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Unique Wedding Ceremonies Honouring Centuries of Heritage! with Gillian Johnston from Scots Celebrant

Did you know that even modern Wedding Ceremonies have a deep rooted history going back centuries. You can honour your heritage AND create a fully unique Ceremony to you! We chat to Gill from Scots Celebrant to find out how!

Listen to Gillian on the Wedding Espresso Awesome DIY Wedding Planning Podcast…


Gillian Johnston, Scots Celebrant


James [00:00:05] Hello Gill, it is lovely to see you. Thank you for joining me on this beautiful morning. 

Gillian [00:00:11] Good morning James. Hope life’s well with you?

James [00:00:13] Life is awesome, and with you?

Gillian [00:00:17] Oh yes tickety boo. What can I say. The sun’s shining and all is good. 

James [00:00:22] That’s what we like to hear. So you are Gillian Johnston from Scots Celebrant. Now Rachel and I, we love to relive our wedding ceremony because it was so special and unique to us, and as everybody probably knows by now, because we we bang on about it quite a lot, we had a humanist wedding ceremony in Scotland. And it was amazing. We absolutely loved it. Some of the aspects of that I’m hoping to chat about with you today.

So the topic that I wanted to cover with you was “Unique Wedding Ceremonies Honouring Centuries of Heritage”. 

James [00:01:04] Now I love this topic because I feel it’s so double barrelled. On the one hand we’ve got the unique wedding ceremonies, which is obviously where we’re talking about the bespoke aspects, how people can custom design their dream wedding ceremony, which is the best. And then the second half of it is you’re honouring centuries of heritage, which is obviously not bespoke, which is obviously considering things that have been going on for hundreds of years. So we’re going to break into that a little bit with you right now. 

James [00:01:39] But just to let everybody know and remind them, from our wedding ceremony we had the whole gamut. We could go with anything we wanted to and we were presented with; Hand fasting, sharing of the Quaich and jumping of the broom. Now I’m sure there are more, there’s a sand mixing ceremony, there’s all sorts of things you can have. Those are the three that we were offered at the time,

so we actually selected the Hand Fasting and the sharing of the Quaich because we felt that symbolically they seemed very…. they felt very close to our hearts as things to do. 

James [00:02:23] I like the idea of being tied together even though I should point out that we didn’t understand the symbolic reference of either of those things at the time, but now we’ve gone on to reintroduce them again and again. We brought Hand Fasting back for my son’s naming ceremony. We used the same cords, we added a cord, so we’re carrying those traditions obviously through our family and intend to continue to do so. So just to kind of throw it over to you now really, what are your thoughts on the whole aspect of creating a custom ceremony whilst honouring traditions?

Gillian [00:03:05]

What I find with traditions is basically it’s a way for people to acknowledge the past while you’re living in the present, and as a promise of the future.

So yesterday, today and tomorrow, it’s holistic, it’s eternal and the hand fasting symbols, it’s a visual reminder of the vows you’re making to one another. Now Hand Fasting is not just purely in Scotland. In fact if you look in virtually every country… you can find hand fasting ceremonies in virtually every kind of ceremony globally. 

James [00:03:51] All across the World. 

Gillian [00:03:51] Yeah exactly. It’s a visual representation of your commitments. Now this came into Scotland. I mean the origins, they’ve disappeared back in mists of time. You know you’d be digging, digging, digging, I can’t remember when this started, I know it would happen five or six days before they were married obviously. But it was a time when people needed to have a symbol of commitment. Obviously a lot of people have arguments that… it is a year and a day situation.

The hand fasting, the cords are called the “bans” and Scotland nowadays, even when people are engaged, when they’re going to get married, you still have to call out the “bans” I think five or six weeks prior to that, and it’s just to allow people to actually see that this is what’s going to happen.

And it’s also to stop anybody turning round saying “Well, they’re already married to so-and-so, and so-and-so”.  Kind of minimise it! 

James [00:04:52] Speak now or forever hold your peace!   

Gillian [00:04:53] Yeah. Or “that guy is a bigamist or she’s a triggermist!” things like that kind of come out! Anyway they were a way of people announcing their declaration to be together for the rest of their lives. Traditionally it was for a year and a day and they did it in a public place in front of friends, in front of family, in front a community. So it was visual and it was an acknowledgement, because let’s face it, you didn’t have TV, you didn’t have writing a lot. It was an oral environment so the hands got fasted. And this is the thing that I still do. When the couples got their hands fasted on that day, they were tied together for the day, the whole day!  So you think of the logistics in getting through that, if you can handle that you can handle anything! 

