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Celtic Handfasting: A Tradition for Your Scotland Wedding

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Ever wondered where the expression “tying the knot” came from? 

After all, it’s a pretty specific (and rather random!) saying, in regards to getting hitched, so it must have stemmed from somewhere, right?! Well, guess what? It did. And it is as literal as it gets. 

Not only that, it dates all the way back to the ancient Celtic handfasting tradition of circa 7000 BC.

Read more: Scotland Wedding Planning: Wedding Bagpipers

Let’s find out more….

Celtic Handfasting: A Tradition for Your Scotland Wedding

Anyone familiar with Celtic or Gaelic union rituals may have witnessed the age-old Celtic Pagan wedding tradition otherwise known as handfasting, which, as the name may suggest, entails the happy couple’s wrists being bound together with a colourful rope, ribbon, or cord, while saying their vows… hence the expression ‘tying the knot’.

Read More: Everything You Need to Know About a Quaich Ceremony for Your Scottish Wedding

What is the Celtic Ceremony of Handfasting?

The Pagan tradition of handfasting may seem bizarre and a little extreme, but in ancient Celtic times, it symbolised the binding of two lives over love (awww!), and is still very much a popular tradition in Irish and Scottish weddings today.

The process involves the couple having a wrist bound to their partner’s with a ribbon during the ceremony, usually done by the priest/officiant, and signifies the union of the pair after a period of engagement.

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Photography by Wildling Weddings

The History of Handfasting

As we’ve established, the ancient wedding tradition of handfasting predates Christianity, and is linked to 7000 BC Ireland. 

Because various other cultures and religions have adopted handfasting traditions within their own wedding etiquette, there are nuances regarding the history and procedure, depending on when/where the wedding takes place.

For example, in Medieval England, handfasting would signify being betrothed/engaged, as opposed to representing the beginning of a marriage

However, sometime during the 18th century, this began to shift, and the process would represent the beginning of a ‘contract’, in which the couple would trial a marriage for a period of a year (usually) and reconvene after that timeframe to decide whether or not to continue being man and wife.

Nowadays, handfasting is purely for ceremonial and romantic purposes, and is often still included in Celtic or Gaelic weddings, or by those with Celtic or Gaelic ancestry, and is by no means binding in terms of being contractual.

How to Include Celtic Pagon Wedding Traditions (+ Handfasting)

If you would like to include handfasting or another ancient Celtic tradition (or two!), here’s how to get started.

Handfasting Ceremony

If handfasting is something you’d like to include within your wedding, the good news is it’s super easy (and cost-effective) to do so.

Chances are, you’re still planning on exchanging rings, and so, typically, the handfasting ceremony would take place directly before the ring exchange, with the officiator placing the rings on your and your partner’s fingers while the hands are still bound.

You will need

A ribbon, lace, cord, rope, or some other fabric that serves as binds. Many couples like to choose their bind colour to be in keeping with their wedding colours. Or in the case of the Scottish wedding: clan tartan is often favoured.

That’s it! This tradition doesn’t require an elaborate prop list.

What to do

There are several ways to perform a handfasting ceremony, and none of them are right or wrong.

  • First up, you need to link hands with your partner. This can be just one or both hands. If it’s the latter, often the celebrant will bind them in a figure of 8 (the infinity symbol) to represent eternity and everlasting love.
  • The couple will say their vows either during or after their hands have been fastened.
  • After this, the celebrant will untie the bonds, while explaining that although the ties are being removed physically, spiritually, they will remain in place.
  • The ceremony will continue/conclude as planned.

That’s it! It is really that simple! Also, many couples like to hold on to their binds as a keepsake from the wedding, just FYI.

Handfasting: Top Tips

As with all wedding traditions, there are a few tips that can make the process smoother/more enjoyable.

  • Prioritise ribbon or cord (or something of a similar texture) over something like rope, for comfort, as well as for aesthetical reasons.
  • It can be wise (although not imperative) to check whether the celebrant has performed a handfasting ceremony before to ensure it goes right and that the binding isn’t too tight, etc.
  • Feel free to add your own touch to the ceremony. Every part of your wedding is personal to you and your partner, and often, couples like to include ribbon colours that represent certain symbolism (for example, red for love, green for prosperity, etc.).

