The Gretna Green marriage is something of a theme in historical romances. A couple from England, desperate to marry, perhaps under 21 years old and opposed by parents or guardians, make a dash for the border. The reason they needed to do this? Under the Marriage Act of 1753 (also known as Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act), clandestine or common-law marriages in England were made illegal. All marriages were required to have an official ceremony performed by a Church of England priest, unless the couple was Jewish or Quaker. The Act also required parental consent for parties under 21 years old and enforced the publication of Banns. This Act also applied in Wales and Ireland. However, it did not apply to Scotland as Scotland was under its own legal system.
The main reasons for Gretna marriages were that one or both of the participants were underage and did
not have parental consent to marry. In Scotland, in contrast, the age of consent was 12 for girls and 14 for boys. There were also couples who wished to get married in a hurry and those who wished to do so in secret. Some of the brides were abducted heiresses, as in the infamous Shrigley Abduction case of 1826 when Edward Gibbon Wakefield abducted 15-year-old Ellen Turner and forced her into marriage.
Not all the marriages in Gretna Green were of English couples. Naturally a number of local couples got married there as well. Also there were quite a few “cross-border” marriages between people in the northern counties of England and the southern counties of Scotland.
Most interesting, perhaps, were the “reverse elopements,” those couples from elsewhere in Scotland who made runaway matches at Gretna perhaps on their way south to England. Since they could easily have married anywhere in Scotland it's fascinating to see that they chose Gretna Green. The marriage records show several of these matches including Henry Byres and Sarah McDonald, from Aberdeen and Perth respectively and a number of couples from Edinburgh and Glasgow, including David Blyth and Ellen Todd, and Catherine Bowie and George Galloway.
The marriage records also show a considerable number of Irish couples marrying in Scotland in order to thwart the Irish marriage laws. However Gretna Green was not the most popular venue for this; instead they headed for Portpatrick in Wigtownshire on the far west coast because that was where there was a daily packet boat service from Ireland.
Gretna Green was not the only Scottish Border village where such marriages took place. Gretna was the first village over the border on the main west coast route from England but it was not the closest place if you were heading north from London. In stories, runaway couples so often head off up the Great North Road to Scotland. This would take you to Coldstream Bridge or Mordington or Lamberton Toll (pictured above), which are all on the eastern side of the country. In order to get to Gretna from London and the east you would need to take a left turn at Boroughbridge in Yorkshire onto a road that crossed the country from east to west. This route would take you to Penrith and from there to Carlisle and through Gretna Green to Glasgow, just as the road still does today! This is quite a hike for anyone. A couple would have to be determined to go to Gretna as opposed to any of the other border villages.
It was important for a couple to make sure that they really were on Scottish territory when the marriage took place. The Berwick toll keeper who usually did the weddings once a couple crossed out of Berwick’s boundaries into Scotland actually got sent to prison for performing the ceremony in Berwick town itself – which was in England.
The blacksmith was not the only person who could marry a couple. Under Scotland’s “irregular marriage” traditions anybody could carry out marriages whether they were the farmer, the blacksmith, the toll masters, or the landlord of the local tavern, a passing highwayman or the local smugglers.
The eloping couple didn't necessarily need to go to Scotland – the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man allowed for clandestine marriages before their laws were changed.
It was not until the Lord Brougham Act of 1856 that the Scottish marriage laws were tightened. After that the couples were required to be resident in the parish for 21 days before the ceremony although that requirement no longer applies today.
Today Gretna Green remains one of the favourite places to tie the knot because of its romantic associations. It is estimated that one in six Scottish marriages takes place there with couples visiting from around the world. But if you plan a Gretna Green marriage, make sure to specify the Gretna Green bit rather than asking to wed in Gretna – they are two different places! Gretna was a planned town, built in the early 20th century. Not as romantic as Gretna Green!
Do you enjoy elopement stories? Do you have a favourite story featuring a runaway marriage, perhaps involving Gretna Green or another location?
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