An old-time Wedding in Caithness
Joyful Celebrations Recalled(By the Piper)
IntroductionIt's a far cry back to 1870 [actually, 1875], but that would be about the date when I had the luck to be present at the most typical Highland wedding that had taken place in Caithness for many years, and probably there has been no such outstanding Highland wedding in the county since.
Except in the parish of Latheron, the old fashioned wedding had by this time dwindled from a week's duration to a "one day" affair. Perhaps in the outlying Highland districts of Caithness the festivities might be prolonged for two or three days, but, alas, the whole solid week of mirth and revelry is now only a memory of the past.
At the time when this (to me) memorable event took place I was the only piper of repute from the Ord to Bruan, and my services were in great demand for local weddings. But my father being an elder of the Kirk, and I myself a staunch Good Templar, I had to decline the many kindly and well-meant invitations. There came a day, however, when "Betsy", the pretty daughter of a much-respected neighbour, was to be married to Jamie, a well-to-do young man, who had returned from the Colonies and promptly fell to the darts of Cupid. The neighbours unanimously voted it a case of love at first sight. The outcome of this was that an interview took place between the prospective bride's parents and my own, which resulted - much to my delight - in my being asked to attend as piper on the "nuptial day."
PreliminariesI arrived at the good old farmhouse about 10 o'clock in the morning and, not knowing there would be many people there, I was surprised to find dozens of lads and lassies already in the house cheerily welcoming in the bridal morn. I had hardly elbowed my way into the house when the visitors shouted with one accord, "Give's a chune, Bill" and houch! before you could say "Jeck Robinson" a spirited dance began, and was carried on with such vigour and heartiness that Lance-Corporal Mac, of the Fort-George Militia - who, by the way, was M.C. on the occasion - had to call a halt.
Eleven o'clock in the morning was to be our starting time, but, between one thing and another, it was a good bit later before we struck the "King's Road." At this point the M.C. arranged us in correct marching order, and off we set on a three miles walk to the kirk. "Foul fa' the day" that I should forget the splendid fiddler who played in the rear of the procession, for well did he ply his bow as we marched along. As we stepped on our way the people who came in numbers from their crofting homes to cheer us on the way reminded me of the imperishable line in "Charlie is my darling" -
"An' a' the folk cam' runnin' oot to see the Chevalier."
Awa' to the KirkWhen we gained the level on our way, on this beautiful morning, we had to pass by the Old Knock, the reputed home of the fairies, whom some of the ancients in the neighbourhood asserted they had seen dancing on the grassy knowe at midnight, robed in sea green material like the present-day crepe de chine. At least that was the story as it was told to me by my dear old granny. All along our route, as we marched to church, the chaffing and daffing went on unceasingly - not a dull moment until we finally reached the kirk - into which the marriage guests entered in a subdued and orderly manner.
The Holy BondIt was custom in those days for the musicians to remain outside until the marriage ceremony was over, but I was so intent on seeing the happy event to a finish that I smuggled in behind the guests and sat in a side pew by myself - a sort of outcast in the sacred edifice. The fine old Minister was there as soon as the wedding party had taken their seats. Then, beckoning the bride and bridegroom and the best man and his partner to come before him, he proceeded, in most appropriate and touching words, to unite the happy couple in the bonds of holy matrimony which no man may put asunder.
Homeward MarchAs the marriage party were retiring the kirk-officer came forward to where I was sitting in - what appeared to me - a rather menacing attitude. This incident has often brought to my mind the old story about the elder who, on seeing a lady visitor in church raise her ear trumpet, almost shouted to her, "Ae toot an' ye're oot!" But instead, to my surprise, he whispered in my ear, "Fan ye gang oot, start aff wi' "Eriorsa Voch" (Sir John Sinclair's March). With this request the fiddler and I readily complied as we set out on our return journey. And now, "a' the folk cam' runnin' oot" to see the newly-married couple. As we came to the halfway house on our homeward march a halt was called by our M.C., and it was really marvellous how the male ranks thinned out here - one individual making the excuse that he had left his "camag" at 'e bar the week before; another that his cousin Jess had left a pair 'o ranter'd stockings for him at the inn; and yet another that he had quite forgotten to call for a mended "skellad" that was left for him by his uncle John.
Chaffing by the WayAs time was pressing we were quickly re-formed, and on we went down the steep road and over the sharply curved bridge and up by the old smiddy and on by the whalebone gateway of the Major's beautiful avenue. As the wedding party were now breasting the steep road Phemie remarked to her partner, Johnnie - "What bonnie upstanding gress is in 'tween the dyk an' the braehead - A wish A could get wir coo, Brander, here for a day; she would chust be in her glory." Throwing his head back at an angle of 45 degrees from his dickie front Johnnie very gallantly replied, "That's no' gress ye're seein' ye trosk (fool); that's a rabbadies' loogs."
