The mystical and messy blackening

Imagine before your wedding instead of having the best man arrange an action packed stag-do or the maid of honour organise a getaway at some spa retreat you and your other half get kidnapped, tied down and covered in rotten fish guts.

The blackening as it’s known, is a rare and secretive prenuptial ritual unique to north east Scotland.

Dr Sheila Young, an honorary research associate at the University of Aberdeen has completed a PHD thesis and written a book about the ceremony.

She describes the blackening as a surprise event that only involves the closest family and friends.

“The blackening involves a degree of secrecy where the very close family and friends will get together and decide on a given day to kidnap the bride and groom and cover them in a most disgusting substance which they would have been ‘brewing’ running up to the event.”

A couple being ‘blackened’
From having your feet washed to being covered in buckets of gunge

The blackening evolved from an earlier ceremony known as the ‘feet washing’.

It was believed if newlyweds went through the feet washing ceremony before being married they would gain protection from baroness and impotence.

Dr Young explains that changes in the ceremony began to occur around the 19th century.

“The night before the wedding the bride and groom would have their feet washed then in the 19th century you start to hear of blackening material being put on the feet and that used to be soot from the chimney which was considered to have magical properties.”

Soot rubbed on the leg of a bride then washed away in a traditional ‘feet washing’ ceremony
The ceremony transformed from the modest ‘feet washing’ to the more excessive ‘blackening’ in the 70s and 80s

In around the 1970s and 80s, through mechanisation and the event moving outside, the feet washing evolved into the blackening and the ingredients changed from a simple bit of soot rubbed on the betroth’s feet to the “lucky” couple being covered in flour, eggs and even offal.

When asked what ingredient shocked her the most Dr Young replied “nothing really shocks me anymore” before revealing cow manure was once used to ‘blacken’ the bride and groom.

Unique to the north east

The blackening ceremony is a phenomenon Dr Young describes as “totally unique” to the North East region of Scotland.

Dr Young looked for it across the world but the only other place there was further records of blackenings was Northern Ireland.

“I searched for it all over Britain, all over Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. The earliest record I could find was in the late 1600s and the only other place I could find it being done was in Ulster.”

Dr Sheila Young is an honorary research associate at Aberdeen University

When trying to pin down who actually performs blackenings Dr Young explains that the blackening and the people who perform it cannot be defined by social class.

“You can’t say there’s a social class. It’s not rich, it’s not poor. It is performed by people who are local and stay local.”

A more traditional ceremony in the 50s
Entwined with the region

The modern equivalents to a blackening are the hen party and stag-do.

These ‘rituals’ are far more prevalent with the added clout of being heavily commercialised, yet still the blackening is performed.

When asked why such an unusual prenuptial ceremony has survived for so long Dr Young explained the blackening gives a sense of tradition.

“What a blackening gives you that a hen and stag party don’t is a link with the past. In performing the blackening you are walking in the footsteps of your parents and grandparents and continuing an age old tradition.”

The blackening is something that, even though hard to find, doesn’t seem to be dying away. And through her research Dr Young seems to have translated those mystical qualities that underpinned the original ceremony of the feet washing into a more modern interpretation.

“Many people just said to me we do it because it’s who we are. It’s a part of what it means to be someone who comes from Northern Scotland.”

Find out more about Dr Young’s research on blackenings in a full length interview featured on the Harry Jamshid Reporter YouTube channel.

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