Tying the Celtic Knot
Catherine McLeod and her husband Marc Reardon were wed last summer in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The couple, who are of Irish and Scottish ancestry, took their vows in front of over 200 friends and family members. True to their heritage, the celebration had a Celtic twist.
“We did everything a bit differently, right down to the finest detail,” shares McLeod. “We put our own personal touches on everything.”
While McLeod and Reardon have their magical moments now fixed in their memories, many couples struggle to work out the details of their big day.
Síle Tracey is a wedding planner with Waterlily Weddings in Bray, Ireland. She helps love-birds gear up for the event.
“After my first experience coordinating a wedding I was truly hooked,” says Tracey, who has been with the decade-old business for the past two years. “I have been enjoying every minute of planning ever since.”
Although preparing for a wedding means tackling a hefty to-do list, she believes it is essential for couples to first have a clear vision of the venue they would like to get married in before other details get worked out.
“In order not to get overwhelmed, couples should have a ‘top five’ list of things they need the facility to offer,” she explains. “This, and knowing their budget. If you get these two things right, the other elements follow naturally.”
Finding the right venue is like finding the right frame for a work of art. It can’t be too small for your guests, but it also shouldn’t be too big. Do you want to hold your reception in the same place as the ceremony? Do you want to be in a chapel, or somewhere less traditional? Is it a summer wedding or a fall wedding? These are all things you must consider before picking the place for your nuptials. If you are lucky enough to be getting hitched on the Emerald Isle, there are many choices.
“We have amazing castles, manors, estate homes and hotels,” notes Tracey. “There are a lot of stunning options to choose from.”
Despite their Celtic roots, McLeod and Reardon chose to get married closer to home at the gorgeous 75-year-old Saint David’s Presbyterian Church in Halifax. As religion is important to the couple, a formal church setting was appropriate.
“The spiritual focus of the ceremony emphasized God’s loving nature as shown through Jesus,” muses McLeod.
For the reception, the newlyweds and their guests dined and danced at the nearby Lord Nelson hotel, a local landmark whose suites have hosted the likes of Paul McCartney and Ozzy Osbourne. With large ballrooms, the facility can cater up to 600 guests.
“There was no waiting for drinks, it was fast service,” says McLeod, offering a suggestion: “Always serve food when serving alcohol to avoid having drunken guests.”
In the United States, Ellis Island in New York City is a great option with Celtic history. About half a million Scottish immigrants passed through the island between the years 1892 and 1954, and Tartan Day celebrations are held there annually. The heritage site books weddings with a waterfront view.
The rewards of a destination wedding usually outweigh the risks, but they are not without their difficulties.
“The majority of our couples are American who want to be wed in Ireland,” shares Tracey. “However, we also do a lot of planning for Irish couples now living abroad and traveling home for their wedding day. Our clients come from all over the world; Hong Kong, Russia, Australia, the US, Canada, and Europe.”
She adds that the most important part of the planning process can also be the most stressful.
“The venue search can be difficult, as the majority of our clients will not get to see it in person until the week of their wedding.”
In Ireland, many couples dream of an outdoor ceremony – not surprising, given the country’s lush landscape. Most weddings planned by Waterlily are “off the beaten track,” explains Tracey, including the popular rural cliff-side, away from tourist traffic. There should always be a back-up plan, however.
“The weather is in Ireland is so unpredictable. Venues here are designed with the weather in mind, so the indoor options for most ceremony venues never disappoint.”
The most popular sites for tying the knot, she maintains, are castles.
“They offer an experience you could only find in Ireland. They also provide unique onsite activities, including falconry, horse riding, and archery, and the larger castles have wonderful spas too. But many of them are in remote locations, so you have to be prepared for long drives once you get to Ireland.”
Offering an elegant and picturesque backdrop to an already magical day, beautiful castles can be found in other Celtic nations as well, including Dunnottar Castle in Scotland, Roch Castle in Wales, and Castle Rushen on the Isle of Man.
Once you know “where” your wedding will happen, the next question might be “what?” As in, “What are you going to eat?”
Food is a core component of Celtic culture, and is a key to keeping wedding guests happy. Many venues have a resident caterer, but they are also open to having couples bring in their own.
Kerra Buchanan of Kerra’s Cornish Catering in Newton St. Martin says the choice of what to serve on a wedding day depends mostly on the demographic of those attending.
