“How far, how far to Gretna? ‘Tis years and years away,
And chaise and four will nevermore fling dust across the day;
But as I ride the Carlisle road, where life and love have been,
I hear again the beating hooves go through to Gretna Green.”
Bonjour Jean-Claude, Janice et Marie-Agnès! Hello again from Scotland!
Isn’t this an exciting time of year? Spring is not far off, for when I paid our milk bill last week, I learned from the farmer that his first lambs had been born. As soon as the shed is full, they’ll go out to the new grass, many to the big field that surrounds our house.
It was good to hear, dear friends, that Scotiana is being read by more and more people, and pleasing for us to know that our post on St Valentine (‘St Valentine comes to Glasgow’) was the most popular on 14th February!
I do admire that line by my old schoolmate, Jim Gilchrist (of The Scotsman): “If ever a man – or a saint – could be said to amount to more than the sum of his parts, that man was St Valentine.” There do seem to be rather a lot of relics of the Saint about; on the other hand, there were in history at least two quite separate Valentines – so some room for confusion. But it’s a lovely idea, don’t you think, to have a patron saint of romance?
The small Dumfriesshire towns of Gretna and Gretna Green – almost a mile apart – are particularly busy on 14th February (and also in high summer) for it’s possible to make a booking up to a year ahead to be married there. How different everything used to be, when young runaways would arrive at all hours wishing to be married instantly! For almost 200 years, couples travelling from England were able to take advantage of the Scottish practice of ‘Marriage by Declaration'; provided that they were both over 16, a couple had only to stand on Scottish soil and declare, in the presence of two witnesses, that they were husband and wife! And that was it – they were legally married, with no need to seek parental approval.
Until 1754, Gretna Green had been an unremarkable place, a tiny cluster of whitewashed cottages – including an inn – on the main road between London and Edinburgh. In that year, however, the marriage laws in England were changed, so that only those over 21 could get married without their parents’ consent. And all marriages had to be approved by the Church. Too many young people from rich families, it seems, had been choosing partners of whom their parents disapproved!
Soon Lord Hardwicke’s Act of Parliament brought a steady stream of young lovers north to Scotland. Most, of course, had run away from home. They travelled slowly and uncomfortably by stagecoach; the ‘Carlisle’ horses were changed at the inn at Gretna (11 miles further on, and the first stop on the Scottish side of the border). Anxious and fearful in case their parents should catch up with them, the young runaways would ask – please, can we be married here, now? Gretna Green’s romantic image was born!
Today, we think of the Old Blacksmith’s Shop – the ‘smithy’ – whenever Gretna is mentioned; and, with the horses for the coach service being changed in the village, it was natural that there should be a blacksmith there from the earliest times. Yet the astonishing thing is that none of the first Gretna marriage ‘priests’ were actually blacksmiths by trade. (Strictly speaking, of course, there was no need to have anyone at all to conduct the wedding; but it seemed right to have ‘someone in charge’ – someone to take the part played by the priest or celebrant in a religious ceremony.)
George Gordon, the first ‘priest’, was a former soldier, and wore military uniform while performing marriages. Joseph Pasley (or Paisley) a smuggler and notorious drunkard, dressed up like a minister of the Church to conduct weddings in his cottage. On Pasley’s death in 1814, his nephew, David Lang, took over. Marriage was a profitable business!
Most memorable was the Gretna ‘Bishop,’ John Linton, who had married more than a thousand couples at Gretna Hall before his death in 1851. This was the inn favoured by the rich and the famous, and Linton, a refined and dignified man, knew exactly how to treat his aristocratic guests. Captains, generals, and gentlemen of all sorts married at the Hall. In 1846, an Italian prince came – Carlo Ferdinando, brother of the King of Naples – followed in 1847 by an Italian duke!
So, there was no blacksmith at Gretna who conducted weddings in the days of the stagecoaches. Yet even Charles Dickens, the novelist (who stayed at Gretna Hall in 1852) thought that the village blacksmith performed marriage ceremonies! The idea probably arose because the house of one of the ‘priests’ had a sign outside depicting a blacksmith’s shop; a young couple were shown joining their hands over the anvil, while the smith brought down his hammer to bless the union.
A new railway service from Blackpool via the Lake District brought large numbers of tourists to Gretna Green in the early 1900’s, and the visitors simply refused to believe that the ‘smithy’ – the blacksmith’s shop – was not the special marriage place! Taking advantage of all this interest, its owner decided in 1907 to convert the smithy to a marriage museum – and, very soon afterwards, the first ‘anvil wedding’ finally took place there.
Richard Rennison was the best-known of the modern anvil ‘priests’, conducting over 5000 marriages between 1927 and 1940. Marriage by Declaration ended that year – amid the turmoil of the Second World War; perhaps there had been a rising tide of bigamy? The marriage ‘priests’ were swept away, to be replaced by professional registrars appointed throughout Scotland – only they and ministers of religion could now legally perform wedding ceremonies.
A new registration office was opened, not at Gretna Green but in the town of Gretna. It was situated in a modest, single-storey building (which I once visited, although I didn’t get married that day!) The story of this little office is the story of its world-famous registrar, Miss Pat Bryden, MBE, who spent her entire working life there. (I seem to recall that the entrance was shared with a dentist’s surgery; you turned right for Miss Bryden’s, left for Mr Boon to have your tooth filled!) After marrying more than 10,000 couples, Miss Bryden herself got married – in church – at the age of 59, and retired soon afterwards. “I really didn’t think it would ever happen to me,” she said. “I am very, very happy.”
Miss Bryden’s small office could not cope with the demand for summer weddings, so a handsome new building was opened in 1991; containing three separate marriage suites, it is decorated and furnished in the Glasgow Style associated with the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Some couples go on to visit one of the blacksmiths for the fun part of their wedding – to be ‘married’ again over the anvil; most today are in their 30’s, and many are marrying for the second time. A typical Gretna wedding is now quite a sophisticated affair; older couples have more money to spend, and often do things in style. About half the brides wear beautiful long dresses, and many arrive in Rolls-Royces or horse-drawn carriages.
The principal change in recent years is that (since Summer 2002) registrars are now able, by arrangement, to conduct wedding ceremonies outwith their own registration offices – but only in a number of ‘approved venues’, mostly hotels.
See the webpage: http://www.gretnaonline.net
Marie-Agnès, Janice, Jean-Claude, wouldn’t it be nice if some readers were to share with us their memories of being married at Gretna?
You know, we still have, lying around somewhere, a copy of the little green guide book ‘Gretna – Your Wedding’. The advertisers include a ‘trained soprano’ (the best kind, really!) and a poet. And one hotel has an interesting brass bed that ‘does not jingle’. Just the thing when you’re tired after a long and busy day!
A bientôt, Chers Amis.