The reason for Gretna Green being so famous as an destination for eloping couples is not that it is a particularly pretty village or because it has a lovely church or anything so romantic; it was simply the first village you got to when you crossed the Scottish border when travelling on the old coach road from London.
The recent talk of devolution of Scotland is nothing new – laws in Scotland have in many cases been very different from those in England and Wales for centuries and the marriage laws are a case in point. In 1753 there was a new Act of Parliament passed in England which prevented any couple marrying if they were not 21 years old unless they had their parents’ consent.
Since the age of marriage in Scotland was fourteen for boys and twelve for girls, with what their parents thought being beside the point, Scotland became the first port of call for any couple who wanted to get married in England or Wales when they were still minors.
Dashing across the border, often with outraged parents in hot pursuit, they would come to the blacksmith’s forge. Scotland not only had a very low age of consent but there was a law which allowed what were called ‘irregular marriages’. This made getting married so simple it seems almost unbelievable today (unless you count getting married in Vegas, of course).
All a couple had to do was to declare that they wished to get married in the presence of two witnesses. A third person could then ‘officiate’ and the marriage was sealed. As the blacksmith at Gretna Green had a handy anvil which made a good substitute for an altar, he soon had a flourishing sideline in weddings.
It was so famous that it was already a tourist attraction, whether you wanted to get married or not, as early as 1887. Some people believe that a marriage solemnized at Gretna Green is not totally legal but it is just as binding as any other.
Nowadays the forge is a recognized wedding venue and is visited by many thousands of couples a year from all over the world, all wanting ‘Gretna Green’ on their marriage certificates.
Over the years laws have changed and now the age of consent for marriage in Scotland is sixteen, in common with the rest of the UK. Where the law differs is that this age is with or without parental consent; elsewhere in Britain it is eighteen without the parents’ agreement.
For a while in the recent past there was a 21 day residency requirement, but this has now been lifted. Although there is little advantage these days in eloping to Gretna Green, it has to be said that it remains one of the most romantic gestures that a couple can make.
Other villages in the area were also used for weddings in the early days and had one of them become the venue of choice, we might be talking today of an elopement to Mordington or Paxton Toll instead of Gretna Green. Perhaps they didn’t have a blacksmith with quite the entrepreneurial foresight as the one at Gretna!