We all know that The Owl and the Pussy Cat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat and that they sailed away for a year and a day. But read this children’s poem, by Edward Lear, more carefully you will see it is full of rich cultural references.
A year and a day is the period of a trial marriage where couples would live together – try it out but have the opportunity at the end of that period to make a permanent commitment or to part.
In Wales, a broomstick marriage was also a couple living together for a year and a day as a trial marriage. By jumping the broomstick placed at the threshold to the house the couple entered a contract to live as man and wife for a year and a day. Jumping back over the broomstick ended the contract. While cohabiting and not legally married the couple were known as living above the brush.
The Scottish tradition of hand fasting was originally more an act of engagement than marriage and offered the option of hand parting if it did not work out. Some places such as Upper Eskdale and Kirkwall in Orkney were renowned for their annual fares when single young people would meet and agree to live together for a year and a day as a trial marriage.
Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Monastery, published in 1820 includes this explanation;
When we are handfasted as we term it, we are man and wife for a year and a day; that space gone by, each may choose another mate, or at their pleasure may call the priest to marry them for life and this we call hand fasting.
In Orkney, Odin’s Stone a, megalith, with a hole through it was traditionally used to make the commitment with the agreeing parties standing either side of the stone and placing their hands through the hole. The oath they made was overseen by Odin. This tradition of using holes in stones or walls as a way of agreeing a contract was common across Britain and Ireland. The picture above is of Megan and myself getting engaged at Mên-an-Tol Cornwall!