Gillian [00:05:43] Anyway, you were there for a year and a day. Now people turn around and say after the year and the day it meant that he had a get out of jail free card, if they didn’t have a family or something like that. But basically it was a get out of jail free from both points of view. If he didn’t tick the boxes for her, she didn’t tick the boxes for him, at the end of the year and the day, they could shake hands and walk away. Free and easy. If they did that and they actually quite liked each other, they could then formalise it, but again, there wasn’t really anything more about it because the hand fasting was an acknowledgment. And after the year and the day there was probably a child anyway, they just carried on. So that’s basically what it was.

James [00:06:32] I’m just going to say…

Let’s face it, after a year and a day you know, if you like each other… If you still like each other after a year and a day, you are set for life, if you’ve been tied together!

Gillian [00:06:45] Yeah that’s it. I mean that’s it. You know you’ve got bonds of matrimony, you’ve got tying the knot and that’s where these are all coming from. So you’ve got the bonds, tying the knot and all the rest of it. It’s a fantastic situation and a lot of couples love it. And the cords nowadays… first of all, people turn around and say “Do you do the Celtic Knot, do you do this, do you do that?” First of all there’s no such thing as a right or a wrong way to do a hand fasting. What I did with a couple not so long ago was we… it was left hand to left hand because they are the hands closest to your heart, and they wanted to have 4 chords to symbolise the elements, fire, water, earth and air. And it was drawing on, and it also symbolised various characteristics of people. Strength, stability, wisdom and sharing. And when we did it there was a loose cord around each of the wrists so they were handcuffed, and the knot was really severely tied… it was there, between! 

Gillian [00:07:58] So they could be there for the whole the ceremony, because I never unfasten the cords. But they could then slip them off afterwards. But the knots are still bound, and that’s them going forward. And their various talismans and charms, relevant to them, woven through the cords. Now that was part of what they wanted…

and a lot of people will then go on to what you did, which was share the Quaich or the “Quaich”. 

James [00:08:31] That’s a better pronunciation than I did! There we go!

Gillian [00:08:31] Well what can I say I have a slight advantage. 

James [00:08:31] Do you know what, when first went looking for one, we thought it was called a “Quarch”. It wasn’t until we went into the shop, you know “Have you….” and they said “I’m sure you are referring to this!”. And we were like, yeah that’s probably the right pronunciation! 

Gillian [00:08:49] I would say “Quaich” or the further north you kinda go “Quaich” and that actually comes back to again, before it was used in the marriage, at a time when clansmen or clan chiefs were meeting with one another.

What they would do as a mark of trust and respect for one another was share the Quaich. 

James [00:09:19] OK. 

Gillian [00:09:20] So if you’re host…. The Scots have got a very strong tradition of hospitality. So even if your mortal enemy was under your roof, you were completely safe. 

James [00:09:33] You still have a duty of care. 

Gillian [00:09:36] So the likes of Macbeth, when he supposedly stabs Duncan in his house, that’s maximum woohoo!. 

James [00:09:44] Very taboo, OK. 

Gillian [00:09:44] It didn’t actually happen but heyho, anyway the chieftain would have Quaich, he would pour the drink, he would take a drink and offer it to his guest. And that was their way of saying “I’m giving you my protection. You can take my trust”.

And obviously through the wedding ceremonies it became the stage where, when the couple were sharing the Quaich, it was the same situation, I’m giving you my protection, I’m taking your trust.

And the things that were from both of you. Because let’s face it, if you’re talking to a couple, you’ve both got your strengths and you’ve both got your weaknesses, and you’ve both got the balance to support each other. 

Gillian [00:10:28] And when you share the Quaich, what you’re doing is giving each other the assurance that you’re there for each other. And that’s a really important thing. One thing I will say though is if nowadays you’re having the sharing of the Quaich, and you’re wanting to have a really decent malt whisky, which obviously I do!

Don’t have a silver Quaich. Because silver tarnishes Whisky.

And if it’s something that you’ve never really thought that you liked before, I promise you you’re going to hate it if you drink from a silver Quaich. Get it out of a glass one or a wooden one. However there’s different things. Not everybody wants to have a drink. Not everybody is a drinker. So basically you can have your own favourite tipple. If it’s Coke, if it’s Sprite, if it’s Orange, whatever! 

James [00:11:16] Ribena 

Gillian [00:11:19] Yeah exactly. You know at the end of the day it’s still the symbol that “I am putting my trust in you, I’m offering you my protection”. And if you’re sharing that, that’s what matters. And again it doesn’t even need to be a Quaich.

I’ve had couples who have got their own beliefs and they used a Goblet, a Chalice that had their own Pagan symbols on it, with their own homemade Mead, which was rather cool.

I never got hold of the Mead and I keep on meaning to threaten them, that’s something I need to. That’s another story.  Hehe.

