Gretna Green

The month of June is over, so today I’d like to talk about weddings. Gretna Green is a famous  historical destination for eloping couples and is featured in countless historical romances. Because nothing says “commitment” like the unwillingness to keep trying to convince a girl’s parents to give her hand in marriage, or even waiting until both partners are over the age of 21. They gots to get married and they gots to do it now!


The Old Blacksmith’s Shop in Gretna Green, a village just outside of Carlisle and just inside Scotland, was the place for drive-thru weddings since The Marriage Act of 1753 was passed in England.  Along with officially making it impossible to wed before the age of 21 without parental consent, the law also stated that either banns should be read before a wedding or a special license must be procured.  Like most things England enforced in her complicated relationship with Scotland, the Marriage Act didn’t fly with the Scots. Their reaction was basically, “Screw that!” and hence the elopements.

Gretna Green didn’t have casinos like Vegas, but it did have drunken anvil priests and there’s a large inn in the village where the couple could stay to make sure the “deed is done” before furious family members of either the bride or groom could arrive to prevent a clandestine marriage.

The deed would be done in a room like this.

The deed would be done in a room like this.

...or a coach like this, if they're so inclined.

…or a coach like this, if they can’t get a room. And, btw, get a room!

The best thing about it is that the weddings provided a living for the working class people of the borders. Not everyone over the age of three can be employed in the mines or the mills. One of the first anvil priests was Joseph Paisley, an ex tobacconist and smuggler.

Joseph Paisley, sketchy character, at yer shervish.

Joseph Paisley, sketchy character, at yer shervish.

His granddaughter’s husband, Robert Elliot, not only described Paisley as “grossly ignorant” but also a “mass of fat” who “drank a good deal more than was necessary to his thirst.”  It’s said Paisley was so drunk during one time when he was performing two weddings that he ended up marrying the wrong brides to the wrong grooms. The couples were probably equally drunk, or they would have tried to stop him before the ceremony ended. When the mistake was finally brought to his attention, he is quoted as saying, “Ah weel, juist sort yersels oot.” No wonder he was so sought after. I’d have loved to have this dude perform my wedding. It would have been a riot!

There’s a collection of 19th century carriages in the museum, but for me the main draw for The Old Blacksmith’s Shop were the anecdotes like the one above. You see, in one of the elopement stories, someone died. The year was 1771, Jean and John from Carlisle were itching to get married, so they tried to evade Jean’s father by crossing the border by boat through Solway Firth (an estuary) during a violent storm. One of the seamen who helped them drowned. It wasn’t a good way to start a married life together, but somehow John managed to convince his intended to go ahead. I can imagine how he did it:

Jean: Oh, John… a man died because of us! We practically sent him to his death. Surely this is a sign from God. We’re not only disappointing our families, we’ve affected someone else’s!

John: Sweets, if we don’t get married, that man would have died in vain. Is that what you want? He helped us, he believed in our love. And now you want to dishonor his memory by not seeing this through?

John would have made a good lawyer. No word on whether he made a good husband, though. The couple was “sorted oot” by Paisley.

I’d like to say my husband’s family would have accepted me as the newest member of their family if he and I met in the 1800s. They’re lovely people, but… this would have been the 1800s and things were a little different in those days. In fact, we probably wouldn’t have met at all, because there’s no way I could’ve gone to university. But, if by some strange turn of events we did meet and fall in love, then…we might have eloped, too. I probably wouldn’t have minded being his mistress, but to have children who would grow as both “half-breeds” and bastards would have been just too cruel.

I should have worn a bonnet.

We don’t have kids, but that’s beside the point.

A trend in many of the stories about couples like Jean and John is that they were evading pursuit of angry and disapproving family members, who would often get there too late. Thankfully, not all of them involved a death but there are stories of cross-dressing Lord Chancellors and an impoverished earl marrying an heiress whose granddaughter also ended up in Gretna Green…some days there are even re-enactments of such events. There wasn’t one during our visit, so we tried to do our own version: