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Scottish Handfasting

Near the lonely village of Eskdalemuir an annual Handfasting Fair was held until well into the 18th century. A familiar arrangement in the Borders, recognised by Scottish law although not by the church, this involved the clasping of hands by a young couple to announce that they wished to embark on a year's trial marriage. The couple had the right to change their minds by the time of the next fair. Then, if the woman was not pregnant, neither partner was under any obligation to continue the liaison; if children had already resulted or the woman was pregnant a religious ceremony was usual but still not compulsory, as long as reasonable arrangements were made for the benefit of the offspring. Today the only echoes of the custom are to be found in Sir Walter Scott's novel The Monastery and in the name of a large haugh, a riverside level, by the Esk still known as Handfasting Haugh.

The fair dates from the reign of Robert II in the late 14th century, and the king himself is said to have been handfasted to Elizabeth More before his more formal marriage to Euphemia, daughter of the Earl of Boss. In 1572 Lord Maxwell, a powerful administrator of the West March, was for a time handfasted to a niece of the Regent Morton.

During these years this part of the country was under the sway of Melrose Abbey, a priest known as Book in Bosom, because he carried a Bible and marriage register under his monkish garb, made periodical swoops to persuade experimenters to legitimise such irreligious marriages. Nevertheless the practice, like other easy-going Scottish connubial customs, was not formally proscribed until an Act of Parliament was passed in 1940.

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