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  Marriage Divinations

The Future: Graphic by Sigurd TowrieAs is mentioned, briefly, in the section dealing with Orcadian wedding traditions, in bygone days a young Orcadian girl, growing up on a croft, or farm, had but two prospects in life.

She could marry, start a home and family, or remain with her parents, a spinster, spending her days looking after the family home.

Needless to say, marriage was high on the list of priorities of most Orcadian girls. It was therefore imperative that they attract and secure a husband.

A classic example of the seriousness with which the Orcadian women regarded marriage is the superstition that it was considered extremely dangerous to let water boil alone in a pot. If this occurred, it was a certainty that the girls within that household would lose their sweethearts. This tradition also serves to indicate the importance placed on superstition in everyday Orcadian life.

The road to marriage may have been rocky but these young ladies were not content to sit and wait for fate to deal its cards. From her earliest days an Orcadian girl took part in numerous forms of divination with the sole intention of finding out any tiny snippet of information relating to her future love.

In most cases the results of these divinations appear to the modern reader as insignificant - the anxious girl could perhaps hope to discover the colour of her the lover's hair, the sound of his voice or perhaps the direction in which he lived. All seemingly pointless and general information.

But with all these we must remember that in small island communities where everyone knew everyone else, the diviner was almost certain to know someone who, in some way, fitted the results. In a land steeped in superstition and lore, could we go as far as saying the idea planted within a maiden's head after her divinations may have been the catalyst in more than a few courtships or marriages?

Across the islands it was generally agreed that there were certain times of the year when an attempt to peer through the veil into the future was likely to be successful.

Traditionally these times were Candlemas (2 February), Johnsmas (Midsummer) and the most commonly used Halloween (31 October).

The forms these divinations took were varied and the methods employed also differed from isle to isle and parish to parish. Some were little more than vague interpretations of natural occurrences while others had stricter almost ritualistic procedures that had to be adhered to. The latter group usually resulted in a "conjured" up a likeness of the future husband.

These divinations existed as oral lore and as such few were actually recorded. Some examples from the former category are:

  • At Candlemas each year, the girl should startle the first crow she saw. The direction in which the bird flew was the direction in which her future husband lived. If the panicked bird flew over a churchyard, the girl was certain to remain a spinster.
  • Flowers picked from Ribwort Plantain were placed under a stone. If the plant grew more flowers before the heads under the stone withered, the girl and her sweetheart were sure to marry.
  • Sweethearts would place two straws - one for each of them and named accordingly - onto a glowing peat. A knot had been tied on one of the straws and the heat within the peat would eventually cause this straw to jump. If the straw leapt toward the other it was a sure sign that the sweethearts would marry.
  • On the Orkney mainland, one tradition recorded within the parish of Orphir has the girl removing a burning coal from the fire and extinguishing it in a bucket of water. The coal was then placed under a turf and left. When the next morning dawned, the turf was broken in two and examined. If a hair was found, it was sure to be the same colour as her future husband's.
  • After the bonfire festivities, girls often carried home a partially burned peat which would be completely extinguished in a tub of "strang bing" (urine) and placed on the door lintel. The peat would be taken down the next day, broken in two and the colour of the peat within would foretell the colour of the girl's future husband.

The second category are by far the more interesting. Most of the rituals within this group were specifically carried out at Halloween and may hark back to a common Orcadian belief that all living people had a "ganfer" - a supernatural duplicate or "doppleganger".

For a person to meet there own "ganfer" was disastrous for it meant certain death but in these cases they merely allowed the girl to glimpse the form of her intended. For more on the ganfer, click here.

  • The most common of the Halloween divinations involved the sieve, the scissors and the knife. The brave girl would leave the house and go to the barn (or other building) where she had to stand in the dark, winnowing "three wechts o naitheen" with the sieve containing the knife and the scissors. If carried out correctly, the girl could expect to see an apparition of her future husband pass the open door.
  • A similar ritual had the hopeful young girl hanging a wetted sleeve in front of the fire before retiring to bed. Once in bed she would wait for an apparition of her future spouse to enter her room and "turn the shift".
  • A salt herring, eaten before bedtime, would ensure a visitation by the husband-to-be, who would appear sometime during the night to quench the girl's thirst with a draught of cold water.
  • In order to hear the voice of their future love, the girl in question had to throw a ball of "worsted" (wool) into the kiln used for drying grain, while reciting:

    "Wha taks had o me clew's end"

    The disembodied voice that answered (if any) was said to be that of the girl's husband. Needless to say, this ritual was the source of numerous japes in and around farms, when local lads would hide themselves within the kiln awaiting the arrival of the anxious maidens.
  • A final example regarding the spectre of a future love involved the young lass entering the farm's stackyard at night, running round its circumference with her arms outstretched. Upon reaching full circle she would embrace the apparition of an unknown man - the man she was destined to wed.
See Also
Wedding Traditions and the Odin Stone
Wedding Customs
Bonfire Customs

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