Mention Gretna Green to any fan of Regency or Georgian novels and they instantly see a mental image of young couples racing to the Scottish border for a clandestine marriage. As Valentine’s day approaches it seemed only right to share the background of Gretna Green for those who are unfamiliar with its importance to young rebellious lovers of the past as well as to share my own experience with the border town.
First of all, the popularity of Scotland for elopements began with Harwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753. Before this edict, marriage could be legally made without public notice and having anyone witness the fact. Not all unions were by consent—of the family or of the bride. A fortune hunter might well kidnap his wealthy prey, whisk her off to Fleet street and pay the cleric to marry them. No public notice was required, nor was age much of a deterrent. Girls as young as 12 and boys as young as 14 could legally marry without parental consent.
Needless to say, this did not set well with the parents who had other plans for their offspring and the identity of their mates. Harwicke’s Marriage Act stipulated that all marriages must be conducted in the Church of England by banns or special license and duly witnessed. It also required the bride and groom to have reached their majority (aged 21) or to have parental permission if under the age of 21.
With these restrictions now the law of England, young lovers who did not meet parental approval turned their attention to Scotland. Scotland still had none of these restrictions. In fact, a couple need only to declare in public, witnessed by at least two people, their intent to marry. That was it. Simply announce the intent to marry and they were legally married. Done.
Gretna Green was the nearest town to the border to England at the end of the main road north, so it became the town of choice for those on the run from parental control. One of the first buildings in sight of the border might well have been the blacksmith’s, but, in truth, more weddings were conducted in the village church. That does not prevent the current population of Gretna Green from perpetuating the myth of the Smithy pounding the anvil to symbolize the forging of a marriage, however.
Several years ago my husband and I , with my sister and brother–in-law, traveled to England and Scotland on a short tour. When we reached Gretna Green the tour guide asked if anyone wanted to “marry” at the blacksmith’s. As we had very recently celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary (and I was one of the few in the group who understood the significance of the town’s reputation), we volunteered. My brother-in-law and sister became our witnesses—along with the 20 other people on the bus—when I married my lover at Gretna Green. I already had a wedding ring, so my “new” husband bought me a heather broach to commemorate our union.
One final note. Scotland did not change its marriage laws until the 20th century. The tour guide told us that many a GI during the world war awoke after a night of carousing and alcohol fueled promises to discover himself married to the woman he’d pursued the night before.