Penny weddings & dirty dancing

The Scottish kirk had a very traditional outlook on things – if it was enjoyable, then the Calvinist medicine of “thou shalt not” should be applied. Wedding celebrations were most definitely a case in point.

According to George Penny’s 1832 book “Traditions of Perth”, there were three types of wedding prevalent in the 1830s in Perthshire – the free wedding, where only a few select friends were invited and the guests were not to be the cause of any expense; the dinner wedding, where a dinner was provided by the marriage party, and the penny wedding (also known as the penny bridal), where each guest contributed financially or by way of food towards the dinner and then paid for their own drink, and which by the end of the festivities (which could go on for several days) could yield a tidy profit for the newlyweds. The latter type of wedding was particularly common across rural Scotland, and virtually everyone in the parish was invited. Of course, the Kirk hated penny weddings, and there are plenty of scathing comments about them in the first Statistical Accounts recorded in the 1790s (online at

The Reverend Alexander Johnston, minister of Monquhitter in Aberdeenshire, noted in a supplement to his account that the “scene… which involved every amusement and every joy of an idle and illiterate age, was the Penny Bridal. When a pair were contracted they, for a stipulated consideration, bespoke the wedding dinner at a certain tavern, and then ranged the country in every direction to solicit guests. One, two, and even three hundred would convene on these occasions to make merry at their own expense for two or more days. This scene of feasting, drinking, dancing, wooing, fighting, was always enjoyed with the highest relish, and until obliterated by a similar scene, furnished ample materials for rural mirth and rural scandal. But now, the penny bridal is reprobated as an index of want and money and of want of taste.”

The Kirk was never happy at the prospect of such fun at a wedding, and had for years been fighting to deter such activities. The following example of record of a marriage being contracted from Methel Hill in Fife on May 18th 1694 shows a good example from a century before (source: OPR M 459/00 0050 Wemyss 18 MAY 1694):

Patrick Dunsyre & Janet Lumbsdale

The whilk day was contracted in order to Marriage Patrick Dunsyre to Janet Lumbsdale both in ys paroch & pledged them [..] dolers & David Lambsdale in methel hill became caution yt yr sould not be promiseray dancing at yr wedding married 18 of may

In this case David Lambsdale was asked to be the ‘cautioner’ (pronounced ‘kayshuner’), i.e. a ‘guarantor’ that there would be no ‘promisary dancing’ at the wedding!

If your ancestors were present at a penny wedding, and God forbid, got up to  any ‘promiseray dancing’ or ‘promiscuous dancing’, the Kirk would likely have hauled them before the session to explain themselves. This happened to an ancestor of mine in 1752, Andrew Henderson of Airntully, in the parish of Kinclaven, as recorded in the minutes for the Associate Session church in the parish (Source: NRS, CH3/502/1/93):

At Arntully 8th Decr 1752. After prayer by ye Modr Sederunt John Sprunt John Morice John Kea Elders & John Richie Deacon

The Officer having reported that according to appointment he had cited to this meeting the following persons viz: Andrew Henderson, in ye Miln of Airntully, Lillias Grigor, John Nathan & George Ramsays, James Stewart, Joseph Morice, John, Agnes & Elizabeth Mallochs, Mary Crookshank, John Grigor, John Gellatly & Emilia Bennet all in Arntully. They being called, they all compeared Except James Stewart, and they being Interrigate by ye Modr One by One if they had been guilty of the indecent behaviour of promiscuous dancing, They all answered in the affirmation. Then After the Indelacicy & Sinfullness of such a Practise was laid before them ye Mod[erato]r together wt ye Aggravation of their Sin having got publick Warnings agt the same They were severally Interrogate […] they acknowledged their said conduct to be sinful & thro’ Grace resolved agt the same for the future, & also against the Countenancing I so far as Witness it in others. They all after much deal acknowledged & Resolved agreeably to ye Interrogation, Except John Ramsay, who after all dealing wt him would neither Acknowledge nor Resolve as aforesaid.

They were all Removed. Then ye session proceeded to consider what Censure to Inflict upon them, and after Deliberation upon ye Matter They agreed in regard of some circumstances in ye case of ye Persons who had fallen into ye forsaid Indecent behaviour, to List in an admonition of them wt certifica[tio]n That if they shall afterwards be guilty of such a practise, the Session will inflict a higher Censure upon them. And wt respect to John Ramsay the Session delayed ye Considerat[io]n of his case till next Meeting & that both he & James Stewart be cited to attend.

They being called in, and after ye Modr had intimated to John Ramsay what ye session had agreed upon wt respect to him all ye rest were admonished by ye Modr in ye Name of ye Lord Jesus Christ the only King & head of his church, wt certifica[tio]n That is all or any of them should be found guilty of such a sinfull practise again, ye session would inflict a higher censure upon them. And they were exhorted by ye Modr to watchfulness & Rependance upon the Lord. Closed wt prayer.

So there you have it – my ancestor was quite literally convicted of dirty dancing!

There was also a great deal of superstition held onto at weddings. Some people refused to marry on the unlucky day of Friday, though in some parts this was a lucky day! Many also refused to marry in January or May, with May 14th in particular deemed to be particularly unlucky – many people noted the day of the week on which it fell and refused to marry on that same day when their ceremony took place later in the year. Conversely, for some, April and November were deemed to be extremely lucky months in which to marry! Many also refused to carry the proclamations of banns (which had to be called three times prior to a wedding) over into a new year, and for some even the nature of the moon or the tide was a factor in deciding when to perform the ceremony.

So when you find the date of your ancestors’ weddings, there may be much more significance to the date chosen than at first may meet the 21st century eye, and the subsequent celebrations may have damned them for ever in the eyes of the very minister who performed the rites!!!