Monday, 16 September 2013

A Blackening

There's a tradition here that, shortly before they're married, a couple are dragged round the village sitting on a bale of straw on a trailer while people throw or daub them with various revolting substances - flour being the kindest.  The rite is called a reiteach in Gaelic, or blackening, the latter word coming from the state they're in when they're finished.

Katie Bryson and Graeme Stafford are tying the knot this Saturday so Nan MacLachlan chose a nice cold, wet, windy evening to take them round the village.

The reiteach seems to have been an ceremony in Hebridean culture to celebrate the couple's formal betrothal after the father had given permission for his daughter to marry.  Quite how the tradition moved on to a cold, wet ride around the community is unclear.

Fortunately, Katie and Graeme are such lovely people that they took it in great spirit.


  1. Hi Jon,The same tradition is alive and well in Orkney. I wrote about it, and other Orcadian wedding practices, in a recent article for Scottish Islands Explorer. Richard Clubley

  2. Katie just looks so pleased to be there, Graeme on the other hand is used to being plastered from head to foot in stuff every day at work, what a sight for sore eyes they are.

    I wish them all the best for the big day and for all the days and years to come.


  3. Who's going to clean the trailer?

  4. From Fiona Macdonald, Kilmory:

    Best Wishes to the happy couple!

    There is a fictionalised description of a Hebridean reiteach in Compton MacKenzie's 'Whisky Galore' (book 1947, film 1949). Sample quote: "You can't have a wedding without a Reiteach -and you can't have a Reiteach without the whisky."

    There are descriptions of much older reiteach traditions in a book by Iona McGregor, 'Getting Married in Scotland', National Museum of Scotland Publishing, 2000, ISBN 1-901663-29-9. According to that author, originally a reiteach was a ceremony that marked the end of a period of hard bargaining between the bride's and groom's familes. The bargain was to settle the 'portion' to be handed over by the bride's family to the groom, along with the young woman, of course. It was paid in cows, sheep and goats; household essentials (blankets, a spinning wheel....) might be substituted for some of the livestock. The number of animals given to the bridegroom was taken as a sign of the esteem in which he was held; traditionally, fewer than 20 cows meant that the groom was not very highly thought of. Of course, few ordinary families actually owned so many cows, and so honour was satisfied on all sides by the bride's family declaring how many cows etc they WOULD give the groom, if only they had them...

    Sometimes the reiteach began with the groom's family marching en masse to the bride's family home, with music and weapons, but making clear that they came in peace, not for war. Often, the bride herself was kept hidden until the bargain was finally agreed.

    By the 19th cent, McGregor says that the bargaining had changed. Then, the groom and some friends might go to the bride's father's house and drink with him, and then ask for a small token gift, or else offer to give a home to 'a young ewe lamb that was inclined to stray'. (McGregor, p 50). After this, the bride came into the room, and friends and neighbours arrived for quite a wild party. Sometmes, all the women at the party were dragged one-by-one in front of the groom, while he mockingly rejected them (too old, too young, to fat, too thin etc) until, last of all, he was offered and allowed to accept his bride.

    A great many Highland Scots went to Cape Breton in late 18th/19th, and preserved many homeland traditions (and, of course, traditional music):


  5. Hi Jon,

    I've never heard of the word rèiteach used for the gunking of people before they get married. The rèiteach refers quite specifically to the betrothal and engagement. I've asked around a few pals to see if people from other areas would use rèiteach for this but they all say they've not heard it used in this context before. I don't have another word for the 'blackening' but I suspect it's a relatively recent thing, certainly far more recent than the rèiteach proper as described in Fiona's post above. There is a lovely potrayal of part of the rèiteach in the BBC series Gruth is Uachdar (can't find a link online just now).


  6. Many thanks for more about the reiteach. My informant wasn't 100% sure whether or not the word referred to the 'blackening' but felt that it did. It would be really good if the reiteach, in its old sense, were brought back for those getting married, a sort of formal engagement party.