Love and Courtship
by Alex Garrick-Wright -
St Valentine’s Day isn’t a holiday traditionally observed in Shetland, but there’s plenty of traditions surrounding courtship and relationships. Especially important were traditional holidays, when it was believed that young, love-lorn lasses could perform rituals to predict their future husbands.
Looking to the Future
Candlemas, at the start of February, has always been a very important date in Shetland. A left-over from the days when Roman Catholicism was the predominant religion of the isles, it continued to be celebrated long after the Reformation.
Despite the Catholic roots of this holiday, it was well-known for being a chance for a young lass to perform some romantic divination. On Candlemas morning, the girl would follow the first crow she saw. The direction it flew in was the direction the man she was to marry lived in- unless the crow flew over a graveyard, which signified that she would die a spinster.
Another former Catholic date in the calendar was Johnsmas, in June, and with it came another chance to predict romantic destiny. A young couple would remove the tiny flowers from the ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and place them under a stone- the reappearance of the flowerheads was taken as a sign of impending marriage. How, exactly, the flowerheads might re-appear is a question for the ages.
On the first moon of winter, girls carried out a ritual to help them recognise their one true love. They would select a large boulder embedded in the ground to be ‘da ert-fast stane’, which they would run around 3 times clockwise, and 3 times anti-clockwise, reciting this verse:
New meun, new meun, tell me true
Whedder my love be fause or true.
If he be true da first time I do him see
His face tae me and his back tae da sea.
If he be fause da first time I do him see
His back tae me and his face tae da sea.
Coming at the end of October, Samhain (pronounced ‘sah-win’) was a festival celebrated by pagan Celts to mark the end of summer and harvest, and passage into the cold and dark of winter. By far one of the most important dates of the ancient calendar, Samhain was also believed to be the point where the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest, and that spirits, trows and all manner of dark things could walk abroad in the mortal world.
Even once the Christian church rebranded the celebration as Hallowe’en (and, in Shetland ‘Hallowmas’ to refer to the season surrounding it), an association with magic and darkness persisted, and it was thought to be the most powerful night for divination out of the year. In one ritual, a young lass would go to the back of the barn, alone, climb atop the kiln and cast a ball of wool (a ‘clew’) down the top, retaining the end of the wool in her hand. As she rewound the ball, she would say “Wha hadds my clew end?” and her future husband’s voice would answer from the darkness.
Another was for the girl to go to a dark room and stand by the window. Into a sieve (a ‘siller’) she would place some silver coins, before rotating the sieve and incanting:
“My siller I sift, my siller sift I,
If I hae tae get a man may he pass by.”
An apparition of her husband-to-be would pass by the window- or that of a coffin if she was to die unwed.
Once courting, there were further rituals to help determine the course of the relationship. In one, the young lovers would take two pieces of straw to represent themselves. Around one was tied a piece of string, and both were placed on a burning peat. As the knot burned and began to smoulder, the straw would jump and shift slightly; if it moved toward the other straw, this was a sign that the pair were destined to marry.
Some traditions for courting couples are unique, if not eye-brow raising. One tradition that shocked non-Shetland was ‘bunding’, where a young (unmarried) couple were allowed to spend the night in each other’s arms in the girl’s bed- fully clothed. Given the sometimes severe Shetland weather, and the cruelty of sending the young man out into a howling gale to make his way home, this was a pragmatic practice as much as anything else.
Once marriage was on the horizon, a suitor had a very set way of asking for his lass’s hand in marriage. Rather than the tradition of asking her father, the young man would head to her house in his Sunday best with a ‘da spuirin bottle’ (‘the asking bottle’). A special bottle of spirits, ‘da spuirin bottle’, would be presented to the girl’s father. His acceptance of the bottle, and invitation for the lad to dine with the family, meant the match was approved of with not a word spoken on the subject. Rejection of the bottle was very rare, for nobody would venture to offer a ‘spuirin bottle’ unless the lass had assured him it would be accepted gladly.
A Wedding Tale
Weddings enjoy a special place in Shetland’s culture; such an event is normally a significant moment in the community's calendar. It’s no wonder that there are enough wedding-related superstitions, traditions and folktales to fill an entire book.
One of the most interesting Shetland wedding tales comes from Ollaberry. In Shetland’s North Mainland. There are a number of different iterations of this tale, but probably the best is found in the indispensable collection of folklore The Lore of Scotland by Jennifer Westwood & Sofia Kingshill.
A young man, flush with having secured his engagement with the bonniest lass in the parish, was taking a shortcut through the kirkyard at dusk.
As he came to the old part of the yard, they stumbled upon a grave, laid bare by time and the elements, from which a bleached skull grinned. The young man kicked it, and mocked:
“I’m marryin’ on Thursday, du bugger. Come tae da weddin’!”
What the young man did not expect, was the for skull to reply:
“Remember me, as thou pass by,
As thou now is, so once was I.
As I am now, so thou shalt be.
Remember, man, that thou must dee…”
On the wedding night, the party was in full swing with all the trappings of a traditional wedding: the dances and fiddles, the bannocks and drams. Suddenly, there came a knock at the door. A stranger stood there, and insisted on speaking with the groom.
The groom went to the door, and did not return to the party. The bride, anxious, went to look, but he was nowhere to be seen. Frantically, the wedding party spread out in search, but the groom was gone.
Decades went by; people moved, and died, and a generation later, the house was occupied by a wee old woman and her dog. And a knock came at the door.
The bridegroom stormed in, asking who she was and where was his wife. The old woman had heard the story of the groom who left his wedding, and asked if it was he:
"Probably my midder's midder and faider wis at dat wedding" she said. Was he the man who kicked the skull and vanished?
He said he was.
And he disappeared down through the floor.
As with all folklore, each telling is different. The version recorded in James Nicolson’s Shetland Folklore has the hapless young man accompanied by his best man, and the skull does not speak. The skull’s rhyme, as noted by Westwood & Kingshill, is similar to other tales across the UK.
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