Trial Marriages for a Year and a Day


Prior to the Reformation in the sixteenth century, when Scotland was a Catholic country rather than a Protestant one, trial marriages were very common. At annual fairs the unmarried of both sexes would choose a companion with whom to live a year and a day. This custom was known as hand-fasting, or hand-in-fist. If the parties remained pleased with each other at the expiry of the term of probation, they remained together for life; if not they separated, and were free to find another partner.

Priests were sent out from the various monasteries into the surrounding districts to look after all hand-fasted persons and bestow the nuptial benediction on those willing to receive it. If either of the parties insisted on a separation, and a child had been born during the year of trial, it was to be taken care of by the father only and ranked among his lawful children next after heirs.

Tradition tells that a desperate feud broke out between the clans Macdonald of Sleat, and Macleod of Dunvegan, on the Isle of Skye after one particular trial marriage hit the rocks. A Macdonald Chief decided he didn’t want to marry his Macleod lady which brought the retort from the Chief of Macleod: “If there is to be no wedding bonfire then there will be one to solemnize the divorce!” Accordingly, he burned and laid waste the lands of the Macdonalds. They retaliated with a vengeance and for months afterwards there was much spilling of blood and wrecking of homes.

In 1562, the Kirk-Session of Aberdeen decreed that all hand-fasted persons should be married. With the exception of the Highland districts, the time-honoured practice of living together for “a year and a day” ceased to exist shortly after the Reformation.

Resource: Strange old Scots Customs and Superstitions (Ref: 5776 SCT HIS)  Reprinted from Kintracer (Dec.2016),  quarterly Journal of Genealogy Sunshine Coast.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *