At first glance, the men and women of Harris might be not appear to be most overtly romantic of souls.
But, beneath their often calm and quiet exteriors, lies countenances full of passion and a flair for daring flirtation.
Maybe its the wild and elemental nature of the land, or the influence of tempestuous seas, but the island appears to have a profound effect on our Outer Hebridean hearts.
So, as Valentine's Day approaches we thought we'd share four stories of island courting rituals from times gone by...
Once upon a time islanders took their courtship rituals seriously, particularly on the island of Hiort in St Kilda. Here, in this isolated community, some 45 miles off the Harris coast, young men turned to more than poetry to prove their worth.
Not far from the hill of Mullach Bi is The Lover’s Stone, a finger of rock projecting from the clifftop, 880 feet above the sea. On this fearful spot it was said a lover had to demonstrate his nerve before being allowed to marry. He was to stand on the edge of the precipice on just his left foot, draw his right leg upwards and outwards and with both fists outstretched touch his right foot in a deep bow.
“After he has performed this he has acquired no small reputation, being ever after accounted worthy of the finest woman in the world. It is firmly believed the achievement is always attended with the desired success.” Martin Martin 1695
The old Gaelic tradition of Rèiteach, or betrothal ceremony involved the groom's party visiting the bride's house to formally get parental consent to marry.
The suitor would ask his prospective in-laws for a gift in good humour, perhaps a boat or a cow, which was understood as a code for their daughter. A villager from Harris remembers:
“He got up and said that he had heard that her father had a ewe lamb that was inclined to stray, and that he would be glad to take the ewe lamb off his hands and put it into a safer place, and that we wouldn't need to worry about the ewe lamb then because it would be in its own fold as it were. Her father replied 'Yes', and that he was quite happy to let him have the ewe lamb because he knew it was going into good hands.”
Once accepted, the rest of the family would join and there would be much drinking and dancing in celebration.
Superstition and romance often went hand in hand in the islands, and fortune-telling was often a fun way to determine the direction of one’s love life.
An unmarried woman would crack an egg in a cup full of water and as the egg white spread into mysterious shapes, an older, wiser woman would interpret tidings of future relationships.
Nut shells would be also placed on the embers of a peat fire by those looking for love, and the first person’s nutshell to pop or jump would be next to get married. If two jumped together their owners would be fated to marry each other!
The old custom of ‘bundling’ prevailed for centuries, a tradition of young men sneaking into the blackhouses of their beau or betrothed to spend a chaste night.
As families shared such living spaces it was an endeavour that required plenty of stealth but a strict code of honour was paramount and the need to avoid noise meant these nocturnal trysts never involved much indecency.
Nosy neighbours also made it difficult to keep these rendezvous a secret, particularly in winter when footprints in fresh snow would reveal the tracks which connected the courting couples…
If these stories have inspired you, we're delighted to be able to offer an exclusive Valentine's card with these stories and images with every order for a limited period.
We'll handwrite your personal message and present the card wishing the packaging before sending it to your loved one at no extra charge.
As we say in Gaelic, Là nam Pòg sona dhut, or Happy Day Of The Kiss to you, when February the 14th finally arrives!