Before the Scottish Reformation of 1560, the word "family" was not used in its modern sense. Instead, it was applied to the wider household, including servants where appropriate. There was thus a hierarchical significance to the extended family where the male head of household was expected to act as protector and economic provider and his wife as the domestic manager. However, kinship connections also mattered in the relatively compact and close-knit community of Glasgow. This was reflected in the tradition of married women retaining their father's surname. A further binding influence was the omnipresent Catholic faith, symbolised by the dominating presence of Glasgow Cathedral. The Church instilled both spiritual and social identity to the rites associated with birth, death and marriage.
There were two stages to the marriage process. The first was betrothal, or "handfasting" as it was known in Scotland, because the couple became formally engaged by clasping hands. Next came the marriage ceremony, which represented the giving-away of the bride by her father or other male relative. This was a survival from the time when marriage was a contract of purchase by the husband. The bride, for her part, contributed a "tocher" or dowry to the marriage settlement. However, the pre-Reformation Church considered marriage to be a sacrament, not a matter of civil law. The essence of marriage was the exchange of consent between the couple, and such a declaration did not require to be made in public, or even with parental consent. Cohabitation on this basis was considered to be a legitimate, if not regular, union by the Church.
The minimum marriageable age for males was fourteen; for females it was twelve. Unions at such tender years were often arranged between wealthy families for the purposes of consolidating political or territorial alliances. For instance, Alan, fourth Lord Cathcart (1537-1618), was expected to marry Elizabeth Crichton when he reached the age of fourteen. In the event, he declined the match and had to pay Elizabeth's family £1,000 Scots for breach of contract. Within marriage women were tied to a range of domestic duties, which could include cooking, cleaning, needlework, spinning and, almost inevitably, child-rearing. According to the Church procreation was one of the essentials of marriage, and families could be large. Women who survived the dangers of childbirth often lived longer than men and widows could have considerable personal freedom. One unique Glasgow example was the privilege of "St Mungo's Widow", extending over the burgh and neighbouring parishes. This allowed women to be rentallers in their own right on the Bishop's land following the death of their husbands.
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