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Folklore of Nova Scotia
Chapter XVI. Customs


Mrs. MacMullan, a wonderfully strong, able-bodied woman, came out from Scotland and settled at the rear of East Bay, with her only child, an idiot boy. She had left behind her in the old country among other household effects, a set of horn spoons that she prized very highly, but never expected to see again.

The idiot boy formed the habit of leaving the house every evening at nightfall. He would go out even into the teeth of the storm, and would not return until daylight. His mother never knew where he was, nor did the neighbors. But one morning he returned to the house bringing one of his mother’s much prized horn spoons. A little later, he brought another, then a third, a fourth, a fifth, until all the spoons were returned to her. His mother and the neighbors believed that on account of his idiocy, he had the power of travelling through the air, and that in his nightly disappearances, he had crossed the seas, and brought back his mother’s treasures.

Angus MacDonald, a venerable old man, who told this story, knew Mrs. MacMullan and her idiot son, and also saw the spoons. He even attended the woman’s funeral, which was held with all the customs peculiar to these early days. While he was thinking them over, his wife went to the organ, and after a little shuffling with the keys, played by ear an old tune that had, she said, been learned many years ago, by some one in the Isle of Skye, from music heard in the air. By the time she had played it over twice, the far-away expression in Mr. MacDonald’s eyes showed that he had gone back to the long ago, and was ready with his memories of


A death had its own special ceremonial, which was carried out in its minutest details. In the best room in the house, a high stand was built of boards for the reception of the body. This stand was draped with sheets, as was also the adjoining wall. The body was then “laid out on the boards,” with a small plate of salt placed on the chest. The mourners were not allowed to do anything. The neighbors came in and took charge of everything. The wake lasted for two, and sometimes for three nights, and was attended by all the people of the neighborhood and far beyond it. All the men and the boys spent the early part of the evening out of doors playing quoits. The women stayed inside and took charge of the cooking and the general preparations for the supper. At eight o’clock supper was served to everyone present. The best that could be procured was set before the company. The guests succeeded one another at table after table until all were served.

When supper was over, usually about eleven o’clock, all assembled in the death chamber for the recitation of prayers. On entering the room, one was struck by the sight of plates of tobacco and pipes set along the boards near the corpse, so that any man who wanted to smoke was free to help himself.

After the prayers, which were quite lengthy, most of the company left for home. Chosen friends of the family, mostly men, remained all night. For them a lunch was prepared. They spent the time telling fables. If a song or a tune came into any of these fables, they did not hesitate to sing it.

All during the day, lunch was served to everyone who went to the house. It would be very discourteous for anyone to leave without eating. In fact, one trusty friend was charged with the office of seeing that no one overlooked this point, for it was believed that every bite that was served during the wake went towards the release of the soul if it were suffering in Purgatory.

On the day of the funeral, the coffin was placed on the shoulders of six able-bodied men. It was considered an act of disrespect towards the dead to have a horse convey the remains to their last resing place. If the distance to the graveyard was considerable, these men were relieved by others along the route. A piper went in advance of the coffin, playing a lament; appointed wailers followed, wailing out the praises of the dead. Behind these, came a man carrying a jar of liquor; then the rest of the procession. Before they left the graveyard, food and liquor were passed to all present.


Mrs. Campbell, who was wedded with all the old customs, was glad to recall the dignified ceremonial of the “good old times.”

There was first the “matchmaking.” Although a private understanding existed between the young man and his prospective bride and her parents, yet that was nor. considered sufficient. The young man brought his father or $ome very dear elderly friend to ask the girl’s parents for the hand of their daughter. Then the next Friday after this demand, the relatives and friends of the couple assembled at the home of the prospective bride. Here the young man, in the presence of these friends, asked the girl’s father formally for his bride, and the father gave his consent. A big supper and dance followed this ceremony.

During the next ten days, preparations were made for the coming event; invitations were issued and the banns published.

The marriage generally took place on a Tuesday. The horses that took the bridal party to the church were decorated with flowers and ribbons. The bride went with the groomsman, the bridesmaid with the groom. As they left the bride’s home, shots were fired and this was kept up at intervals along the route.

The marriage ceremony was followed by two big weddings, one at the home of the bride, the other at that of the groom. The groom had the privilege of inviting friends to both weddings. The ceremonial for both weddings was in the main the same. The bride and bridesmaid dressed in white with colored sashes, and wore pretty caps with colored ribbon streamers. The bride put on her matron’s cap that night never to leave it off; the bridesmaid gave hers to the bride as a souvenir.

The bridal party formed in a room adjoining that in which the dancing took place. With the bride leading, they marched into the dance room for the first reel. The violinist, always a picked man, played something very pretty, if possible some tune bearing the bride’s name. Sometimes, however, it happened that the violinist had a grudge against the groom; then he played an ugly tune.

After the first reel was finished, the nearest relatives of the bridal pair—their parents, if they were still active, for it required a good deal of suppleness to dance a four-hand reel—danced the second reel. It was only after this privileged dance that the rest of the company had their turn.

A steward was appointed to guard the traditional keg of whiskey. It was regarded as a real mark of honour to be chosen for this responsible position.

After the dancing had continued for some time, a great banquet was served. At the bride’s table, besides the bridal party, were the nearest relatives of the young people. It was regarded as a great slight for a relative to be overlooked. The bride poured liquor from a decanter, and chosen persons passed it around. Toasts we're proposed, and drunk in good “Old Scotch.”

After midnight, the bride and groom were accompanied to their bridal chamber by their parents, nearest kinsfolk, the bridesmaid and groomsman. There they were duly installed. The groom’s mother was the last to leave the room. If she were not present, it was the bride’s mother who remained last with the young couple. After a short period of seclusion, the bride found her bridesmaid again. They changed their white dresses for colored ones with white sashes and white streamers from their caps. The bride put away her white dress, which she never wore again. When the bridal party reappeared, they were greeted either by bag-pipe music, or by singing; then they danced another reel. During this reel, and also during the first reel they danced, shots were fired.

In the early morning hours, breakfast was served. Dancing was kept up until broad daylight, when the guests took their departure. As the first violinist came to make his adieus, the bride took off her sash and trimmed his violin with it; the bridesmaid did likewise for the second violinist.

The bridesmaid remained with the bride for some days after the marriage. The bride was treated with the greatest reverence. It was considered a privilege to dance with her. She conducted herself with the greatest decorum, and would never do anything to compromise her dignity. Her dowry was given in cattle, sheep, bedclothes, table linen, rugs, and such like.


When a child was born, all the women of the neighborhood crowded to see the young mother and her child. Each woman brought a basket of dainties for the mother, or a present for the baby, or both. At this visit, it was considered a breach of etiquette if they were not presented with a glass of wine or other liquor.

If the child was baptized in the church, the bottle was passed before leaving for the church and after the return; if at home, the bottle was passed after the baptism was over.

Those who first attempted to deviate from these old customs were regarded as “ putting on airs,” and were treated with contempt. But time has been hard on the customs. The automobile, the telephone, the radio, leave people no time to spend on elaborate ceremonial. The oldtime ceilidh too, has gone the way of the other customs, and with it the old tales that enlivened many a long winter’s evening. No longer do seers startle their friends by the recital of their visions. The honk of the automobile has frightened away the bochdan, and the glare of its lights has dulled the vision of the sights of the other world. Music floods the air, but is heard only with mechanical aid. Yet there are still, in the little province by the sea, a few secluded spots unspoiled by modern inventions, where the other worldliness of the Celt may disport itself in visions and in dreams.

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