Old style islands courtships

We’re warming ourselves up to the idea of Valentine’s Day. Some might say Shetlanders are not renowned for being romantics and references to Valentines in our archives are somewhat sparse. However Mark in our archives team did come across this article from the 1950s which explores old courtship and marriage customs in the isles - thankfully things have moved on a bit since then….

Most of us are familiar with the customs and small rituals that surround Valentine’s day. Every year, couples send each other cards, buy roses, or eat chocolates shaped like hearts, but Shetlanders of previous generations had their own way of doing things when it came to love.

Cover image of the Picture Post magazine - October 1954

In 1954, the writer, naturalist and broadcaster Kenneth Allsop travelled to Orkney and Shetland to find out about courtship and marriage customs in the isles for the popular photojournalistic magazine Picture Post. This article from the archives tells us what he learned.

The practice of ‘bundling’ described in the article, which Allsop tactfully suggests ‘was designed to frustrate any inclination to anticipate the wedding night’ sounds bizarre to modern ears. But, in a place where large families lived together in small houses, perhaps folk had to be creative when trying to give young lovers a modicum of privacy that didn’t stray too far outside what was deemed appropriate. How comfortable either of the couple might have been, our research has not been able to discover, but reading the description here, we can see how propriety would have been maintained.

Allsop the formal visit of a engaged couple in his article.

By the time Kenneth Allsop was hearing about these old customs, we can see that there’s a fair bit of self-consciousness among the islanders. At the beginning of the era of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Richards (Little and Cliff), maybe the youth of Shetland didn’t want to be associated with what would look to outsiders like old-fashioned and eccentric folksy ways. Although, as we see in the piece, they weren’t shy of claiming greater backwardness for their contemporaries further south in Orkney.

Article used with the kind permission of Tristan Allsop

Article used with the kind permission of Tristan Allsop. Picture Post 1954

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