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Me and my husband are able to do handfastings and we do them for free they are legal. It would only cost if we had to travel to where you are.


Historical Handfasting

Historically, in late medieval and early modern Scotland (and northern England), "handfasting" was a the normal term used for "betrothal" — that is, for the ceremony of exchanging future consents to marriage and agreeing to marriage contracts. The origins of this usage are explained by Anton (90-2):

Among the people who came to inhabit Northumbria and the Lothians, as well as among other Germanic peoples, the nuptials were completed in two distinct phases. There was first the betrothal ceremony and later the giving-away of the wife to the husband. The betrothal ceremony was called the beweddung in Anglo-Saxon because in it the future husband gave weds or sureties to the woman's relatives, initially for payment to them of a suitable price for his bride but later for payment to her of suitable dower and morning-gift. The parties plighted their troth and the contract was sealed, like any other contract, by a hand-shake. This joining of hands was called a handfæstung in Anglo-Saxon, and the same word is found in different forms in the German, Swedish and Danish languages. In each it means a pledge by the giving of the hand. ....

The joining of the hands became a feature of betrothals in Scotland and in England during the medieval period. A Scottish protocol narrates that on 24 July 1556, the Vicar of Aberdour 'ministrat and execut the office anent the handfasting betwix Robert Lawder younger of the Bass and Jane Hepburn docter to Patrick Errl Botwell in thir vordis following: "I Robert Lawder tak thow Jane Hepburne to my spousit wyf as the law of the Haly Kirk schawis and thereto I plycht thow my trewht and syklyk I the said Jane Hepburne takis you Robert Lawder to my spousit husband as the law of the Haly Kirk schaws and therto I plycht to thow my trewth," and execut the residew of the said maner of handfasting conforme to the consuetud usit and wont in syk casis' What this 'consuetude' was may be gathered from a protocol on the sponsalia of David Boswell of Auchinleck and Janet Hamilton, daughter of the Earl of Arran. After the consents had been exchanged 'the curate with the consent of both parties with their hands joined betrothed the said David and Janet who took oath as is the custom of the Church'. In fact, the ceremony of joining hands became so closely associated with betrothals in medieval times that in Scotland, and apparently the north of England, the ordinary term for a betrothal was a handfasting. The use of the term in this sense persisted in Elgin as late as 1635.

"Protocol" here refers to a protocol book of a notary public — that is, the book that a notary public used to keep a record of all the documents he wrote. Also, in the quotes above "spousit" means "betrothed" (see the CSD s.v. "spouse"). (Compare to the English usage of "betrothed wife" to refer to one's betrothed future wife.)

The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST) gives several examples that illustrate that handfasting in late medieval and early modern Scotland referred to betrothal (s.v. handfast):

"Gif..the said dispensacione cum nocht hayme within the said tyme..the said John the Grant is bundin..to caus thame be handfast and put togiddir..for mariage to be completit; 1520 Grant Chart 64. Ib. 65. Becaus..many within this toun ar handfast, as thai call it, and maid promeis of mariage a lang space bygane,.., and as yit vill nocht mary and coimpleit that honorable band,.., but lyis and continewis in manifest fornicatioun [etc.]; 1562 Aberd. Eccl. Rec. II.

Note that because handfasting involved an exchange of future tense consents to marry, if a couple was handfasted/betrothed, and then had sex on the basis of that handfasting/betrothal, they were then no longer handfasted/betrothed, but married — legally, bindingly, for life, married. But if they didn't have sex and didn't exchange present tense consents, then they weren't married. Handfasting/betrothal could result in marriage, whether by subsequent exchange of present tense consents or by subsequent sex, but it also could result in no marriage but only if there had been no sex at all. (So in the 1562 quote above, the betrothed couples who "continewis in manifest fornicatioun" are actually legally married, but the church leaders are insisting that they get married again, this time properly in church.)

