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Gretna Green: Drama, Scandals, and Romance at the Scottish Border

🎶And many a year have gone

As I sing to you this song

She does not age at all

And many for her they fall

And those of lonely bed

Can drink a toast to her instead

Farewell, my belle, my queen

Farewell, my belle, my queen

The ghost of Gretna Green 🎶

~Jack Hardy- Gretna Green

This week we will visit a place that has a fascinating and unique history in Scotland- Gretna Green. So, join us as we head down to Dumfries and Galloway and hear a tale filled with plenty of drama and romance that could only take place in Scotland!

While the tale outlined in the song above at the opening was quite sad, fortunately, many true-life stories have ended happily at Gretna Green. At this point, readers outside of Scotland and the rest of the UK are probably wondering what exactly is Gretna Green and what makes is so special? Think of it like this- Las Vegas is globally known as the place where couples can runoff and elope. Yet, Scotland has its own version that predates Vegas by a couple of centuries. However, to properly answer that question, we must step back in time to set the stage for our romantic drama.

Marriage Practices & Laws- Scotland v. England

In the 1700s, marriage practices and laws were quite different in Scotland compared to England. For centuries in Scotland, ‘handfasting’ ceremonies were a legally binding way for a couple to get married. Essentially, a couple only needed two witnesses as they fasted (joined) hands and declared their desire to be married. Et voilà, they were married! Furthermore, in Scotland, you could marry at the age of 16.

In England, prior to 1754, you needed to be at least 18 years old to marry. Additionally, many families were horrified by the growing market for quick civil marriages. Gretna Green points out that, specifically, “the area around the Fleet Prison in London became a hotbed of ‘quickie’ marriages, where unscrupulous parsons, imprisoned for their debts, set up shop and undertook marriages for anyone who was willing to pay…Instant marriages were conducted at any time of the day or night and the result was that, though most marriages were undoubtedly genuine, some were acts of drunkenness, seduction and bigamy”.

In response to this matrimonial chaos, England passed Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act in 1754. This banned civil weddings in England, thereby requiring everyone to be married in a church, and anyone under the age of 21 had to get parental consent. Cue Gretna Green.

Anvil Priests & Weddings

Desperate young English couples looking to marry quickly realised that they could get around the law by heading up to Scotland. Gretna Green was a convenient location just over the border on the main road coming from London. Picture it- two young lovers are fleeing to marry in Scotland with an angry father-of-the-bride in hot pursuit! What are they to do? Well, they know that time is of the essence and they need to get married as fast as possible, but where should they go?

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Well, it just so happens that nestled in the village of Gretna Green is a blacksmith’s shop that was the first building couples would come across upon entering Scotland. It didn’t take long for the fleeing couples and blacksmith to realise that they clearly had a situation of mutual convenience (and it proved to be quite a lucrative side hustle for the blacksmiths- aka ‘Anvil Priests’).

If the couple were 16 years of age, the blacksmith would conduct a handfasting ceremony with his wife and locals serving as witnesses. It is said that for ‘a wee dram [of whisky] or a few guineas’, the blacksmith would have the couple join hands over his anvil and strike it- “forging the lives of the two lovers together in an unbreakable bond”. Now that’s romance and drama done the Scottish way!

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However, not everyone was happy with this setup. According to Gretna Green, the blacksmith shop “quickly became synonymous, as a hotbed of scandal and intrigue with many daughters from respectable families choosing to flee here to ‘marry a scoundrel’”. In the eyes of many, something needed to be done and it came in the form of the Lord Brougham Act of 1856. That law established a ‘cooling off’ period which required one person in the couple to reside in the parish they wished to be married for at least 21 days.

So, did this stop the Gretna Green anvil weddings? Nope. It might have slowed them down, but many people did not let the cooling off law damper their plans. Instead, couples just got a bit crafty. There were many desperate people who found assistance with sympathetic locals who would let them stay for the 21-day residency period- some even staying in local farmers’ barns!

End of an Era

Centuries of scandal and disapproval by the church establishment eventually took their toll, and, in 1940, an act was passed to ban ‘marriages by declaration’ (handfasting ceremonies). At the time, the age of consent for marriage was still 21 in England. Therefore, couples continued to go to Gretna Green to marry, but did so at a registry office or church. By tradition, many of these couples would visit the Blacksmiths Shop after their official ceremony to get their wedding vows blessed over the anvil.

Gretna Green Today

According to VisitScotland, “around 5,000 couples” marry in Gretna and Gretna Green each year. Gretna Green is still a popular destination for couples looking to marry over the historic anvil. In fact, they have updated the experience quite a bit since it became a family business in 1885 now blending the old with the new (e.g. there is now a beautiful boutique hotel across the street from the Blacksmiths Shop). Be sure to check out their website for more information.

However, we want you to know that it is also a fun place to visit even if there isn’t a wedding involved. Last September, we were visiting the Dumfries and Galloway region and decided to visit the historic area. Gretna is a lovely town that has plenty of shopping, restaurants, hotels, and guest houses for those visiting.

Finn and Sawyer also had a wonderful time exploring the grounds of Gretna Green. If you are looking for a bite to eat, they have their Blacksmiths Foodcourt which offers food they describe as, “traditional, wholesome meals reflecting the flavour of Scotland and the local region”. In addition to their foodcourt, they also have some fantastic shopping opportunities. The products range from brand names to fun gift ideas.

Of course, most importantly, we highly recommend that you visit the Famous Blacksmiths Shop Museum. For a nominal entry fee (£3.75), you can see the ‘virtually untouched’ blacksmith’s cottage and workshop including the famous wedding anvil.

We hope that you have enjoyed this tale of drama, scandals, and romance. If you are ever driving up from England into Scotland- be sure to stop at the Blacksmiths Shop in Gretna Green. However, we do not recommend you have an angry future father-in-law in hot pursuit. 😉

Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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