Fearn Balintore and Hilton Community Collage

Chapter 17 - Customs

Among the most interesting customs are those to do with marriage, always an opportunity for great festivity in the fishing villages. There were special seasons when weddings were more frequent than others. At the end of the herring fishing, for example, when the men and girls returns richer or poorer according to their luck during the season, they became engaged and as many as four or five weddings might take place in a week. This came to an end with the First World War.

As soon as there was a young man in the offing the girl began to fill her bottom drawer so that by the time of the wedding she had clothes, blankets and ornaments. Simple household utensils came as gifts because engagements were the concern of everyone in the village and nearly all contributed to the wedding feast and gave a gift as
well.


News of the engagement went round immediately. The first requirement was the signing of the marriage contract in the presence of an elder. This was really an engagement contract and failure to implement it without good reason meant a fine payable to the Church.

The contract of 1899 is interesting not only for itself but also for its use of the Scots merk as a possible fine, showing that by this time the contract was purely formal as the merk officially went out of use on the Union of the Parliaments in 1707. The contract was also called the 'coonat', a form of the word 'covenant'.

During the time when the wedding banns were read in church on three successive Sundays, people rubbed shoulders with the young couple, rather like modern birthday bumps.

The feet-washing ceremony was held the night before the wedding when relatives and friends of both bride and groom met in one or other of their homes and celebrated the forthcoming wedding. In Shandwick the Gaelic name 'reiteach' was used for this ceremony into this century. In certain cases it is said that contract and reiteach  were all one but an old lady confirms that they were two separate occasions. The bride's feet were washed and the young man had to submit to having his feet washed with soot, blacklead and even tar. Some of these practices are being carried on to this day.

Invitations were delivered by word of mouth and when the great day came the bride's party assembled at her house, the groom's at his. They met and walked in a joint procession to the church, six or seven couples arm in arm, sometimes led by a piper and almost certainly accompanied by hordes of children. On leaving home the bride or her family scattered coppers for which there was a great scramble by the children, a practice which occurred in Shandwick very recently. On the way home from church the young couple again threw coins and sweets to the children. The sweet-throwing was called 'scootching' and the sweets were nearly always 'Conversations' - lozenges of various shapes and colours inscribed with tender messages which helped the shy young people to do without words.

On her return from church the bride stood at the door of her parents' home while her mother poured over her head a napkin full of small pieces of bread, cheese, cake and oatcake, a symbolic wishing of plenty for her. Salt was sometimes thrown over bride and groom, both these customs occurring in Shandwick till about 1916.

Before receptions in hotels became the fashion, the wedding feast was at the bride's home. There was broth, meat or fowls with potatoes, a dumpling with fruit in it, tea, and of course drams, dancing and singing. As the wedding was an event when youth and age shared in the enjoyment, those older people who has not been especially invited to the feast and the children who had to be left out of the list of guests, had a special feast for themselves in the evening or next day. Singing and dancing to the music of fiddle, melodeon and pipes whirled the hours away.

The first boat coming into harbour on the day of a wedding sailed as near inshore as was safe, hoisted a flag, and then the crew came ashore to get a dram from the wedding party, a custom that only went out when the white fishing ceased.

There were usually certain people who liked to make up the bridal bed. When the bride had undressed and got into her nightdress she kept on one black stocking with half-a-crown in the toe and, kneeling on the bed facing the wall, she threw it over her left shoulder.  Whoever caught it would be the next to marry. Everyone had the freedom of the house and prepared it for the young couple with the result that strange things happened at the wrong moment, like the chaff tick collapsing as they got into bed or bells clanging from below it. If the young couple could manage to slip away in the dark to where they meant to spend the night so much the better for them as there were no honeymoons in those days.

Some weddings went on for days. One such began in Balintore with the wedding feast, then the procession marched to Hilton for Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and all marched back to Balintore on Tuesday, all in excellent spirits of one kind of another. After all this there followed the 'kirkin" - the first visit to church of the young couple, followed by a meal and usually a fairly convivial time, which custom also continued into this century.

Marriages were followed by births and here too there were special customs and requirements. When the babies were small it was common to sew a silver threepenny bit into the special little garment they wore to keep their tummies in. Like the silvered water already mentioned this gave protection to the little one. Visitors to the baby were offered bread, cheese, tea and perhaps a dram. A rabbit skin worn on the mother's chest at weaning time was advised by tinker women.

The baby was carried for baptism to the church, meeting house or  even to an outdoor service unless it or the mother was ill when theservice would be performed at home. Little as they had to spare, everyone liked to slip a silver coin to a baby on its way to the service.  Till about sixty years ago all the girls used to put a pin in the baby's dress which they collected afterwards and stuck in a piece of cloth, to be placed under their pillows to make them dream of their sweethearts. If a mother died in, or as a result of, childbirth, then the baby was baptized over the coffin, which meant that its father stood on one side of the coffin holding the baby while the minister stood on the other side. Ministers used to like to give their name to the first baby they baptized in a new charge.

