Genealogy, Scotland

Regular and Irregular Marriages in Scotland

My dad always said that my grandmother, Elspeth Orrock McHugh, was warm and generous and ready to do anything for the family. I was not surprised to find out that she hosted her sister’s wedding in her home in Dundee, Scotland on November 1, 1901.1 They would have just moved into this home2 and it would have been quite an event in her already busy life.

Elspeth had three young daughters, Anne and Elsie, aged three and two, 3 and Sarah Jane who was just 3 months old.4 Imagine hosting a wedding with three children under the age of three. Then again, the extended family would have been there to help.

Elspeth’s sister, Jemima Kinnear Orrock and Duncan McMillan Bissett had a regular marriage even though it took place in a private home. The certificate of marriage states that it was performed in accordance with the rites of the Church of Scotland and after banns were read,5 sometimes referred to as “crying the banns” or “crying the siller.”6 Banns or proclamations of marriage were read in the church three weeks in a row in case there was an impediment to the marriage.7 It is clear from the information on the marriage registration that this marriage was religious and therefore regular. This is just one of the ways that couples could legally marry in nineteenth century Scotland. In England, marriage was a religious sacrament whereas in Scotland it was a legal contract.8

Scotland’s distinctive marriage laws were based on mutual consent, rather than religious ceremony.9   Even so, the most common type of marriage took place in accordance with the rites of the Church of Scotland. The Marriage Act of 1836 also allowed priests and ministers of other churches and religious groups to perform marriage ceremonies.10 Marriages in accordance with the rites of other religions were also considered regular marriages.

Unlike England, Scotland did not allow civil marriages until an Act of Parliament in 1939.11

Interesting enough, Scotland also allowed other distinctive marriage arrangements, termed irregular marriages, that were considered legally binding and, as noted above, based on mutual consent.

A couple could simply pronounce themselves married in front of witnesses. They could also just pronounce themselves married, but it was more common to have witnesses in case they needed to prove it at some point.12

A promise of marriage, followed by a sexual relationship was also considered a binding legal marriage. Although this had to be backed up by some sort of proof, often by a written promise of marriage.13

And there was also the marriage by ‘habit and repute’ whereby the couple simply presented themselves in public as man and wife. 14

Even though the Church of Scotland frowned upon irregular marriages, it was preferable to ‘living in sin.’ Therefore these irregular marriages were tolerated. Their children were considered legitimate and were entitled to inherit property.15

Any irregular marriage could be registered if the couple presented themselves before the sheriff or magistrate. They usually had to pay a fine. Even though Scotland was tolerant of irregular marriages, they were not common in the 19th century. Most citizens preferred to be married either in church or in accordance with the rites of the church in a private home.16

 

  1. Scotland’s People web site, Statutory registers Marriages, marriage registration of Jemima Kinnear Orrock and Duncan McMillan Bisett, November 1, 1901, accessed July 31, 2018.
  2. The 1901 census, taken on the night of March 31/April 1, 1901 gives the family’s address as Milbank Road. The registration of Sarah Jane McHugh to Elpeth and Thomas McHugh on August 10, 1901 gives the Fleuchar Street address, the same as the address at which Jemima and Duncan were married. Therefore they would have had to have moved between March and August 1901. See references 3 and 4 below.
  3. Scotland’s People web site, 1901 Census, National Records of Scotland, entry for Thomas McHugh, accessed April 6, 2018.
  4. Scotland’s People web site, Statutory registers Births, birth of Sarah Jane McHugh, August 10, 1901, accessed December 1, 2017.
  5. Scotland’s People web site, Statutory registers Marriages, marriage registration of Jemima Kinnear Orrock and Duncan McMillan Bisett, November 1, 1901, accessed July 31, 2018.
  6. Rampant Scotland web site, Did you know? – Marriage customs in Scotland, http://www.rampantscotland.com/know/blknow_marriage.htm, accessed August 19, 2018.
  7. National Records of Scotland web site, Old Parish Registers – Marriages and Proclamation of Banns, https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/research/guides/birth-death-and-marriage-records/old-parish-registers/marriages-and-proclamation-of-banns, accessed August 22, 2018.
  8. University of Glasgow web site, School of Social and Political Sciences, Scottish Ways of Birth and Death, Marriages, https://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/socialpolitical/research/economicsocialhistory/historymedicine/scottishwayofbirthanddeath/marriage, accessed August 20, 2018.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.

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