‘Regular’ and ‘Irregular’ Marriage Scotland early 1800s

In the 1800s marriage was more than a ‘wedding,’ an institution that has now lost much of its historical or religious significance. 

Accessing the ‘hard’ documentary data concerning births, deaths, and marriage records is one thing, but appreciating the economic and social circumstance under which those lives were lived is another.  As I began the process of joining the various pieces of information together much like a jigsaw, I realised the human element was missing. 

Families, essentially began with marriage where marriage was more that a tradition, it was a communal institution, a rite of passage into the local community.  Marriage records from the 1800s might be ‘interesting’ data that could simply be transcribed onto ancestral trees, but families belong to communities and communities have their own internal social structure. Therefore, the Old Parochial Records are to be read as something more than basic data but as a reflection of local community mores and ethics.

In Scotland, marriage was both a religious sacrament and a legal contract which could only be celebrated by a minister of religion in the local parish church.  Anything outside of these requirements was not a ‘marriage’.  However, legal marriages could be both ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’.  While the Scottish Church did not necessarily condone irregular marriages the practice was generally accepted thereby overcoming the problem where a child might be otherwise born out of wedlock.  But there were other reasons for an irregular marriage many of them surrounding the matter of legal inheritance, but more often perhaps, where the couple simply could not afford the expense involved in following the issuing of banns or for an elaborate wedding.7    

Marriage followed strict protocols. Banns, the proclamation of the impending ‘contract,’ were announce to the church on three consecutive Sundays before any wedding took place.  The couple had to be sponsored by at least two members of the community, called ‘cautioners,’ to whom fell the job of ‘cautioning’ the prospective couple as to their obligations to each other and the community.  Very often these ‘cautioners’ had to pay a ‘caution’ as a bond or security ‘to prove the seriousness of their intention.’

Below is the marriage record of William Wright and Mary Greg which is one of the few records that gives an idea of the necessary steps required in order to be ‘regularly’ married.


Banns and marriages were therefore an essential social mechanism whereby the bride and groom demonstrated their commitment not only to each other but to the community who, likewise, demonstrated their responsibility towards couple.  Accordingly, marriage was essentially a communal investment in the future life of the village.