“Younger crowds are into the feasting platters, and the more ‘fun food’ items can work well,” she explains. “But if you are more traditional, then plated meals are the way to go.”
Last year, casual barbeques were all the rage.
“In hindsight, it was a tricky one because we had the wettest season in Cornwall that we’d had in ten years,” she laughs. “This year, people are a bit worried about the weather so we are going more traditional.”
As such, “high-end plated meals” are becoming popular once again. “Which is where we were at eight or ten years ago,” she notes. “It has come full-circle – back on trend.”
Buchanan makes every effort to source local Cornish produce. She says that lamb is very popular, and is at the heart of one of her favourite meals to prepare – leg of lamb with anchovies and rosemary.
“The smell, when you cook it, is really satisfying…it always gets received really well. We are surrounded by amazing farmers doing great things also, and we’ve got some really great fish as well – the local bass is amazing.”
What is known as traditional Cornish fare, however, is not usually a big part of the main course.
“The Cornish have a very sweet tooth,” explains Buchanan. “So a lot of Cornish food is scones, jam and cream, and heavy cake.”
Speaking of which, it’s a good idea to order your wedding cake well ahead of time. Many independent businesses suggest you book at least a year in advance.
Lisa Franchetti, owner of the Glasgow-based shop Little Cake Parlour, has a passion for baking. Her specialty is bespoke wedding cakes. She lists off a few of their most popular flavours: vanilla, raspberry with white chocolate, chocolate with salted caramel, and red velvet.
“People love ruffles,” says Franchetti, noting popular cake styles. “They are quite time-consuming to make but they do look great. Also popular are chalkboards, metallics, superheroes and LEGO – sometimes all on the same cake!”
Most couples have a set idea of what they want. For others, she often looks to other aspects of their wedding for inspiration – invitations or outfits perhaps – to tailor-make something special. She admits that the job can be trying at times, but it is always well worth the effort.
“Because it is such a special day for people, I really want to make sure it’s perfect, both in terms of look and taste. Once the dust has settled it is always rewarding. It is nice to think that, 60 years from now, someone may be looking back through their wedding album and see a cake I made.”
For those wishing a distinctly Scottish touch, Too Good to Eat Wedding Cakes in Edinburgh offers “tartan cakes” with hand-painted fondant.
“The first time I was asked to design for a Scottish-themed wedding, I wondered if I could make tartan icing,” smiles shop owner Bernadette Wood. “I still do a lot of them, and have changed designs to fit with trends.”
Just be careful not to get any icing on the dress…
What to Wear
Picking a wedding dress can be a trying task for any bride, as choices must be made around style, comfort, and colour. A traditional Irish bride, for instance, might wear a blue dress rather than white.
According to Welsh designer Stephanie Allin, a stark white dress is not the most practical choice for many people.
“Ivory, rather than white itself, is the vastly preferred colour,” she shares. “I think white is too harsh for our climate and for photography. Many brides are accessorizing with a touch of colour.”
Recent bride Catherine McLeod said “yes” to an ivory dress from Bridals by Lori in Atlanta, Georgia, with the flower girls and bridesmaids also in neutral colours. This contrasted well against the bold colours of the tartan kilts worn by the groom and his groomsmen.
However, Allin also notes that current trends are diverse, and depend on the country, market and price range.
“Most brides have done some research and thinking before they come to me, and I always take this into account,” explains Allin, who has been in the bridal industry for close to a quarter century. “But my expertise as a designer and stylist is to advise them on the opportunities to look their very best, and that is a very personal and subtle judgement based on years of experience.”
To ease the stress of picking a gown, Allin has some advice; first, there’s no need to bring a crowd when you go dress shopping – pick one or two people whose opinions you value.
“Often, a bride can get confused by having too many people with her giving conflicting opinions. They sometimes subconsciously give bias opinions on what they prefer rather than what looks good on the bride.
“And,” she adds, “once you have found your dress…stop looking!”
McLeod was fortunate. Not only did she find a dress she loved, but she was also able to add material from her great-grandmother’s bridal dress, sewing into the inside of her own.
A bride’s use of family heirlooms is a common touch in weddings. She may use a piece of mother’s or grandmother’s jewelry, and in some cases, she may even have her mother’s dress re-designed to wear.
