was believed to ensure the early marriage of whoever gained possession of it. The best man – after presenting a glass of whiskey to the bride and groom, and to the whole company – locks the happy couple into the room and pockets the key.  The company go off and dance until dawn. Around nine o’clock the bridal chamber is unlocked and the couple are presented – you’ve guessed it – with a glass of whiskey before they get out of bed. Dancing and general merry-making then continue for several more days.


Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)

Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)

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