Scotland Handfast Tradition

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The rite of Handfast was introduced into Scotland by Scandinavian Vikings and dates back to the beginning of Christianity. The original idea is linked to Common Law Marriages and of the posting of Banns in church. The word "Handfast" is tied to a hand shake that was used in earlier times to finalize a business transaction. The tradition of Handfast as a form of marriage lasted well into the 20th century, especially in the isolated and mountain areas of Scotland.

Handfasting was originally used to announce the union between a man and woman who wished to live together as husband and wife before receiving the blessing of the church. The couple would stand before their peers, hold hands above their heads, and state their intentions. The agreement was good for one year and one day, or until clergy came to the area. A child born of a Handfast union was considered legitimate and was eligible to inherit.

Many times this was an arrangement made so a man would know if a woman were able to bear children. Also, in areas where there was no church and the clergy came infrequently to marry and baptize, it was a means to legitimize those marriages. How often couples were married by handfasting is unknown.  If, in the course of your research, you cannot find a marriage for your ancestral couple, it may be because they were married in this traditional way. Chances are good that the event took place within the year prior to the birth of the couple's first child.  

Handfasting is no longer an acceptable practice in Scotland. However, it is possible that the new rise of premarital agreements or contracts between couples who wish to live together without the benefit of legal marriage is an offshoot of the ancient tradition of the Handfast system.