Handfasting – marriage or betrothal?

This may be one of those ‘where angels fear to tread’ posts…! 

I’ve occasionally been asked in the past about so called ‘handfast’ marriages in Scotland, where it is said that couples could be married for a year and day, at which point they then decide whether to call it a day, or to continue on as a married couple. The reason I have never really bothered to discuss them in talks, lectures and books is very simple – I have never come across them in the records during my client work or my own personal research over the last 20 years. If it isn’t something I’m dealing with for my work, it’s not as relevant as other things that maybe are – and which will be for others doing their work. And goodness only knows that in Scotland there is already enough of relevance to be talking about with regards to marriage in genealogical research!

In looking through the back collection of the Scottish Genealogy Society’s The Scottish Genealogist, I have come across a great article by genealogist Donald Whyte, in the December 1994 edition (Vol. XLI No.4), entitled Handfast Marriage in Scotland. In essence, it summarises ‘handfasting’ not as a form of marriage, but for the most part across Scotland as an act of betrothal prior to a marriage. For the most part it seems to have been a largely pre-Reformation practice in Scotland.

There were three forms of irregular marriage prior to 1940 in Scotland – a marriage by declaration, with an exchange of consent before witnesses; marriage by habit and repute (living together as man and wife, with no ceremony, and accepted by the community as such – and which remained valid as form until 2006), and promise subsequente copula – the act of betrothal, followed by intercourse. As far as the Kirk was concerned, the term ‘handfasting’ applied to the latter, an act of betrothal, which did not constitute marriage in itself, and for which those so betrothed were to continue to live as single persons until they either were married in the church or completed their marriage irregularly. Whyte’s article cites various examples from the kirk session records of Aberdeen and St. Andrew’s from the 1560s.

A betrothal, which held some importance to the Kirk, could be demonstrated in Scotland by the joining of hands, with the term handfasting derived from the Anglo-Saxon term faesta-hand. But a betrothal, unlike the existence of a marriage itself, could be easily called off prior to a wedding, and the two prospective spouses could go their separate ways.

In the Western Isles, parts of the Highlands, and Eskdalemuir in the Borders, Whyte describes the traditions of supposed temporary marriages, but considers these to be variations of an act of betrothal. In the Western Isles, Martin Martin noted in 1703 a practice, long abandoned, of at the end of a year and a day, the prospective husband returning his betrothed wife to her father, along with any dowry, if the desire to marry was no longer shared, but with the father keeping any illegitimate children. William Skene noted similar, with a temporary betrothal between the heir of a chief and another’s daughter which could be abandoned after a year and a day, unless a child had been borne to them, in which case they were deemed to have become married by promise subsequente copula. Whyte further cites an example of a similar practice on Skye, recalled by Dr Samuel Johnson in 1773, of a calamitous feud following the dissolution of such a betrothal between a branch of the MacLeods and the MacDonalds. This practice appears to have been dissolved during the reign of James VI in 1608.

One area in the Borders where handfasting seemed to be a bit more culturally institutionalised until the late 17th century was Eskdalemuir, where at an annual fair, single men and women could meet and take each other as betrothed spouses who then cohabited for a year and a day. The practice here was noted as having emerged prior to the Reformation due to a lack of clergy in the area, with priests making annual visits to carry out rites of baptism and marriage, but in such a case, those who were so betrothed still had to be married by the priest for the marriage to later become valid.  

In conclusion, Whye again cites his belief that despite the variations in the country, handfasting was still just a part of the betrothal custom, and a part of the irregular form of marriage by promise subsequente copula. 

You can obtain a copy of the full article from the Scottish Genealogy Society – Scottish Genealogist Journal vol.41 part 4 (1994) – at https://shop.scotsgenealogy.com/cgi-bin/sh000001.pl?WD=1994%20scottish%20dec%20genealogist&PN=Scottish_Genealogist_Journals_%2d_Downloadable%2ehtml#SID=307?a4336, as a downloadable PDF priced at just £1.

(With thanks to Donald Whyte and the Scottish Genealogy Society)