I took the image below at the end of an August day when sitting above the old crofting settlement of Smirisary situated just to the west of Glenuig. It is a place that is blessed with a fantastic view of the Small Isles of Eigg and Rùm and a place that is perfect for watching the Sun go down at this time of the year. After the harsh light of Summer, I find that the light softens as we get into August and sunsets become longer and more dramatic. It is this that drew me to Smirisary on that evening, but as I sat there watching that “perfect sunset”, I had no idea that August was also the perfect month for “tying the knot”.
As well as being a month of beautiful sunsets, August has traditionally held a special place for those that work the land. As the crops ripened and fields were abundant with the fruits of their labour, communities would come together to celebrate and give thanks for the bountiful harvest by holding a harvest festival.
In Scotland, harvest festivals known as Lughnasadh or Lammas were celebrated around the first of August to mark the beginning of the harvest season.
Lammas has its roots in ancient Celtic and Pagan traditions and one of the key customs was the cutting of the first sheaf of grain, which was often made into a corn dolly, symbolizing the spirit of the harvest. This corn dolly was usually kept in the home until the following spring when it would be ploughed back into the fields to ensure a good harvest for the next year.
Traditionally, Lammas Day Fairs were held across the length and breadth of Scotland and were marked by bonfires, races, dancing and games. ‘Feeing Markets’, where the farm labourers would seek out new employment were often held at these events, but the big attraction was the “Marriage Market” at which people would be handfasted.
Handfasting has its roots in Celtic tradition and is the symbolic binding or betrothal of two people. Conducted by a priest, the ceremony itself typically involved a couple holding hands and having them bound together with cords, ribbons, or a ceremonial cloth while they made their vows and commitments to each other. Hence the phrase, “tying the knot”.
By “tying the knot”, the couple entered into a period of engagement, or trial marriage. This trial would typically last a year and during this time the couple were encouraged to cohabitate together (and consummate the relationship). After the year was over, they would return to the priest, declare their intent to be wed and be married soon thereafter. If they decided they were not a good match, the couple were allowed to dissolve their hand-fast and became free to choose another suitor and bride.
In modern times, handfasting has been adapted and incorporated into various wedding ceremonies as a meaningful and unique ritual. Couples who choose to include handfasting in their weddings often see it as a way to add personal and cultural significance to their union.
Reflecting on all of this, I find it fascinating that despite our modern-day year being predominantly based on the Gregorian calendar and Christian holidays, ancient Celtic traditions continue to influence and define significant events and ceremonies in the months of our calendar and our life.