The painting above, by Alloa-born artist David Allan, is one of my favourite 18th century paintings depicting Scottish people. On the left there is a well-known musician Niel Gow playing the violin next to his brother playing the cello. On Gow’s right is the Duke of Atholl (his patron) and then there are a number of unknown people – quite possibly the duke’s tenants, at a wedding by a loch.
Here is another of Allan’s wedding paintings, painted ten years later. This one is a bit busier. Niel Gow is playing again, a chap is playing bagpipes, Gow’s brother is sitting at a table on the left of the painting.
On the right of the painting, we can easily spot the groom (he’s got a ribbon tied to his left arm and he’s carrying ribbons – I’ll explain that in a minute- and he’s with a friend/relative who happens to be in the British Army.
This is the part of the painting that interests me the most, though. There’s clearly a bride in the middle of the group, who is surrounded by a group of girls and women.
Four of them were unmarried, four of them were married.
How do I know this? Well, it’s quite easy once you know that what a female wore on her head in the Highlands and Islands was a very quick and universally understood sign of her marriage status.
Girls wore ribbons – the stìom – tied in a very particular manner (as we see on the bride and several other women surrounding her). Married women wore the brèid- a linen kerchief.
It is recorded that the kerchief was seen as a symbol of the dignity of marriage and that the bride’s mother put it on her daughter’s head the morning following the wedding and then presented her to the people assembled for festivities (Grant and Cheape 1987: 193).
With the exception of the wedding ring, there is not another tradition in the United Kingdom – alive or dead- which provides a clear and visible sign of a woman’s marital status.
Highland betrothal and marriage customs The Scottish Gaelic term for betrothal is Rèiteach and it was quite different from what we might expect today – a lad getting down on bender knee with a ring in his hand and asking his beloved. There’s quite a good Wiki page on the ceremonies involved . It might seem a bit weird to us that pre-nups were frequently used in the Gàidhealtachd (You can see Allan and Flora Macdonald’s prenup here), but it was highly practical.
Back to Allan’s 1790 painting. Can you see a woman is holding a bannock/cake broken in two above the bride’s head?
Well, that woman was her mother. I know this because there was an old Highland tradition of a mother breaking a bridecake over her head, and then others trying to get pieces of it and eat it for good luck (you can see two ladies reaching towards the broken cake). It acted as a symbol of the marriage being ‘fruitful’ too.
And the groom carrying ribbons? If you look at the painting, you can see the village kirk in the background. The ribbons were used during the ceremony when the couple ‘tied the knot’; their hands were bound together (drawing of blood depicted in a certain American TV show was not done) during the wedding ceremony. You can, in fact, still do this in a Scottish kirk today. It’s a pretty ancient practice from what I have found out; almost a leftover from ‘irregular marriages’ (aka handfasting).
To find out more about Scottish customs (both Highland and Lowland), I highly recommend reading this fantastic book (it’s available on Kindle)
Below is another image dating from the 1772 of a group of women waulking wool.
How many married and unmarried women can you count in this woodcut image?
History of this practice survives in the Gaelic language today. If you go to Learn Gaelic’s excellent dictionary and type in brèid, this is what you get in the results:
brèid. /brʲeːdʲ/gen. -e
pl. -ean1. patch (also in computing). 2. piece of cloth. 3. headscarf, marriage-kertch. 4. kerchief. 5. sail
brèid thrì-cheàrnach. Three-cornered kerchief (worn by a bride on the day after her wedding)
brèideach or brèidneach /brʲeːdʲəx/gen. & pl. Married woman, matron
And this is what you get for stìom
stìom. /ʃdʲiəm/ gen. -a
pl. -an. 1. (head)band. 2.. fillet. 3. thread. 4. streak, stripe (physical and metaphorical)
stìomag. /ʃdʲiəmag/gen. -aige pl. -an. a headband
The Dwelly dictionary on Am Faclair Beag has further definitions:
-a, pl. -an & -annan, sf Head-band, band-let, narrow white band of silk, satin, linen or wool worn round the head of maidens, snood. 2 Hair-fillet, hair-lace. 3 Ringlet, wreath. 4 Tape, ribbon. 5 Ferret (kind of tape). 6†† Coarse ribbon. 7 Streak, stripe, line in any texture or device. 8** Belt. 9** Brace. Stìoman a dh’obair-shlabhraidh, wreaths of chainwork
stìomag. dim. of stìom, sf Small head-band or hair-fillet. 2 Small curl. 3 Maiden in contradistinction to bréideag (wife).
and for brèid
bréid -e, -ean, sm Kerchief, napkin. 2 Sail. 3 Patch, piece of cloth of any kind. 4 Woman’s head-dress, consisting of a square of fine linen pinned round the head and fastened with cords of silk or pins of silver or gold, donned by a woman the morning after her marriage and regarded as the badge of wifehood. 5(DU) Rag, clout.
I decided to go and do a quick search on Tobar an Dualchais and this is what it came up with . Songs of young men – and fairy lovers!- promising women a brèid (in other words, promising marriage).
So perhaps the next time you watch any films or dramas set in 18th century (or earlier) Highlands and Islands, or you see a wedding dress reconstruction, check to see if this really very important element of Highland women’s identity has been portrayed.