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An Ancient Scottish Custom
Wives on Trial

January 27, 1911

According to tradition, an annual fair was held at a spot where the Black and White Esk meet, and which, was remarkable for its peculiar marriage associations. At this fair all the unmarried of either sex assembled, and each chose a companion with whom they had to live until the next fair. This ceremony was known as "hand-fasting" or "hand-in-fist." The man took his chosen companion home, and each enjoyed the privileges of the married state all the year; and they attended the next season's fair, and if mutually pleased with their choice they were held to be properly joined together in matrimony for life. But if either of the two who had lived together during the time of probation was dissatisfied, they separated and were free to provide themselves with another partner. From the neighbouring monasteries priests were sent to look after those couples who had been "handfasted," and to join together those who were pleased with their bargain.

This singular custom was known to have been taken advantage of by many persons of rank. We may quote Lindsay, the Scottish historian, to prove this. In his account of the reign of James II., he says that, "James, sixth Earl of Murray, had a son by Isabel Innes, daughter of the Laird of Innes, Alexander Dunbar, a man of singular wit and courage. This Isabel was bul 'hand-fasted' to him, and deceased before the marriage."

All children born during the year of trial, in event of a separation following, were taken care of by the father, and ranked with his lawful children, next to his heirs.

This apprenticeship in matrimony reflected no disgrace on the lady concerned, and if her character was otherwise good she was entitled to an equal match as though nothing had occurred.

"Hand-fasting" was deemed a great irregularity by the Reformers, and they used every means in their power to abolish it. In the year 1562 the Kirk-Session of Aberdeen decreed that all "hand-fasted" persons should marry at once, so the custom must have been general throughout Scotland; but, it ceased to exist shortly after the Reformation.

John Wight,
Balthanigie, Turriff.

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