James [00:11:54] That’s a very good tip actually with the silver and the Whisky, because basically that’s exactly what we did. Our’s is silver and obviously we poured the Whisky straight into it. Nobody said anything to us. Actually it’s a classic moment because Rachel’s face just…argh! when she tasted it. It was like an absolute shocker. So I will point out actually that the Quaich that we bought for the wedding, we were actually able to reuse that as well at Xander’s Naming Day ceremony.

So I love the fact that you can have these physical objects that you use on your wedding day, you can then use throughout your life, with the rest of your family. It’s great. It’s a heritage thing!

Gillian [00:12:37] Exactly! You know you’re taking the past, you’re holding it for the present and you’re looking forward to the future. And that’s what you’re doing. You know I mean anybody who’s committed to be with each other, whether it’s your marriage, well, your wedding rather, because you had Humanist Wedding, I’m not Humanist, you know, because I’m not faith based. I’m purely on the ceremonial side of weddings. Couples that work with me have been to a registrar or they’re going to go to a registrar to have the legal aspect done. And I’ve got to emphasise that to people. But it means that we can have so much more fun. 

James [00:13:16] It means that all bets are off. You can do whatever you like, it’s open season. 

Gillian [00:13:21] The only thing that’s limiting you is your imagination, your physical fitness, the permissions you’ve got. How much sanity you actually have, because somebody’s going to turn around to you eventually and say “Enough!”. And the willingness of the wedding celebrant. We’ve had it said before that wedding celebrants will do everything. But when it comes to jumping out of a plane, that’s when….yeah, it can be frightening to some people. If you expect me to read your vows when I’m plummeting down at that speed, you’ve got another thing coming. I have got my wetsuit and I’m quite happy to stand up to… well the wetsuit helps. If you want to do your vows in the middle of the Atlantic, I will do that for you! If it’s blowing a gale be warned, we will get cold! Get a campfire close by. But Weddings have got to be what matters to you. 

James [00:14:24] Yes. 

Gillian [00:14:24] You know it’s got to be something that’s going to resonate with you.

So if say a couple have got hill walking experiences, say you met at the top of Ben Nevis. If that’s where you want to have your ceremony, get it there, have it there, why not!

Just make sure that everybody that’s attending is physically capable of getting up and getting down. Because I don’t think Lochaber would be too happy to send a rescue team out to get you rescued, unless you of course you properly need help. 

James [00:14:55] We did actually ourselves consider getting married at the top of the Cairngorms. That was one of our options, because it became a very kind of sacred place for us. We shared so many memories, we’ve taken so many family members up to the top of the Cairngorms, it just became a really special place. And I think that is this kind of symbolism idea isn’t it? Creating a bespoke ceremony for you is that that you can take a place, or that feeling, or anything that matters to you and turn it into a memory that can then resonate for the rest of your lives. And I think that’s the innate power of a bespoke ceremony isn’t it?! 

Gillian [00:15:32] Definitely it’s grounding. I mean to be honest it sounds a bit weird, do you like my finger nails… I’m watching the Tour de France! 

James [00:15:39] They’re fantastic, they are amazing!

Gillian [00:15:39] That’s the old alliance between Scots and France haha. But I was going to say…

the celebrant aspect of your wedding, it resonates with the Homeric traditions of people telling stories around the camp fires, of the Shaman traditions of America, the Aboriginal things.

When you stand in a space that’s important to you, in a place that’s important to you, first of all it’s my role to make that place sacred for you, so whether there are only 2 of you, 20 of you, 200 of you, the space that you create for you as a couple, to be in the centre, to make your vows. That’s a special sacred place and it doesn’t matter whether you have faith, or religion shall we say, there is going to be something there that’s going to affect you. 

James [00:16:33] An energy! 

Gillian [00:16:33]  Yeah exactly. 

James [00:16:35] A spiritual energy I guess. 

Gillian [00:16:37] Exactly. And when you’re making your vows it’s going to be something that is really going to resonate with you. And that’s why making your own vows is special. Getting the cords tied, now again you’re talking about other things like sand blending, a unity candle, sharing the stones. These all have the same resonance. Because once upon a time nobody had gold. Nobody had the wherewithal to make rings, you know, the Talisman which again, is what it is. But if you’re in a place where you had sand, you have sand, your partner has sand, you put it together. 

Gillian [00:17:16]

Again naming ceremonies, you have the sand from your original wedding and you incorporate the sand from your child going forward. You’re building up a tangible talisman for you, your family that’s going to take you forward.

