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Gretna Green’s Century of Romance

© 2005 Deborah Hale

From 1753 to 1857, the Scottish village of Gretna Green was the main destination for couples eloping from England. Gretna’s rise to fame began when Parliament passed a law to prevent clandestine marriages. Before that, boys as young as fourteen and girls as young as twelve could marry without parental consent. The new law raised the age of consent to twenty-one. It also required couples to marry in a church, publish banns for three weeks before the ceremony and record their marriage in the parish register.

These regulations made it much harder for young couples to marry against the wishes of their parents. But the new law did not apply in Scotland, where it was still possible for couples as young as sixteen to marry without parental consent. Because Gretna Green was the first changing post across the Scottish border for stagecoaches on the main route from London to Edinburgh, it was there that most eloping couples were married.

Anvil Priests

Not only were Scottish marriage laws more lax about age of consent, there was also no requirement to post banns, marry in a church or even have a clergyman present. Couples only needed their marriage proclaimed in front of two witnesses. Gretna Green quickly developed a thriving trade in weddings, with villagers making money officiating at weddings in local inns and hostelries. In a town that catered to travelers and their horses, no tradesman was more respected than the blacksmith. Since blacksmiths forged together different kinds of metal on an anvil, which resembled a rustic altar, romantic legends grew up around “anvil priests,” who now forged unions between eloping couples.

Most notable of Gretna’s “anvil priests” were the Paisley family, beginning with Joseph Paisley, who conducted weddings from1753 until his death in 1814. Once, when two anxious couples required his services at the same time, Paisley got mixed up and married the wrong brides and grooms! Paisley’s nephew David Lang, dubbed “Bishop Lang” because he dressed like a clergyman, married many distinguished couples during his thirty-five years in business. After Joseph Paisley’s death, his grandson-in-law, Robert Elliot continued the business, marrying over three thousand couples during his career! David Lang’s son, Simon took over from his father in 1827 and continued for a further thirty years, when a change in Scottish law curtailed Gretna’s wedding industry.

Elopement – Romance or Ruin?

Drivers from Carlisle often brought couples to the “anvil priests” and split the fee with them. Fees ranged from five to fifty guineas for a simple ceremony where the couple stated their names and addresses then freely consented to the marriage. A certificate was filled out, after which the groom placed a ring on the bride’s finger. The couple could then retire to a local inn to consummate their union before returning to England to face the wrath of angry families and the censure of Society.

At that time elopement was a scandal that could bring disgrace upon the entire family, as Lydia Bennett almost did in Pride and Prejudice. Fathers often went to great lengths to intercept the couple and bring a runaway daughter home. Dishonorable men sometimes employed the ruse of a Gretna elopement to lure naďve young women to their ruin. Believing she was to going be married, a girl might be persuaded to share his bed at an inn during the journey north. The next morning, she would wake to find herself abandoned by her seducer.

True Elopement Stories

Over the years Gretna saw many interesting elopements. In 1782 the Earl of Westmoreland and banking heiress Sarah Child eloped with her father in hot pursuit. Though he caught up with them near the border and shot one of their horses, they escaped to wed in Gretna. Sixty years later, history repeated itself when their granddaughter eloped to Gretna with a young officer.

In 1771, a young couple from Cumberland eloped only to learn her father was preparing an ambush on the road ahead. Undaunted, they hired a boat to sail them across Solway Firth to Scotland. Again her father pursued them. In a violent storm, his boat sank and one of the sailors drowned. Thanks to the skill and courage of their crew, the lovers reached shore safely and were married in Gretna Green.

A notorious wedding took place in 1826 when Edward Gibbon Wakefield abducted a fifteen-year-old heiress from her boarding school near Liverpool. He took her to Gretna where he persuaded her to marry him under false pretenses. Wakefield assumed the girl’s father would accept the marriage rather than cause a scandal, but he was wrong. Wakefield was tried, convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. The marriage was annulled.

Another local story tells of a German nobleman who eloped with an English lady, aided by John and Charles Wesley. According to local tradition, the couple adopted a little girl from Gretna. It is possible nobleman may have had some connection to Count Zinzendorf, founder of the Moravian church, who knew the Wesley brothers.

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Fictional Elopement Stories

Stories like these have provided inspiration for many romance novels. My Regency novella "Cupid Goes to Gretna" and novel Lady Lyte’s Little Secret involve a mismatched young couple who head for Gretna, hoping her brother and his aunt will follow them and reconcile their own romance along the way. They don’t realize Lady Lyte has a secret that will complicate matters.

Other Harlequin/Mills & Boon Historical authors have also used Gretna Green in their stories. Diane Gaston’s The Wagering Widow opens with a Gretna elopement. The hero and heroine of Joanna Maitland’s Bride of the Solway marry in Gretna, too. And more Gretna stories are in the works. With so much romance, adventure and drama surrounding the place, it is likely readers will be enjoying stories about Gretna Green elopements for many years to come!


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