Because a baby born with a cowl was said to be safe from drowning the cowl itself was carefully preserved, possibly in a vase on the mantelpiece, and even though people might offer to buy it to protect themselves no-one would part with something so precious.
And as new lives came to the villages, others went from them. It was said that life departed on the outgoing tide and if the tide was missed then the dying person had to wait for the next one. Then windows and doors were opened to let the spirit depart, and the bed and table shrouded with special white sheets used only for funerals. Women often prepared long in advance the special white night dress which was to be their winding-sheet. The corpse lay on the bed, perhaps with a small dish of salt placed upon it, usually in the living room, and everyone came to pay their last respects. It was usual to touch a corpse with the left hand so as not to dream of them. The body was never left alone and the lykewake, or constant watch over the dead, continued from the time of death until the funeral. Great hospitality was shown to the visitors so that sometimes lykewakes became occasions of merrymaking, as church records show.

No-one remembers the linen mortcloch being used to cover coffins but records show that the parish mortcloth was being hired in the villages at 2/6d. a time about 1800-10 5 and later still in Shandwick.  [30]  The proceeds from the hire contributed to poor relief in the parish. It was no longer used when it became usual to have better-made coffins, black for adults and white for babies and children.

Before Balintore cemetery was opened about 1885, and enlarged about 1903 and again in 1951, burials took place at Nigg Old Churchyard and at Fearn Abbey. The coffin was carried the whole way there and because every available man was needed for this task all local boats were beached for funerals. There were regular stopping places on the way for rest and refreshment, but frequent changes of bearers occurred all along the route. Till within eighty years or so unbaptized infants were buried beside Shandwick Stone and near Hilton chapel.

Occasionally bread, cheese and whisky were offered to the funeral party at the churchyard gate. Meanwhile at home a message was sent to the women living in the street to come for a drink of whisky or port, which they might refuse if they wished. The men had their dram when they returned, followed usually by a meal.

Like the mortcloth, no-one remembers the mort bell being rung to announce funerals but it appears in the table of fees which Session Clerks and Church Officers in this Synod were allowed to charge in 1808: Digging a grave and bell for an adult 3/-; the same for a person under twelve years 1/6d.; marriage fees were 5/- or 3/- baptism cost 1/-. These latter fees were divided between the parish; baptism cost 1/-.  These latter fees were divided between the Session Clerk and the Church Officer in the proportion of two to one.

After the Reformation the old festivals of the church were discouraged so that Christmas Day was not celebrated [24] and school did not close until the New Year. 1891 was the first year it closed for a week's Christmas and New Year holidays, starting on December 25th. Old New Year's Day (January 12th) was referred to as 'New Year (Old Style)' in the school log book, and it was kept in Hilton within the last seventy to eighty years. The children had a school holiday that day too until 1892.

The children's stockings were hung up on Hogmanay and the contents enjoyed the following morning, usually an apple and an orange, a slice of cake, and perhaps a pink sugar pig. If at all possible there was a penny in the toe, but visitors on that day generally gave pennies to the children so that they were able to enjoy New Year's Day with something in their pockets to spend at the 'wee shoppies' which were never closed.

The New Year holiday was the highlight of the year. People worked hard from Monday to Saturday all the year round, interrupted only by the Sacrament respite and the occasional funeral, so that a break at the New Year meant a grand celebration and because whisky was cheap it was grand indeed. Heavy drinking went on, a form of escapism sometimes, an added enjoyment at other times, depending on prevailing economic circumstances. The first-footer was heartily welcomed if he was a dark man but not so much so if red-headed or a woman. He invariably carried his bottle and drams went round and round. Heads went round and round also and footsteps staggered as the day advanced until sweet oblivion descended, usually in some other house than one's own.

The traditional New Year breakfast dish consisted of fresh haddocks, usually boiled, with a dram for the grown-ups and lemonade or fruit wine for the children. The fish was part of the catch of the previous day when each man got his share. One was never sure whether or not the New Year haddie would be forthcoming if the weather was stormy, which made it all the more welcome when it did appear on the table.

Hallowe'en was a special night when bonfires were lit and many ingenious pranks played. Water barrels at the corners of houses were sure to be over-turned, creels with baited lines were taken off the croicks and set on the ground, the baited lines were sometimes ravelled, door snecks were tied together, and often a divot was placed on the top of a chimney with imaginable results for the inmates seated round the fire.

Young people dressed up to go and visit neighbours' houses but these' 'guisers' gave no entertainment and were given nothing as they went round. There was little or nothing to give. On dark nights the turtnip lantern stood in good stead and was seen to advantage if there was no wind.

There was a special Hallowe'en game - the youngsters tied a cabbage or a turnip on a string and swung it in the doorways. When the householder stooped to catch it, it was quickly pulled away and out and off ran the guisers, enjoying the fun. Anyone well up in the art of catching the turnip or cabbage got behind the door and slammed it at the right moment. It then belonged to them and the laugh was on the other side! At home this was a night when they  looked for marriage omens, putting two hazelnuts in the fire. If they jumped apart this was a bad sign for matrimony but if they remained together all was well.

Continue in Chapter 18
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