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Hen-night with a difference: ‘blackening’ the bride

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Sheree Sartain
WVoN Co-editor

Have you ever been to a ‘blackening’? I hadn’t until last week when I took part in this extremely mucky but fun traditional Scottish marriage ritual.

Not the neo-traditional hen-night with dressing-up, the bride’s girlfriends, and too much alcohol but an older custom shared by the whole community.

‘The blackening’ as it is referred to locally in the village of Balintore, Scotland, is a pre-nuptial event where the bride is ‘captured’ and covered with all kinds of sticky gunk.

Buckets of flour, eggs, treacle, seaweed, porridge and hair or feathers are prepared in readiness.

The bride-to-be is then seated in the back of a truck and the guests take their turns to throw the ‘blackening’ over her. In this region (not to be left out) the groom is also included in the ritual.

The Scottish tradition of ‘blackening the bride’ – or groom or sometimes both depending on your whereabouts – has an uncertain history.

In the Orkney Isles it is more usually the groom who is blackened but in Aberdeenshire the bride is the usual victim.

After everyone had taken a turn to dump a bucket of gunk over the couple, they were paraded around the village followed by a large crowd of well-wishers. As the procession made its way we were encouraged to make as much noise as possible with car horns, shouts, whistles and cheers.

In some places this marks the beginning of a pub-crawl but in many places the local hostelries have banned blackening parties undoubtedly because of the mess they make.

Our destination on this beautiful sunny evening as we wound our way through the village was not the pub but instead the harbour and the waters of the Moray Firth.

As we reached the pier the couple were marched along and unceremoniously thrown off into the cold blue firth to a rousing cheer from the crowd that had gathered.

Thankfully, they both emerged much cleaner than they had gone in and after some running around, hugging on-lookers in an effort to get them wet too, the bride and groom-to be led us back to the house for a bite to eat and a dram.

One explanation of this extraordinary ritual is that it is a corruption of older pre-wedding, feet and hair washing traditions, making sure that the couple are truly dirty before they are cleansed.

Another is that all the noise and merriment serves to keep the faerie folk from causing mischief for the couple.

From my observation, following the blackening, no one else wanted to go near the bride and groom so perhaps it serves to unite them while keeping others away.

Most of the references to ‘blackening’ that I have found relate to the bride and it seems that only in Orkney is the groom the main target but why this is the case I’m not really sure.

Why the bride should be marked out in this way is also unclear but it does reflect other gender based wedding rituals and so it is not unusual in this sense.

Fortunately, on this occasion, the bride was ‘tipped off’ about what awaited her and took it in good spirit. More importantly,  she even seemed to enjoy herself.

  1. Been Blackened says:

    Adding to an old post but just to add some extra regional detail to a subject that isn’t well documented.

    I was blackened in Angus where it is a common tradition for Grooms, mostly in farming (as I am), mechanical and oil industries (and others). Often much nastier products are used in farming, burst (used engine) oil, very rotten eggs, rotten molasses and potale syrup, horse dung and sawdust all appeared at mine. The best man is usually liberally doused as well, participants can often be well covered in oil.

    I wasn’t exactly a willing participant but relaised it had to get done, it was a suprise and I was captured and stripped to my underwear. Grooms that run and escape from from their blackening have been known to get done on their wedding day (but I’m talking before my time, 20 years ago).

    It is not as common for Brides to get done in Angus but can happen.

    In Aberdeenshire it is more common for brides to get blackened as well as grooms.

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