Though the civil law remained essentially the same, the cultural customs surrounding marriage did change over the nearly four centuries between the Scottish Reformation and 1940. Of relevance to the issue of handfasting, in regularly formed marriages formal betrothal ceremonies (handfastings) faded away; it would appear that by the late 17th century, they were no longer practiced, or at the very least hand changed in nature and terminlogy such that they were no longer called "handfasting" (Leneman, c. 3).

It is also worth noting that the verb "handfast" and verbal noun "handfasting" in Scotland in the late 17th century were used to mean "to enter into an engagement of service" and "the joining of hands in engaging an employee", respectively (DOST, s.vv. handfast, handfasting).

Mythical Handfasting

Well after formal betrothals called "handfastings" had ceased to be actually practiced in Scotland, a curious myth arose in the late 18th century that "handfasting" referred a trial marriage of a year and a day after which the partners could either marry permanently or part freely and that this kind of "handfasting" had been practiced in former times but not currently.

A.E. Anton, in "'Handfasting' in Scotland", very thoroughly looked into the myth of handfasting being trial marriage and discovered that the myth that handfasting in Scotland was any kind of marriage rather than betrothal could not be traced any further back than the late 18th century, to Thomas Pennant in his Tour in Scotland (London, 1790) recounting his tour of 1772, where he writes, as related by Anton (100-1):

Pennant says: 'Among the various customs now obsolete the most curious was that of handfisting, in use about a century past. In the upper part of Eskdale ... there was an annual fair where multitudes of each sex repaired. The unmarried looked out for mates, made their engagements by joining hands, or by handfisting, went off in pairs, cohabited until the next annual return of the fair, appeared there again and then were at liberty to declare their approbation or dislike of each other. If each party continued constant, the handfisting was renewed for life....' Pennant attributed the custom to the fewness of the clergy there in Popish times but, as Chalmers points out in his Caledonia, Pennant 'who was not very studious of facts when he wanted embellishment ... did not know ... how many more clergymen existed under the old than under the new establishment'.

Further, Pennant seems unaware that a clergyman was completely unneccessary for legal marriage in Scotland before the Reformation (just as one was unneccessary after the Reformation).

This is the first association of "handfasting" with supposed trial marriages of a year and a day, and even it is described as being "now obsolete" and "in use about a century past" and only occuring in one small place in the border regions. Compare this second hand rumour about practices a century earlier (recorded by a man "who was not very studious of the facts when he wanted embellishment") to the facts that are known about historical handfasting and marriage in the Middle Ages and first part of the Early Modern period as discussed above. The known facts of handfasting and marriage are incompatible with Pennant's rumour. Yet it is to Pennant's rumour that all subsequent elaborations of the myth of handfasting as trial marriage can be traced.

The next reference to "handfasting" as trial marriage is in The [Old] Statistical Account of Scotland (1791-99), v. 12, pp. 614-5, in a section dealing with Eskdale in Dumfries, which follows closely Pennant's description:

... In mentioning remarkable things in this parish, it would be wrong to pass over in silence, that piece of ground at the meeting of the Black and White Esks, which was remarkable in former times for an annual fair that had been held there time out of mind, but which is now entirely laid aside. At that fair, it was the custom for the unmarried persons of both sexes to choose a companion, according to their liking, with whom they were to live till that time next year. This was called hand-fasting, or hand in fist. If they were pleased with each other at that time, then they continued together for life; if not, they separated, and were free to make another choice as at the first. The fruit of their connexion (if there were any) was always attached to the disaffected person. In later times, when this part of the country belonged to the Abbacy of Melrose, a priest, to whom they gave the name Book i' bosom (either because he carried in his bosom a bible, or perhaps, a register of the marriages), came from time to time to confirm the marriages. This place is only a small distance from the Roman encampment of Castle-o'er. May not the fair have been first instituted when the Romans resided there? and may not the "hand-fasting" have taken its rise from their manner of celebrating marriage, ex usu, by which, if a woman, with the consent of her parents or guardians, lived with a man for a year, without being absent for 3 nights, she became his wife? Perhaps, when Christianity was introduced, this form of marriage may have been looked upon as imperfect, without confirmation by a priest, and, therefore, one may have been sent from time to time for this purpose.

