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Scottish Traditions


How on earth did young people do their courting before the drive-in movie? Even in Scotland, where drive-ins are virtually unknown, many couples still make their first tentative contact in the back seats of the cinema, away from parental snooping. Imagine, then the difficulties of a young couple on a rainy winter's night on a stormy Scottish island. Inside the two roomed cottage, siblings, parents, and, perhaps, grandparents sit around the peat fire; there is nowhere else to go.

Fortunately, in those days, a practical solution was possible in the form of bundling. The young couple were given the privacy of the sleeping accommodation, sharing a bed to keep warm in the unlit and unheated room. First, the young girl would be put to bed by her mother, fully dressed, with her legs tied together or confined in a garment securely tied at the top. Then the fully clad suitor was admitted.

It seems that this custom was also observed in Holland and no doubt both Scottish and Dutch bundling contributed to the popularity of bundling in New England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Sometimes a bolster was used to preserve modesty or a ‘bundling board' might separate the couple.

Bundling is sometimes used to refer to the practice of knocking on the beloved's window and gaining secret access to share a bed, fully clothed. (Perhaps the removal of boots might be acceptable.)

In New England, bundling had become a thing of the past by 1800, but in Scotland it continued, as quotations from the Dictionary of the Scots Language reveal. A detailed description of bundling on the island of Lewis is cited from H. Sutherland's Arches of the Years (1933): 'Amongst the people of the black houses, there is a curious custom in courtship, and, like all primitive sex customs, it is based on economic conditions. The time for making love is during the long winter nights when the young men are at home. On that bleak windswept coast it would be difficult for two people to make love out of doors. So the young man goes to the girl's house. Again, with one living-room where the family are sitting, it is difficult to make love. The girl goes into the sleeping-room. There is no fire there, nor any light, because the burning of tallow candles and oil is a consideration to people who are poor. So, for warmth, the girl goes to bed. Once in bed, both her legs are inserted into one large stocking, which her mother ties above her knees. Then the young man goes into the sleeping-room, and lies beside her. It is called 'the bundling.'

In Shetland Descriptive and Historical (1871), R. Cowie tells us barn-bundling was a convenient, and innocent, practice when social occasions brought people together over distances which could not easy be travelled by night: 'The festivities over for the night, the dancers, instead of returning to their homes, adjourn to the barn of their host's cottage, which serves as a dormitory, the members of each sex being alternately ranged along the floor, on a huge couch of straw...The people enter quite innocently into these barn-bundlings, as they are termed'. The chaste, sleeping-bagged survivors littering the floor after modern parties are a testament to the fact that there is nothing new under the sun.

See the Dictionary of the Scots Language for more on bundling.