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  Orcadian Wedding Traditions

The Wedding Feast

"The crofter of old had to work so hard to obtain a livelihood and had so few of the luxuries of life that it is little wonder that a wedding was welcomed in the township as a festive occasion, when privation and toil might be exchanged for feasting and hilarity."

The wedding feast was the grandest and most abundant meal the bride's family and friends could afford.

Due to the size of a typical Orkney house, the bride's home would be emptied of furniture so that long tables (often just long planks placed on barrels) could be set up for the wedding guests.

Outside, the barn was scrubbed clean and prepared for the dancing and merrymaking that followed the wedding feast.

A traditional wedding feast consisted of broth and oatcakes followed by joints of beef or mutton. Ducks, geese, hens and rabbits were also served, along with barley-meal bannocks and pancakes. These were washed down with copious quantities of home-brewed ale.

Feast preparations

The preparations for the marriage-feast had begun in earnest after contract-night, with the slaughter of animals and poultry, the baking of scones, bannocks and pancakes and the brewing of ale.

These preparations were not restricted to the house of the bride. Everyone who was to attend the forthcoming wedding was also expected to contribute gifts of meat, ale or scones.

The wedding cogs

At the wedding feast, the ale was always drunk from wooden vessels known as cogs.

These cogs were - and still are - undoubtedly the most essential of all the ingredients that went to make up an island wedding. In later years, the traditional ale came to be replaced by a potent alcoholic mixture, the like of which still astounds visitors.

The traditions surrounding the handling of the cogs were complex and are further discussed here. Generally, however, the bride was always the first to drink from the cog whereupon it was handed round the gathering, great care being taken to ensure it travelled in a sunwise direction.

Apart from the Grand March, which is a later variant of the old Wedding Walk, the passing round of the Bride's Cog is the only ceremony still found at Orkney weddings today.

The Orcadian guests still watch with a wry smile as an unsuspecting incomer gulps down great mouthfuls of cog, blissfully unaware of the consequences of their actions.

Wedding entertainment

As soon as the meal had been consumed, the drinking began and the night's entertainment commenced. Often this started with someone called upon to sing.

As late as the first half of the 18th century, there were men known as menye-singers, who sang ballads at public occasions. In addition to the singing, stories were told and toasts issued, while the younger guests retired to the barn for the music and dancing.

There was a time when people attending a wedding were loath to give up the feasting and dancing too soon. Therefore, it was quite normal for an old Orkney wedding to last three or four days - or till all the food was eaten and all the drink quaffed.

On these occasions, the guests would retire to makeshift dormitories within the outbuildings to snatch some sleep as and when required.

This prolonged celebration was not such an imposition on the bride's parents as might be supposed, for, as has been mentioned, the guests always brought a considerable amount of the food and drink with them.

The bedtime heuld-horn

On these extended celebrations we have a record of a custom known as the heuld-horn, sometimes referred to as the heuld-cog or bed-drink.

After the slumbering guests had been asleep for a few hours, they were woken by the geud-wife, who would offer them a drink from an ale-cog. This was thought necessary to ensure a refreshing sleep.

More recently, however, weddings generally lasted only one night, although often carrying on through the darkness until sunrise. At these weddings, the passing round of the Bride's Cog was usually regarded as a signal for the guests to begin making their way home.

The celebrations end

A dance known as the Bobadybouster marked the official end of the celebration, after which it was the privilege of some of the bride's most intimate friends to undress her and prepare her for her wedding night.

It was also known for the attending young men to carry out a similar duty - ensuring that the groom was undressed and bedded.

In a typical boisterous fashion, the undressing of the groom usually involved plenty of horse-play, with numerous attempts made to steal away items of the bride's clothing.

Success at this endeavour was regarded as an honourable triumph for the men and an affront to the women. The attempts often involved hiding, subterfuge or simply brute force, but more often than not they were foiled by the girls attending the bride, who were well aware of the menfolk's intentions.

Burning the sneud

While these capers were under way, some of the older women were known to perform the secret ceremony known as "the burning of the sneud". This was so secret that exact details are still unclear.

The sneud was the narrow ribbon used for tying up hair. Regarded as a badge of virginity, the sneud was removed by the bride's mother when she dressed her daughter for the wedding. Once the household was silent, sleeping or drunk, the mother and her close friends removed a hot stone from the fire and placed the sneud on it.

From the shape the ribbon took while burning, these wise women thought they could divine some knowledge of the bride's future - especially in relation to fertility and prosperity.

Section Contents
Customs and First Steps
Fit Washin' Night
Saltwater and freshwater
Kissing Meat
Biddin' da Folk
The Blackening
The Wedding Day Arrives...
The Wedding Feast
The Wedding Cogs
After the Wedding

See Also
Wedding Traditions and the Odin Stone
Marriage Divination
Fairy Folk
The Trows
Courtship, love and marriage in Viking Scandinavia

The exact mixture which goes into the Bride's Cog these days varies with every wedding because each family has its own views on the correct recipe.

Despite the family variations, the base ingredients of this potent mixture are usually hot ale, gin, brandy and whisky mixed with sugar and pepper.

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