And so the ragging went on until we reached the "Knock" on our return journey. By this time the fiddler and I were a bit winded, so we stayed our hands for a space. It was then that I heard Jess and Robbie chatting just behind me. "Robbie, keep a calm sough on ye when wir passing the Knock, for the fairies are awfu' jealous buddies." In reply to this sally Robbie put a thumb and second forefinger together, and with a snap like the crack of the whip said, "Jess, this is Betsy's wedding day, and that for the 'Sheechs'' (fairies). Then, on the level again, we soon reached the old inn, where the fiddler and myself played our choicest tunes to cheer the household of the bridegroom's kith and kin.
The Wedding FeastWe were now within a short distance of the bride's home and were met by a crowd of old and young people. Some of them carried guns and pistols, others had tin whistles and tin cans and every conceivable article that could contribute to the din that followed. On reaching the house the newly-wedded couple were the first to enter, and received a most touching and affectionate reception from the bride's parents. Then the guests filed in and took their respective places at the tables. Before leaving the house in the morning refreshments were served out with the true Highland hospitality and on our return we found the tables loaded to their utmost carrying capacity with quantities of every edible dainty procurable from near and far.
When the Chief of MacLean invited "Prince Charlie" to dine with him he stated that his bill of fare would be -
We'll bring down the black steer,But, tempting though MacLean's menu appeared, it was a back number compared with the glorious spread put before us by our host and hostess. MacLean makes no mention of lobster sauce nor barmasherie (blown or whipped cream). These two dishes alone were fit to be put before the gods.
However, to proceed. The happy and delighted guests did ample justice to the many and varying appetising dainties placed before them. While partaking of this choice dinner, conversation was heartily carried on. It might be a discussion on the ministers and men of those days, but the chat mostly referred to daily occupations.
On With the Dance!Eventually the women folk redded up the dishes, leaving a clear space for dancing. Then, in hearty response to the fiddle and pipes, dancing was resumed with such energy that would completely put fox-trotting in the shade. To quote from an obscure poet -
"Not a shade of care was there,And so
"The night went by wi' tentless heed,
The "Bedding"There were very few honeymoon jaunts to the south in those far-off days. Only a favoured few from the county could indulge in such luxuries. But little cared the home folk for that. Their idea of a glorious windup to a wedding was the "bedding" of the newly-married couple. It was announced by the ladies to the male guests that the bridal pair had retired to rest, and all were invited to the bridal chamber to wish the happy couple good-night and good luck. While this was proceeding Kirsty, the dey (dairywoman) would say to the bride "Betsy, maidal (dear), just come oot for a meenadie and hev a wee drop of' ginger cordial," but the bonnie blushing bride's reply was to duck her head under the snow-white counterpane amid roars of hearty laughter. Then Geordie Up would invite the bridegroom to have just a wee "teet" o' "Double Poltney" but Jamie remained as immovable as a graven image, and then more uproarious laughter followed this line of banter. Eventually the guests had to retire, but before doing so they were queued up and each in turn had to kiss the bride and shake hands with the bridegroom on leaving the apartment.
Interlude of SongThen came an interval of "go as you please". During the lull that followed I could hear scraps of the friendly conversation that was carried on. Rob was holding forth to a neighbour the fine quality of two stots he had reared on the "Lean" and from his description the celebrated Noss stock of today would look silly alongside his bonnie beasties. Alick, a young chappie who had been "Sooth" to Edinburgh called for a song, and Geordie readily responded. At this time I can only remember a line or two of Geordie's song -
"I gave to her a di'mon, a gay gold ring,Something, however, upset the course of their love, and the song ended with the refrain -
"I care no more for her than the san's of the sea."Then Benjie jumped up and sang that beautiful song -
"Not the swan on the lake, nor the foam on the shoreEnding up with the refrain -
"For there's friendship and pleasure in bonnie Strathmore."This song was received with applause. But now came the song that reached their hearts. It was the lament of a love-sick jilted swain who vowed that he would -
"Traivel to Mount Nebo, where Moses viewed the land,This song fairly brought the house down - to use concert hall phraseology. Alick called out for an "encore", but Hughag said he "Noor heer'd o' her", thinking that "encore" was the name of some new-fangled song. Besides, he said, I can only sing wan song. I enquired from Hughag where he picked up his song. He replied that he "Got her from a cheelie o' the name o' Gunn, wha cam' fae a placie ca'd Badbea. Me an' him wrocht 'egither on the Caledownian Canawl."
Parting MerrimentBy this time the mist was rising from Morven's crests, and it was time for me to depart to face a day's hard darg. When at last I was about to part with this happy and hearty company at the "March" someone suggested a parting dance on the rough and dewy heathercoo patch of sward. Then the pipes struck up anew and around the dancers flew, and no mortals on this earth could happier be. Like the "Hundred pipers an' a' an' a'," they danced themselves dry to the pibroch's sound. On bidding them all goodbye I had to promise to return during the festive week to cheer them up.
Before concluding this article I must not forget that the youngsters of the house entered into the enjoyment of the occasion with a zest that was quite unusual for the shy boys of those days, and I have very much pleasure in recording that these boys have since risen to men of exceptional commercialability.
Last changed: 99/11/21 14:37:22