Celtic Wedding Traditions: What Else to Include in Your Scottish Wedding

As well as handfasting, you can also include these fun and authentic Celtic wedding traditions:

Wedding Bells

Yup. You read that correctly. Wedding bells aren’t exclusive to Christian weddings, and these types of wedding bells don’t come on a steeple!

On the contrary, these wedding bells are small (think Christmas ornament size) and are given to the bridesmaids to ring while the couple walks down the aisle.

Claddagh Ring

You may not know the name, but you will certainly recognise the Claddagh ring symbolism, which is a crown-wearing love heart encased in two hands. 

This is often a gift the couple may receive (perhaps at the bridal shower) to be featured in the wedding in the form of jewellery rings (one for both the bride and groom to wear) or even an ornament.

Although this tradition stemmed in Galway and is, indeed, Celtic, many Celtic traditions mesh with and are adhered to during Scottish weddings.

Horseshoes

Iron horseshoes have long been a symbol of good luck, but they also have a history in Celtic weddings.

In traditional Irish weddings, the bride would walk down the aisle holding a horseshow (often adorned with flowers or four-leaf clovers) as a symbol of encouraging good luck into her upcoming marriage.

She would have to ensure the horseshoe remains upright, as it is treated like a cup or glass, with the invisible luck “spilling out” if the shoe is turned or knocked.

Coin Tossing

This tradition involves the couple tossing a handful of coins for the guests to collect (being mindful not to knock anyone’s teeth out, of course!) and symbolises generosity and prosperity, which then karmically welcomes these good fortuitous endeavours into the marriage.

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caitlin and jack loch an eilein lochside wedding scotland aviemore

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Celtic Handfasting FAQs

Paganism, like all other cultures and religions, has its own wedding traditions, and other than handfasting, these include:

  • The bride/s wears a black/dark-coloured wedding dress.
  • The bride may wear a crown of some kind; often something handmade specifically for the wedding.
  • The couple exchanges a sword or dagger.
  • Offerings to an altar, such as food, wine, flowers, candles, incense, etc.
  • Guests may stand in a circle around the couple during the ceremony.
  • The ceremony may take place outside/in nature.
  • Bay leaf burning (which is meant to encourage good luck/the granting of wishes).

Celts are traditionally associated with Paganism, which goes much farther back than Christianity (and its derivatives), and Pagans are deeply connected with Mother Nature, therefore, the four elements of a Celtic wedding are the four elements: fire, earth, air, and water.

These are incorporated into the ceremony. For example, a candle/torch may be lit to represent fire, a glass/goblet of water may be shared to represent water, and so on.

Unlike many other religion/culture-based unions, traditional Celtic marriages celebrated free will within the nuptials, including the right for one or both parties to separate, meaning it is one of the very few cultures that didn’t encourage the oppression of women through wedlock (woohoo!).

Many of the wedding practices we know and love today (including confetti-throwing and, indeed, handfasting) date back to early Pagan times (849–1297 BC). 

 

The reason many Christian-based religions use these practices within their weddings is because they stole them from the Pagans and have since been passing them off as their own.

Yes and no. While the tradition of exchanging wedding rings isn’t exclusive to Paganism, Pagans believed in the gifting of metal objects (more often than not, a sword or dagger) because the sturdiness of the material was symbolic of the matrimonial bond. 

Also, Pagans believed that all-natural elements (such as metal) have spirits, and being as Paganism is more spiritual than religious, this tradition found its way into Celtic/Pagan weddings.

Traditionally, handfasting is a Celtic practice, but it was/is also a popular pastime in Pagan weddings, as well as Christian and non-religious nuptials. 

Technically, because handfasting is a Celtic tradition, that would suggest that it originally stemmed from Ireland. However, it seems that it was very promptly adopted by the Gaelic community, with possible overlaps.

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