Regarding the fanciful speculation about connections to Roman law, Anton (101) notes "Unfortunately for this theory, usus was obsolete in Roman law by the time the Romans came to Scotland."

The Old Statistical Account apparently adds the detail of the children being "always attached to the disaffected person". But as with Tennant, this custom is described as "now entirely laid aside" and also associated with the Roman Catholic era of Scottish history.

Sir Walter Scott is the next to promote the idea that "handfasting" was a form of trial marriage. In his 1820 novel The Monastery, the character Avenel says (Anton, 89, quoting Scott, ch. 25):

'We Bordermen ... take our wives, like our horses, upon trial. When we are handfasted, as we term it, we are man and wife for a year and a day: that space gone by, each may choose another mate, or at their pleasure, may call the priest to marry them for life—and this we call handfasting.'

But The Monastery is a supernatural historical romance set in the mid-16th century, prior to the Scottish Reformation of 1560. (See Xrefer's synopsis of the plot.) So when Scott has his character talking about supposed "handfasting" as a trial marriage for a year and a day, he too is at most claiming it was something that happened long, long ago and making no claim that it was practiced in his own day. Like earlier sources for the myth, Scott had no personal knowledge of such a practice. Indeed, it is most likely he first read about it in Pennant's Tour in Scotland, and/or in The Old Statistical Account , and thought it would be a neat thing to include in his novel, along with ghosts and other fanciful things.

Later writers, both novelists and historians, take up the myth, some adding new elements to it. For example, the 19th century historian W. F. Skene, in The Highlanders of Scotland (1837), rather than having The Old Statistical Account's description of children born to a handfasted couple "always being attached to the disaffected person" if the couple parts unwed states that conception of a child automatically makes the marriage permanent. Anton (89) reports Skene's version as:

... if during the period of trial 'the lady became a mother, or proved to be with child, the marriage became good in law, even although no priest had performed the marriage ceremony in due form'. He adds that 'the highlanders themselves draw a very strong distinction between bastard sons and the sons of their handfast unions, whom they considered legitimate'.

Note also that Skene has moved "handfasting" as trial marriage from the Borders to the Highlands. John Cameron in Celtic Law (1937) expands on this, claiming "handfasting to be one of the few Celtic customs surviving in Scots law." (Anton, 89) Acceptance of this myth as historical fact has been widespread; it has been reported in academic works of history, anthropology, and legal history (Anton, 89). Decades after Anton's 1958 article was published, one can still find even some Scottish historians erroneously repeating the myth as factual (though to the best of my knowledge only among those who have not examined the evidence).

Neopagan Handfasting

So by the mid-to-late 20th century, the myth of "handfasting" as an ancient pagan Celtic practice of trial marriage for a year and a day after which, if there are no children, the couple may choose to part freely or else marry permanently, was a well established and well known idea. At this stage, in the late 20th century, or perhaps somewhat earlier, there was a new permutation. Followers of various Neopagan religions, believing the myth to be an actual pre-Christian practice, adopted the form of the myth into their own modern religious practices and ceremonies.

Over time, various Neopagan religious groups altered and added to the details. In some modern traditions the length of time became variable rather than a year and a day. In some the temporary union became renewable mulitple times rather than a one time choice of marry or part. Unaware of the true historical origins of the term "handfasting" (that is, as a term signifying a handshake), the word was reanalyzed and re-interpreted as signifying that a cord had been tied around the couple's hands or wrists as part of the ceremony, so this feature was incorporated into the modern ceremonies. At some stage, some groups began to use "handfasting" as a synonym for legal marriage rather than for religiously recognized but legally unrecognized temporary sexual unions. And in recent years, some groups, coming almost full circle, started to use "handfasting" to mean a formal engagement to be married in the future (though this may be simply a variation on the temporary sexual union that may lead to marriage theme).

An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will