Handfasting is an ancient Scottish Celtic tradition which is a beautiful way of affirming your commitment and affection to the one you love. It’s a perfect addition to an elopement, vow renewal, anniversary shoot, engagement or for those couples who wish to make commitments to each other in Scotland.
Traditionally, handfasting was a betrothal or marriage ceremony dating back to pre-Christian times. In a handfasting ceremony, a couple’s right hands are bound by the bann (ribbon or cord), rather than by rings. Under older Canon Law, public figures would perform the ritual – such as blacksmiths, seanachaidhean (officiants) and clan chiefs. This would later be restricted to only church ministers able to perform. It became commonly adopted as a legal marriage in the Tudor era, when it constituted the entire legal wedding ceremony.
An interesting quirk about handfastings is that they’ve been used to symbolise different lengths of commitments – sometimes it was a betrothal (engagement) and other times a full legally-binding marriage ceremony. Here are the three “options” for handfastings (still practiced today in some communities).
Marry for a year and a day
When a handfasting marked the first stage of marriage, a temporary contract that lasted a year and a day. If, at the end of that time, no child had been born and the couple didn’t want to continue, the betrothal lapsed.
Marry for life
When a handfasting was a life commitment, in a similar way to the modern day legal wedding.
Marry for this life and beyond
A spiritual commitment – when your souls are so entertwined that you can’t bear the thought of not spending the rest of your life and the afterlife with your loved one.
Handfasting’s are a legal wedding ceremony in Scotland (when officiated by a Registrar in combination with another ceremony i.e. civil service, humanist etc.). They are typically used in as part of the actual marriage ceremony, rather than a betrothal. They’ve seen a surge in popularity over recent years due to a general cultural revival and exposure in popular media such as Outlander and Braveheart.
They are also used as a way of strengthening vows and as a commitment to your married relationship (in a non-legally binding way). Making it perfect for vow renewals or as part of an intention setting or reflective ceremony. It can be a way to honour your connection as a couple, through a ceremony that is meaningful to you.
Our handfasting ceremony
Sharing Scottish Celtic traditions is very close to my heart as it’s been such a big and special part of my own story. It’s a true honour and privilege to share that experience with others. Lasting around 20 minutes, this is a basic outline of what a handfasting ceremony with me would look like:
Setting the scene for your handfasting and introduction about the ceremony.
Sharing a drink from a traditional Scottish friendship cup.
Tying the knot
Where the traditional phrase originates from – the binding of the hands joins you together in spirit and body using a handfasting cord (bann).
This is your moment. An opportunity for you as a couple to write new vows, speak your old vows, set intentions for your future or take stock of what your relationship has already held. It’s a private moment to shape and share as you wish.
The Quaich, Scotland’s cup of friendship and love, has been used throughout the centuries to symbolise the coming together of people – for example, it’s used as a welcoming drink at Clan Gatherings. The two-handed design of the cup shows trust, on the part of both giver and receiver by sharing the drink. You can fill the cup with a drink of your choice, usually whisky or you can combine two drinks symbolising the two of you becoming one. In wedding ceremonies, the sharing of the cup symbolises the joining of families and in vow renewals it strengthens the bond you have already made.
The cord used in the handfasting is an important part of the ceremony. However, there aren’t any rules on what your cord should look like or be made of. Typically, a handfasting cord is made from rope or ribbon or tartan fabric strips but you can use anything as long as it can be wound around hands easily and is at least 1.2m long.
I often encourage couples to make their own handfasting cord, it’s a nice activity to share together and becomes a meaningful keepsake.