But as the old rhyme goes, “Something old, something new…” there’s nothing wrong with buying something, too. An accessory can be as important and meaningful as any garment. This is especially true when it comes to rings. Wedding bands can be found in chain stores just about anywhere, but there are also independent businesses which craft handmade jewelry inspired by Celtic designs.
Kanata, Ontario-based jewelers Keltic Nations – run by Ingrid and Greg McPherson – has evolved since its days selling products from stands at Highland Games and Celtic Festivals.
“We call our rings ‘wearable pieces of art’ for a reason,” shares Ingrid. “They are unique, and not at all like a typical wedding band that you can pick up at a large chain jewelry store. They are of the highest quality, substantial and sturdy with intricate detail carved into the metal. The Celtic knot-work is continuous and the carving is crisp and sharp.”
The continuous nature of the Celtic knot is fitting for a wedding band, and symbolic of a couple’s love: the design shows each individual loop interwoven with the other.
Greg crafts the jewelry by using a mould. “When the original meets our standards, we make a mould in rubber, which allows us to duplicate the most complex design by injecting wax into the mold.”
The cast ring is then filed, sanded and re-engraved, until it meets Greg and Ingrid’s standards. If they aren’t satisfied with the result, they start the carving process over again.
The couple’s most popular rings are the ones they call “Na Mara” and “Daonnan” designs.
“Na Mara reminds me of the crashing waves of the Atlantic,” Greg explains. “The name ‘Daonnan’ means ‘continually’ or ‘always,’ which represents the continuous knot-work, and is what we hope for all unions that are symbolized by our rings.”
As there is no dictionary for Celtic symbols, their meaning is open to the brides and groom’s interpretation.
“We hope that they attach their own meanings to the rings, making them as personal and beautiful as their relationship,” says the metal-smith. “Fashion changes from season to season, but our past and where we come from will always remain with us. Our rings are a statement of our heritage and a celebration of our future.”
While attire and accessories are a big part of the wedding experience, when it all comes down to it, the most important part is the big day itself. By then, all the hard work and planning will have paid off.
The Big Day
“It really is an honour to be included in a couple’s most intimate expression of love and celebration,” says Síle Tracey. “No matter how many times we are present for these moments, we are always moved by them.
“I love the look on a bride’s face when she sees her bouquet for the first time,” she continues. “Or when she makes her entrance and sees the ceremony area brought to life in exactly the way she imagined, only better.”
For Catherine McLeod, the fantasies she had for her wedding stemmed from her childhood imagination – as a little girl, she dreamed that her future husband would don a kilt on their special day. Their choice of a Celtic theme had a strong influence on the wedding events, and the couple even had a private communion before the rehearsal, using a Celtic communion cup.
“Many guests commented on how ‘something stirred inside’ of them,” remembers McLeod, “and that our wedding inspired them to go out and buy kilts. The theme bonded many guests. The kilts set the tone in the best way, as did the chill-inducing bagpipe processional.”
In addition, the couple ensured that the ceremony connected with them personally by working with the minister to choose specific scripture readings.
“Our aim was for our guests to experience a wedding like they haven’t before,” says McLeod.
Whether you chose a religious ceremony or not, there are plenty of ways you can have it reflect your identity as a couple: handwritten vows, live music, and/or with a particular tradition that’s special to you, such as “the blending of the sands” or Celtic handfasting.
A surprise or two never hurts, either.
“I had 6 flower-girls who surprised me with a performance of the song L-O-V-E by Nat King Cole,” recalls McLeod, who had something unexpected of her own planned for her new husband. “I surprised him at the reception, having the MC play a video of my 19-year-old self telling the camera the expectations my future husband would have to meet.”
McLeod agrees that setting the “party tone” early on is imperative at the reception.
“The critical time in the dance party is after the father/ daughter and mother/son dances. My groom surprised me with a choreographed Highland Fling performance with his six groomsmen and his sister-in-law. People rushed onto the dance floor right afterwards.”
Guests partied long into the night at the McLeod/Reardon wedding, dancing until 3 a.m. to a blend of Celtic music, Maritime music and pop songs.
“I’ve never seen people dance like that at a wedding,” laughs McLeod.
And while putting the pieces of their wedding together wasn’t easy, McLeod and Reardon made it fun and memorable. For McLeod, her big day is not something that she will soon forget; she has kept the shoes in which she walked down the aisle – red, to match her groom’s kilt.
“Each time I put them on I relive a little piece of my wedding day.”