Gretna dream: Why English lovers eloped to Scotland

A runaway couple get married at Gretna Green

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The tradition of English couples heading to Gretna Green to marry is rooted in Scottish law and the "irregular marriage", just one of Scotland's historical wedding traditions.

It is hard to think of anything less romantic than the pre-nuptial agreement. Anticipating the break-up and who gets what, before the knot is even tied.

Today's celebrity culture may get the blame, but the marriage contract is not a modern Hollywood invention.

"They go back as far as marriage itself," says Scottish author and historian Professor Bruce Durie.

"There are many examples in Scottish legal records - back to the 1500s and before."

Rather than celebrating love, weddings were often about clarity over inheritance.

Scottish wedding traditions

Bride and groom
  • Blackening: A pre-wedding ritual where the bride and groom are 'captured' by their friends, 'blackened' with treacle, soot and flour, then paraded through their village
  • The Scramble: Depending on the region either the bridegroom or the father of the bride will throw money from the wedding car, prompting children to grab as many coins as possible
  • Feet washing: The bride has her feet washed by an older, married woman in this good luck ritual
  • Handfasting: During the marriage ceremony the couple will have their hands symbolically tied together with cord or ribbon

"Let's say one family was cash rich and the other one was land rich, an agreement would be drawn up. It would specify the date by which the marriage was to take place, arrangements for who lived in the house after death, what happened to the 'tocher' (dowry), when it was handed over.

"And then typically what would happen is the families would get together, have a wee bit of a party to celebrate, the happy couple would go upstairs and consummate things. So having signed the deed they had then done the deed and there was no going back."

The marriage laws of 18th century Scotland appear astonishingly lax. Girls aged 12 and boys aged 14 were able to marry without parental approval.

By contrast, from 1753, England's Marriage Act sought to prevent couples under the age of 21 marrying without their parents' consent.

And it was this that prompted a rush for the border.

On the main route from London to Scotland the first stop over the border was Gretna Green in Dumfries and Galloway. The village's blacksmith shop presented the first opportunity for a wedding.

"In those days the blacksmith was the lifeblood of any village," says Frank Clarkson, Gretna Green's Blacksmith Guide.

"The 'anvil priests' would perform a ceremony for a wee dram or a few guineas, depending on your status and financial standing.

"It is said that, like the metals he forged, the blacksmith would join couples together in the heat of the moment, but bind them for eternity."

Start Quote

Like the metals he forged, the blacksmith would join couples together in the heat of the moment, but bind them for eternity”

End Quote Frank Clarkson Gretna Green's Blacksmith Guide

This ceremony was possible due to the Scottish rule of "irregular marriage", which meant that a couple could tie the knot without church or state involvement.

There were three forms of irregular marriage, as Professor Durie explains.

"One was a promise between two people... married in front of witnesses.

"Also if two people just decided to call themselves married and then live together as if they were - openly man and wife - that was cohabitation [with habit and] repute."

"Third was marriages conducted by ministers of religion but not according to the proper form - without banns [proclamations of marriage] being posted, not in a church, not on a Sunday, that kind of thing."

A lucrative business

The blacksmith was often too busy to perform ceremonies, leaving locals only too happy to take over duties, as Mr Clarkson explains.

"Anybody could carry out marriages. The farmer, the blacksmith, the toll masters, or the landlord of the local tavern.

"Not all of them were upstanding members of society. Some of these [people] were smugglers and pedlars."

Business was good for those who performed the ceremonies, as was the case for an illiterate man known as Tam the Piper. He was made bankrupt in Cumbria but escaped over the border to avoid being prosecuted.

In Scotland he found an easy way to make money.

A bride and groom's hands on the anvil at the old smithy at Gretna Green The sound of the blacksmith's hammer and anvil became synonymous with weddings in Gretna Green

"He would tout for business as couples came over the border," says Mr Clarkson.

"And he played his pipes so he could charm them in. He could not write his name but his wife would make out the marriage certificate, give it to the couple and they would merrily go back over the border, happily married."

Business was so good that Tam set up a marquee at local fairs to meet the demand for ceremonies.

"It was big business for this man," says Mr Clarkson.

Redefining marriage laws

The boom times could not continue indefinitely and a change to Scots Law came with the Lord Brougham Act of 1856. The act required one of the couple to be resident in the parish for 21 days before the ceremony.

This "cooling off period" slowed the flow of runaways and had an impact on the profits of the wedding business, but canny locals found a supplementary trade in housing the temporary lodgers for the required three weeks.

There have been changes to Scottish law since those heady days of the 18th century.

Since 1929 both parties must be at least 16 years old, although still no parental consent is required. Irregular marriages ceased to exist with the Marriage Act of 1939, while the residential requirement was removed from the statute in 1977.

The laws surrounding marriage continue to evolve. In 2012 the Scottish Government announced that it would legislate to allow same sex marriage, while Westminster MPs backed a bill to legalise gay marriage in England and Wales in February 2013.

Even now as the definitions of marriage change, the romantic notion of running away to Gretna keeps the town in a prosperous trade. Between 3,000 and 5,000 ceremonies are conducted in the area each year.

Whether those marriages have been preceded by a practical pre-nup remains known only to the brides and grooms.

Find out more about the history of Gretna Green on Digging up your Roots, broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland on Monday 1 April at 13:30. The programme will be available on the BBC iPlayer afterwards.

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