How to Have Yourself a Proper Scottish Handfasting Ceremony

September 10 2020 – Torri Bobo


The tradition of handfasting dates back centuries. Though sometimes associated with Wiccan or Pagan weddings, it's just as often been a part of Christian weddings. Handfasting ceremonies were once a staple of Norse and Celtic tradition, and have been a crucial part of weddings and wedding planning in Scotland, England and other parts of Europe. 

Handfasting ceremonies have become popular again in recent years with many couples becoming more interested in connecting with older traditions, while at the same time breaking away from some of the norms associated with a conventional wedding. 

What Is a Handfasting Ceremony? 

At its most basic, a handfasting ceremony is a wedding ceremony in which the couple joins hands, and then has a ribbon or cord wrapped around them. Either the wedding officiant or the couple themselves will tie the cords into a knot—yes, that's where the expression "tying the knot" comes from—to symbolize the couple's union.

There are endless variations and ways a couple can make a handfasting ceremony unique, from using multiple cords to having friends and family members come up and take turns tying them. Many couples use a cloth for the handfasting ceremony, choosing its colors with great care to represent their family or signify something of great personal meaning. A Scottish tartan is a perfect example of this.

couple's handfasting ceremony with cloth

By the way, if you’re looking for authentic tartan ribbons that match your family heritage, check out our favorites, Scotland Shop and House of Tartan. We have worked with both companies over the years as they supply ribbons for our tartan wedding rings. They are easy to work with and create beautiful tartan fabric for all kinds of uses.

Where Does Handfasting Come From?

Handfasting ceremonies originated in rural Scotland, where they have been practiced since at least the 12th century. Often, in those days, the proper religious and legal officials needed to officiate a wedding were not available in small villages and a handfasting ceremony was seen as having the same weight and validity as an official marriage ceremony.

In some traditions, handfasting was expected to be followed by a church wedding within a year. In others, the handfasting marked not the moment of betrothal, but the beginning of an engagement, at the end of which the couple would eventually be married. In those cases, it could be seen as something of a temporary or trial marriage.

What Does Handfasting Symbolize?

A handfasting ceremony is a unity ritual, much like exchanging wedding rings. In fact, it’s not uncommon for couples to choose to do both. Handfasting represents, quite literally, the binding of two people who are in love and committed to spending their lives together. As the hands are bound together, the ceremony emphasizes that the couple's lives are now bound together as well.

Additional significance often comes from the colors the couple chooses for their handfasting cords or cloth. Each color has its own meaning, from red (love, passion, strength) and yellow (balance, joy, harmony) to green (fertility, luck, health) and gold (longevity, unity, wealth).

Is Handfasting Legally Binding?

The short answer to this question is... it can be. Back in Ye Olde Scotland, a handfasting ceremony and an exchange of vows was all you needed to make a wedding legally binding. These days, there are other legal requirements, such as a marriage license, a statement of intent and a pronouncement by an officiant.

But once these requirements are met, you can pretty much do whatever you want for the rest of your wedding. So, while handfasting is no longer legally binding on its own (nor, for that matter, is a ring exchange), there's no reason it can't be included in a legal wedding ceremony.

When Does Handfasting Take Place?

If you choose handfasting as your main wedding ceremony, it can take place after the rings are exchanged, during which time the hands are tied for the duration of the ceremony. Some couples also choose to incorporate handfasting as a small part of their overall wedding, in which case it can happen either before or after the exchange of vows. Really, it's up to you!

Why Choose a Handfasting Ceremony?

There are any number of reasons why you might choose to have a handfasting ceremony as part of your wedding, or as the wedding ceremony itself. It can add symbolism and personalization to your wedding and help link your wedding day to tradition while at the same time making it unique and memorable. 

If you or your fiancé(e) are of Scottish, Celtic or Nordic ancestry, the ceremony could be all the more meaningful. Of course, some couples do it because it has been popularized in Celtic-Scottish movies but, for most people who choose a handfasting ceremony, its meaning goes much deeper.

scottish tartan wedding rings

From sharing a handfasting ceremony to exchanging custom wedding rings with Scottish tartan cloth inlay, at Rustic and Main, we're dedicated to making your wedding day as unique and meaningful as your love story. To learn more about all the ways you can link your heritage to your wedding rings, message our live chat team today or get started designing your own custom ring!