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Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave by Margaret Bennett Published by Birlinn


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Margaret Bennett has given us another magic book, brought togeter from many books of the past, hitherto unpublished inteview material, private manuscripts - wonderful miniatures of folklore, wise and charming commentary on human personality ina dazzling profusion. Takin the three greatest landmarks of humanity - birth, mating and death - she brings to life a Scotland from a hundred voices, at once making an invaluable contribution to the study of history and culture and showing us a Scotland in which the world can see its own hidden face. Owen Dudley Edwards (Writer, critic, lecturer)

A highly readable and absorbing anthology of traditional Scottish customs and rites of passage, drawn from a broad range of literary sources dating back to the sixteenth century. Tape recorded interviews from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries give voice to tradition bearers from all walks of life, adding colour to this comprehensive picture of social behaviour. The most up to date, authoritative work on the subject, this collection spans several centuries, and, in three sections, deals with Childbirth and Infancy: Love, Courtship and Marriage; and Death and Burial.


Part I: Childbirth and Infancy

The Mother and Child in Days Gone By


Protection and Prevention

Practical Midwifery and Care of the Newborn

Care of the Mother, Then and Now

Hanselling the Baby

Wetting the Baby’s Head

Baptism, Christening and Choosing a Name

Rocking the Cradle and Keeping Amused

Fosterage and Adoption


A Reflection of Former Times


Courtship and Bundling


Betrothal Ceremonies

Feet Washing and Other Good Clean Fun

Wedding Presents

Hen Nights and Stag Parties

‘Jumping the Chanty’ in Kilmarnock

Celebrating the Marriage

Highland Weddings

Weddings in the North-East Fishing Villages

Shetland Weddings

Feastin an Dancin

Racin an Ropin

Scramblin an Scatterin

Arranged Marriages and Elopement

Weddings and Honeymoons during Wartime and the Depression


Death Omens

Preparing the Body, Layin Out and Kistin


Death and Burial in Dumfries and Galloway

Death and Burial in an East Lothian mining community

Funerals in the Outer Hebrides

Funerals in Badenoch and Strathspey

Floral Tributes

Funeral Customs 'of every rank' in Skye

Watching and Waking

Paying Respects

The Last Post

A Professional Attitude to Death

Indelible Memories

Grave-markers, Cairns and Memorials: ‘Lest we forget…’


Further reading




It's a wonder that so many Scottish babies of yesteryear made it into adulthood, when one considers the many threatening things which happened to them in the name of custom and tradition: they were wrapped inside various outsized garments, shaken three times head down, had their navels smeared with various noxious substances and their heads anointed with others. Meanwhile, 'hanselling' the baby meant waiting till the mother wasn't looking and shoving coins (dirty, gob-stopping ones, no doubt) into the baby's balled fists.

Most of this I gleaned from Margaret Bennett's Scottish Customs, recently reissued by Birlinn (£10.99). Originally published in the early 90s, this is a major contribution to Scotland's ethnology, by one of its leading folklorists and makes great use of the archives of the School of Scottish Studies, as well as the works of pioneering C19 ethnologists like Gregor and Napier and more recent scholars such as the late Herbert Halpert and Hamish Henderson, the two 'HH's to whom the book is dedicated.

This is not a definitive or catch-all book on Scottish customs: the book's subtitle is From the Cradle to the Grave, and the focus is on aspects of tradition around rites of passage, being divided into three lengthy chapters (Childbirth and InfancyLove, Courtship and Marriage and Death and Burial). Given that most books on customs take the alphabetical route, this volume's format is pleasing, comprising of many short articles and interviews, broken up with Bennett's warm and pithy commentary. The range of informants is impressive, from Victorian worthies to recent newspaper reports.


12 of 13 people found the following review helpful:
Andrew Casad (San Diego, CA) - As someone of Scottish descent and a student of Anthropology and History, I really appreciated this text. There are a myriad of books available that purport to tell about Scottish customs, or focus on some narrow aspect of Scottish life, such as clan associations. This book, however, addresses the whole gamut of life of the Scottish folk, from motherhood and child-rearing, through the rites of passage into adulthood, and finally the passage from life into eternal life. Bennett draws upon a wide selection of historical sources, disparate in both locale and time period. Relying not only upon the historical record, but utilizing her expertise as a folklorist, Bennett elicits ethnographic data, which she presents and uses to draw her conclusions. She paints a vivid picture of life in Scotland that offers new and insightful ways in which to look at Scottish cultural practices. I highly recommend this lucid, yet academic and well-researched book regarding Scottish customs to anyone wishing to get beyond the surface aspects of the fascinating and vibrant traditional Scottish cultural patterns.

Other Details

978-1-84158 293-1
Scottish Customs, Folklore and Traditions

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