A Secret Love

Those of you who are aficionadas of BBC’s  Last Tango in Halifax will be eagerly awaiting the final episode of series 2 when the Celia and Alan seal their love, for the second time, by getting married on Christmas Eve and opting for a more public occasion than their first secret marriage ceremony.  We are accustomed now to the modern wedding ceremony being a very public (and expensive) affair, however, it was not always thus.  The public or private nature of wedding ceremonies in Scotland has ebbed and flowed throughout time.  In the preindustrial period the marriage ceremony was a very public occasion and often involved the entire community in the celebrations.  This was to be expected when communities comprised small villages.  In Shetland, before the ceremony, there were separate processions of the bride and groom to the manse, headed by a piper and after the ceremony, the entire village was involved in the celebrations which often lasted several days.  Similar forms of public and carnivalesque celebration were to be found in the west and the north east of Scotland, although wedding rituals and customs were as varied as localities. The  ‘penny wedding’,  which exemplified the tradition of involving whole communities in the celebrations, involved guests bringing food, drink or money  to the celebrations to enable the poorest in the community to have a properly festive celebration. 

The Penny Wedding (1818)

The Penny Wedding (1818)


By the end of the seventeenth century there was a shift away from the public and raucous celebrations of earlier times.  Firstly, the authorities began to frown on large gatherings of people whose sole interest seemed to be getting drunk and making merry and introduced, often ineffective, regulations to curtail them.  Secondly, the rise of non-conformism marked a shift to more secret or clandestine marriages.  The only marriages that were deemed to be’ regular’ as well as legally valid were those where banns were read on three successive Sunday in the established church and where the ceremony was conducted by a minister of the established church.  Other forms of marriage ceremony where consent was exchanged but which did not follow the ‘regular’ pattern, were still legally valid in Scotland but deemed to be ‘irregular’.  Such were the marriage of those who were not members of the established  church who often chose to be married by a celebrant from their own church and sometimes in secret.  The most extreme example of private ceremonies involved those who chose to marry by exchanging vows, sometimes, although not always, in front of witnesses and often without ceremony.  The number of these sorts of irregular marriages rose significantly by the end of the nineteenth century and peaked during WW1 at twenty per cent, although in the large towns such as Edinburgh and Glasgow the incidence of irregular marriages reached around forty per cent.   Most of these marriages were private affairs involving only the bride and groom and two witnesses.  Even those who married ‘regularly’ tended to have modest ceremonies with only a small number of guests.  This was especially true of the working classes who could not afford the outlay of an expensive celebration.  As one woman noted of her own experiences of marriage in the 1930s:


You got married..You went to the vestry and the minister married you, or if you were Catholic you went and the priest married you. And then you came back and your mother gave you and old steak pie in the kitchen in our own house.  Just the family.  Maybe a few friends that gave you a cream and sugar or a pair of dishtowels.  You were lucky if you got a pair of towels! Oh ye didnae get fridges then, you were lucky if ye had a house!


However, informal celebrations involving neighbours and friends still persisted amongst some working-class communities, particularly in old tenement districts until after WW2.    



Informal celebrations sometimes got out of hand (1954)

It was only in the more affluent post-WW2 period that the working-class marriage ceremony began to take on some of the aspects of the modern grandiose wedding with the bride wearing a white wedding gown rather than her ‘best’ clothes,  large numbers of guests, formal meal etc.


‘Best Clothes’ Wedding c.1920

Last Tango in Halifax’s Celia and Alan are also following a nineteenth –century Scottish tradition by marrying during a holiday period.  The peak period for marriage  was December 31st,  because it was usually followed by the New Year’s day holiday in Scotland.  For the same reason, summer fair holidays saw large numbers of weddings, whilst Friday was the most popular day of the week because it fell before a Saturday which was either a holiday or a half day.  Fortuitously, a December wedding this coincides with the advice in the popular rhyme for the best month to marry :


When December snow falls fast, marry and true love will last. 


 Both superstition and times winged chariot seem to assure Alan and Celia a happy union.


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