The remains of Dunnottar Castle stand in silent vigil on the Eastern coast of Scotland, just a mile or two south of Stonehaven (a town we like to refer to as the suburb of the little town Cowie, but more on that at another time). It is set on an area of about three acres on cliffs 160 feet above the ocean, accessible only by a narrow pathway that leads down from the mainland, nearly to the beach and back up again. The Scottish Gaidhlig name Dùn Fhoithear means “fort on the shelving slope.”
Kyle and I had visited the site when we came to Scotland in 2005 and, as it is wont to do, the misty weather obscured a lot of the castle from our view. We had stayed mostly in the area of the Keep: the Tower House built in 1392 by Sir William Keith, the 1st Earl Marischal of Scotland. The title of Great Marischal of Scotland was bestowed upon the Keiths by Malcolm IV, and again by Robert the Bruce in 1324. James II elevated the role of Marischal to Earl in the mid-1400’s, and it was one of the three great offices of State. The Earl Marischal was responsible for the Honours of Scotland and for the safety of the “King’s person within parliament.” Because of this, the monarchy, including Mary Queen of Scots (in 1562 & 1564) and James IV (1580), and later, Charles II spent time at Dunnottar.
As many of the castles in Scotland are, the site is on an older Pictish site that has been inhabited since ancient times (5000 BC to 700 AD) although there is no exact date to mark its beginning. The name Dunnottar stems from the Pictish word “Dun” which means hill fort or place of strength. The place seems to have been important to the Picts: the Castle and the surrounding area have a strong feminine nature and symbology, which takes the form of the “green lady”. The spirit of the green lady has been seen in the brewery at the Castle, looking for her “lost children” i.e.: the Picts who, under St. Ninian’s guidance, converted from her religion to Christianity around the 5th Century AD. The first stone chapel was consecrated at Dunnottar in 1276, and William Wallace set fire to it, with a garrison of English soldiers inside, in 1297. The chapel as it remains now was built in the 1600’s.
Dunnottor Castle was the site of the fall of the Scottish King Donald II during the 9th Century as he was defending it from a Viking invasion wherein the Vikings seized and destroyed the Castle. Through the 1100’s to the early 1700’s, the Castle was rebuilt and under Scottish or British rule, depending upon which side was winning the war at the time. A small garrison held out against the might of Cromwell’s army for eight months, saving the ‘Honours of Scotland’ (the Scottish Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny) from destruction. In 1715, the 10th Earl was on the losing side of the first Jacobite Rebellion and lost the Castle to the English Crown. It became a ruin after that, although there is now concerted effort to conserve it.
This was the place that Liisa and Kyle chose to have their Handfasting ceremony.
Because we had been doing what we had been doing all over Scotland, which was to get completely absorbed in one place and forget our timing, we arrived at Dunnottar just before it closed for the day; this, and the fact that it started raining (another blessing on another ceremony), afforded us the luxury of being the only people in the entire Castle. Fantastic luck on our part!
We had looked in every shop we had been in since we’d arrived in Scotland for some ribbon in the Fraser Tartan, but were not able to find any. Well, not until three days after the ceremony, anyway. Liisa had found some green ribbon that she liked in a wool (yarn) shop in Nairn. Bundled against the wind and rain, we went as fast as we could down the many steps and back up the slippery stone path to the Castle Gate. Along the path, a blossom from a ground elder (somehow) ended up in my pocket.
Handfasting is generally believed to be a ceremony of betrothal that comes from the long-ago times in Scotland and signifies that a couple will live as married for a year and a day, after which they can go their separate ways (unless a child has been born to them) or re-commit to each other in a legal ceremony.
In my recent research, I have come across references that show the original form of handfasting, handfæstung in Anglo-Saxon, was actually the normal term used for “betrothal” — that is, “for the ceremony of exchanging present or future consents to marriage and agreeing to marriage contracts.” It became so closely associated with betrothals in medieval times that in Scotland the ordinary term for a betrothal was handfasting. The use of the term in this sense persisted in Elgin (in Moray, North-east Scotland) as late as 1635. In the Middle Ages and through the early 17th century, “handfasting” was practiced. It was a formal betrothal to be married and occurred in a Christian context. It was legal and binding as marriage, provided the couple had sexual relations after the handfasting. If they did not, then it was considered an engagement and not a marriage. This was with the full understanding of the Church, and a clergyman was not necessary for legal marriage in Scotland either before the Reformation or after it. “Consent made marriage” practices held from somewhere in the decades around 1200 onwards until the 1800’s. It seems the “year and a day” was something that more modern Scotland came to assume had gone on in the days long ago. My research took place after the fact of Kyle and Liisa’s handfasting, and so we all performed the ceremony with the “year and a day” premise in mind, knowing that their “legal” wedding date will be in a year and a couple of weeks.
And it was beautiful….
We stood in the center of the old chapel, with gulls and ravens calling out through the misty rain and the crash of the ocean echoing up from the rocks below us.
I had Kyle take Liisa’s left hand in his as he pledged his vows to her; and Liisa took Kyle’s right hand in hers as she pledged her vows to him. As I gave my blessing and charged them with other vows to keep, I wrapped the ribbon around their joined hands and placed the wildflower between their fingers.
There are times in a mother’s life when things are so sweet, so lovely, and so deeply important, that words do not fill the cup of the experience.
I wish a lifetime of blessings to them both!