Gretna Green: The bit of Scotland where English people go to get married
Gretna Green has been a hotspot for tying the knot since the 18th Century. But why do people still choose to walk down its many aisles?
The Scottish village of Gretna Green – population 2,700 – hosts almost two weddings per person per year.
The estimated 5,000 marriages that take place every year seem extraordinary if you consider that a mere 3,000 weddings took place across the entire county of neighbouring Cumbria – population 500,000 – in 2011.
Gretna’s status as the ultimate wedding destination comes from its position just north of the Scottish border.
In 1754, an English law stopped couples under 21 marrying without their parents’ permission. But in Scotland it was permitted for girls from the age of 12, and for boys aged 14 or older. Moreover, anyone in Scotland could marry a couple by “declaration”.
Young star-crossed lovers in England would elope and Gretna was the first town they would come to, two miles over the border. Enterprising blacksmiths set themselves up as “anvil priests”, carrying out the ceremony in return for a drink or a few guineas. One blacksmith wrote to the Times in 1843, specifying that he alone had performed around 3,500 marriages in the town over 25 years.
Several attempts were made to curb the phenomenon – which one MP for Newcastle described in 1855 as “lowering the habits, injuring the character, and destroying the morality of the people of the northern counties of England”. A year later an act was introduced to require a “cooling-off period” of 21 days’ residency in the parish in which a couple wished to marry.
In 1940 the institution of “marriage by declaration” was outlawed in Scotland and in 1977 English couples could finally get married without parental consent at 18.