You can use stones, you can use pebbles, you can pick up a stone. I have got so many stones in this house because I go to Mull and Ioana a lot. And I’ve got granite and marble that is resonant, but people can pick up a piece of again… Cairngorms is a granite. You have that granite. You can actually engrave your name on it. and you can exchange it with each other. Or you can just hold it or you can have stones that have memories to you. And you can ask your guests to hold a stone as you’re actually having your ceremony, and as you’re making your vows. They’re actually putting their best wishes into those stones. And at the end of the day you can either then stand and ceremonially throw them into the sea or into the river, as a way of saying that your vows have been made and they’re eternal, for as long as there is sea. Or build them into Cairn and again you’ve got a visual reminder. 

James [00:18:40] A monument. 

Gillian [00:18:41] Yeah exactly. And again you can even take them, have them in your garden, make your own little Cairn. This is your visual reminder. 

Gillian [00:18:53]

Jumping the Besom, let’s talk about another wee one, now jumping the besom can actually be seen going back as far as Roman times. 

James [00:19:02] OK. 

Gillian [00:19:03] And I know that in America they’ve got different feelings about it because of all the, you know, the slaves… that was their way of actually making their commitments to one another when they had no other options. And it is a bit of a raw subject in some respects. But from our situation, from the Scots and from the Celtic view, it’s a situation where if you had the Besom / The Broom, now you are talking about earth floors, you swept out all of rubbish. You swept out all the dirt and all the dust. Now if when a couple jumps over the besom, what they are doing is they’re symbolically saying “We’ve got history. We’ve got past.” We’re going to throw out all that’s unnecessary, but we’re taking everything that we’ve learned to make us the people that we are now, to go forward into a new clean space. It’s a new future. 

Gillian [00:19:55] And whenever my couples have jumped besoms, I always make sure that they have the Besom. Some Celebrants have their own besom, which they will use in the ceremony.

I always make sure the couple has their besom because for them it’s another visual reminder. 

James [00:20:11] Yes. 

Gillian [00:20:12] And I always say to people, “next time you have an argument, and you’re gonna have arguments, because you’re going to have to settle in with one another. You will be clashing. You’ve had however long to practice, planning your wedding and all the rest, you’ve had that stress, you’ve got to get back to being the people that you were when you first started seeing each other. Sharing that environment, you’re going to have an argument, some nights, that you really are looking at each other going “argh, I don’t want to be here”, look at your broom, your besom, remember what it did. Sweep out the garbage, take what you need to learn and move forward. And if you’re incorporating the Quaich, the Besom, Cords, Sand, anything, they are all visual reminders. I have couples actually twine their cords through their Besom.

James [00:21:04] Yes. Combine them.

Gillian [00:21:10] And the one thing I will remember is that’s the thing about cords for example, or even your besom, or even your Quaich. Things can get broken, things can get frayed, things can deteriorate and disappear when they fall apart. You hang onto them and again you can pass them onto your children. This was part of our broom. Here hang onto that. They might use it in their future. But, they symbolise the vows that you make on your wedding day. But they’re not your vows, so even if they fray, they are just a symbol. And everything you say is in your heart. And when they fray it’s also a reminder that we are living.

We’ll have a full life, you’ll live each day as it is. But life is finite and it’s a reminder that if you don’t seize every moment and enjoy every moment that you’ve got, you know, you need a kick up the backside!

You know it’s a Carpe Diem situation. And that’s how it is. 

James [00:22:12] Well Gill, that’s been absolutely amazing. Thank you so much for sharing with us. We are unfortunately out of time. I know it’s just a huge, huge subject. I know you and I could go on for hours and hours and hours about all of these topics. 

Gillian [00:22:26] So hopefully we’ll have the opportunity again in the near future to tackle something very similar because I think it is a very, very deep subject. I just wanted to thank you for sharing so much with us today. I mean that was an incredibly detailed explanation of all those things. I was hearing things for the very first time. So that was really, really insightful. I can’t thank you enough for sharing with us. 

Gillian [00:22:53] No it’s been a pleasure talking with you James and I hope we can speak again. Thank you, and perhaps over a wee dram!

James [00:22:58] That’s amazing and it’s been an absolute pleasure. 

James [00:23:02] Well Gill, thank you very, very much again. And obviously, yes hopefully we’ll get the chance to speak to you again in the very near future. 

Gillian [00:23:08] Take care. Have a great day. 

James [00:23:10] You too, Thanks a lot. Bye for now. 

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  • Reply
    Gillian Johnston
    August 1, 2019 at 11:53 am

    I can’t thank you enough for giving me this opportunity James. It was fantastic chatting with you and I hope we speak again soon.

    Keep smiling

    Gill XXX

    • Reply
      James Pearson
      August 1, 2019 at 12:54 pm

      Well that’s cool Gill because we can’t thank YOU enough 🙂 What a super chat and clearly there’s miles to go! We’ll hook something up again soon! I can’t wait!!! Dram in hand… even if it’s coffee! Thanks again! xxx

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