Gretna Green is somewhere I’d heard all about long before I even knew where to find it on a map.
It’s shrouded in romantic legend and steeped in history. Like something from a fairytale it’s famous, or possibly infamous, as the place where young English lovers would runaway to get married without the consent of their parents, exploiting a legal loophole in marriage legislation.
In 1754, under the direction of Lord Hardwicke, English law lords tightened marriage regulations so that anyone below the age of 21 could not marry without the consent of their parents and that any marriage must be conducted in a church. It was an attempt to cut down on the irregular marriages across the country that involved seduction, bigamy and fraud.
Scottish law was much less stringent and considered marriage to be a private agreement between two people. The legal union did not require consent or formal ceremony. In the mid 18th century all that was required was for both halves to be over the age of 16 and to declare their intentions to be husband and wife. A simple ‘handfasting’ agreement could take place in private with any two witnesses that happened to be passing.
When news of the relaxed Scottish laws reached the young lovers of England, thousands fled across the border for a hastily arranged, yet legally binding, marriage on foreign soil. Gretna, being one of the first reached villages across the border, became a safe-haven for young elopers on a romantic quest.
The Blacksmiths of Gretna were called upon to perform the handfasting ceremonies as their business was one of the first buildings couples arrived at on the main route from London. Under Scottish law anyone could perform the handfasting and the blacksmiths quickly became known as Anvil Priests, agreeing to conduct marriages in return for a few guineas or a drop of alcohol. To seal the marriage the balcksmith would bring his hammer down upon the anvil sending a ringing sound through the village.
The place has an incredible feeling of romance and a touch of the Romeo and Juliet’s about it but there are many sinister tales as well. The museum has letters and stories of young girls being tricked in to marriage by men of ill repute who were seeking rights to a hefty inheritance. There are many tragic tales of fathers and brothers angrily pursuing the fleeing couples but arriving too late to stop the marriages that tore families apart.
By 1856 protests against the runaway tradition and reputation of Gretna were growing. In an attempt to slow down the number of hasty unions taking place, Lord Chancellor Lord Brougham held a public meeting to obtain suppression of Gretna Green weddings. He was successful in bringing in a ‘Cooling Off’ Act which stipulated that one of the couple must reside in the parish where the couple intended to marry, for a minimum of 21 days before the ceremony could take place. The Act achieved a reduction in the number of anvil weddings at Gretna Green.
In 1940 Scotland bowed to pressure and outlawed handfasting ceremonies all together.
Today many official weddings are still carried out in the Blacksmith’s room and the centre has a museum telling the stories of many who passed through the doors in such a hurry. Visit the coach museum to see some of the carriages that were being used at the time to transport the runaways to their new destiny. There is also a courtship maze where you can work your way back together, if you take the right turns.
Gretna Green was a lovely place to visit. The centre is free to walk around, parking is free and there’s a café and a selection of shops selling souvenirs and locally produced food and crafts.
The museum was, at the time of writing, just £3.50 per person and really worth a look to get a real sense of the history of the place and, for better or for worse, the lives it changed forever.
If you want to runaway to Gretna Green, you’ll find it 10 miles north of Carlisle. 2 minutes from the M74. Leave at junction 45 heading north and junction 22 going south.