September 21, 2023
The loving cup, the cup of welcome, the cup of trust; why is the quaich such a powerful symbol of friendship, amity and peace? The simple answer is because these values were once rare in Scotland. Life north of the border was nasty, brutish and short, and our history makes ‘Game of Thrones’ pale by comparison.
Few mediaeval monarchs ascended to the Scottish throne without a struggle and most left it against their will. James the First was murdered by his uncle in 1437; James the Second was killed in 1460 and James the Third – whose death at the hands of his kin had been prophesied – was murdered after a battle against his own 15-year-old son.
It does make you wonder just what was going through the mind of their descendant, James the Sixth and First when he chose to give a quaich as a wedding present to his bride, Princess Anne of Denmark - especially as his own mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been put to death on the orders of his cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England.
Whatever James’ rationale, 1589 was the year that the giving of a quaich formally entered into the history of Scottish marriage. History does not record its appearance, but if you visit the Museum of Scotland, you can see a very beautiful 18th century example formed from alternate strips of ebony and ivory, with silver staves. Quaichs have a shallow bowl, and their shape echoes that of the scallop shell which was their inspiration. The name is generally believed to come from the Gaelic word for cup, ‘cuach’ - although there are other possible derivations - and it ends with the same soft sound as loch and broch, rather than lake, or quake
Traditionally quaichs were made of wood, and they usually had two or more short, projecting handles. Today they are often made from pewter, engraved with lines and bands that recall the staves and hoops of the older, wooden quaichs, but they can be a good deal more elaborate – and expensive.
The bottoms of some quaichs were made of glass, perhaps so the drinker could keep watch on his companions. Others had a double glass bottom in which was kept a lock of hair so the owner could drink to his ‘lady love’. The novelist Sir Walter Scott had several, the most precious of which was said to have been the property of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and to have travelled with the prince on his journey from Edinburgh to Derby during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.
What makes the quaich different from other cups is that it is intended to be offered and taken with both hands. That in itself is a symbol of trust, but there was a very practical reason as well. When both parties had their hands full, it meant neither could hold a weapon at the same time. For the same reason, it fell to the host to drink from the quaich before offering it to a guest; that was the only assurance that the drink had not been poisoned.
Thankfully, we live in less dangerous times, and the quaich is now very much a part of modern marriage. Symbolically, it represents the cup of life, filled with possibilities and its contents, which are both sweet and bitter, signify a couple’s shared journey through the life that is to come.
Because the quaich is Scottish, it’s often assumed that all you should drink from it is whisky, but that would not always have been the tipple of choice. It has been argued that had Robert Burns attended one of the many suppers held in his name, he would have hoped and expected to find claret in his cup rather than ‘barley bree’. Claret was the choice of the sophisticated drinker in Edinburgh at the time, whereas whisky was the drink of the poor, and as an excise man, much of Burns’ time would have been devoted to preventing its illicit distillation
Today, most couples whose weddings I’ve conducted have chosen to drink a whisky from a place that has particular significance to their story; I remember one who chose a 16-year-old double matured Lagavulin because the proposal had taken place on Ardtalla beach overlooking the distillery and recreating that ‘spirit of place’ was important to them. Othershave shared a dram from a special bottle laid down many years in advance by their parents in the hope of such an occasion, but others have cast tradition to the wind.
Champagne is an increasingly popular choice – and a sensible one, given that the first thing that will be thrust into your newly-wed hand on leaving the chapel is likely to be a glass of bubbly – but there are other possibilities, including Scotland’s other national drink, Irn Bru.
Joshua and Raynette’s quaich held a gin-based ‘wedding breakfast cocktail’ which incorporated a generous teaspoon of his mother’s home-made orange marmalade, while Harriet and Stuart opted for a good old cup of tea, but whatever you choose to share, be it whisky, wine or the carbonated non-alcoholic beverage of your choice, fill your quaich to the brim, look into each other’s eyes, and drink to your future happiness.
“Strike hands with me, the glasses brim, the dew is on the heather,
for love is good and life is long, and two are best together.”
There are various toasts that can be spoken as part of the quaich ritual, of which this is the most familiar, but my favourite comes from the American wit and poet Ogden Nash, and it encapsulates all the wedding advice any couple could ever need.
“To keep your marriage brimming,
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
Whenever you’re right, shut up.”
Slàinte mhath, slàinte mhor, as we say in the Highlands.
Tim Maguire is the honorary Humanist chaplain to the University of Edinburgh and a marriage celebrant with Celebrate People https://timmaguire.co