"IRREGULAR" SCOTTISH MARRIAGES

For many decades, Scottish marriage law was very different to English law and one of the most significant differences was the acceptance of so-called ‘irregular marriages’, without banns and without a minister being present. There were three ways of forming such a marriage:

  1. A couple declaring themselves to be married in front of witnesses (per verba et praesenti) though this might be hard to prove without additional evidence.
  2. A promise of marriage, followed by sexual consummation (per verba de futura subsequenta copula) but this had to be backed up by proof, such as a written promise of marriage, or an oath sworn before witnesses.
  3. A couple presenting themselves in public as husband and wife, even if no formal declaration of marriage had been made (‘cohabitation with repute'). Scotland was the last European country to abolish this in 2006.

The law and the Church of Scotland frowned on irregular marriages though the latter tolerated them in preference to the alternative of ‘living in sin’. Such marriages were cheaper and would also be more expedient than more conventional marriages but they existed in a kind of grey area of legality. For example, once registration of marriages became compulsory in Scotland (1855), an irregular marriage could be registered if the couple first presented themselves before a sheriff (in the early years a ‘sheriff substitute’) or magistrate, were 'convicted' as parties to an irregular marriage, and paid a fine. Despite this, such marriages persisted and, once divorce became more prevalent, if the established church refused to marry a divorcee, an irregular marriage was the only alternative until 1939, when marriage registered by sheriff's warrant ended, and Scottish law accepted marriage by a civil ceremony in a registrar's office.

The 1887 marriage of Rev. Edwin James Owen to (Jessie) Beatrice Paterson was a marriage per verba et praesenti.