Gretna[dead link], together with Gretna Green, is a border town in Dumfries and Galloway in southwest Scotland, with a population of 3110 in 2020. It's been famous as a wedding venue for over 250 years, a tradition that began when English marriage laws became restrictive, so couples eloped across the border to Scotland. Those laws have modernised and there's now no legal motive for couples to come here, but it's become a tradition and the village's chief industry. There's no other reason to visit, and the village itself isn't much to look at, being carved up by busy railways and motorways, and with hordes of tourists on coach trips.
Protestant Britain rejected the Roman Catholic doctrine that marriage was a Sacrament that could only be conducted by a priest. To the British, the essence of marriage was the consent and mutual vow of any eligible couple. Most couples married in church, but some did so by other means. In the late 17th and early 18th C “irregular” weddings became the fashion, even the majority, in London and in Scotland, but not elsewhere in England.
The crucial legal point was that the wedding arrangements might be irregular, but the marriage itself (if proved) was utterly regular and binding, with all the rights and obligations so entailed. (Naturally there were all sorts of other sexual relationships, scandalous or otherwise, but those had no legal standing.) The wealthy classes got into a moral panic that their sons and daughters would be duped into marriage, with a post-pub frolic with some chancer being declared binding. This led in 1753 to “Hardwicke’s Marriage Act” which tightened control. Those marrying had to be over 21 or have parental consent, have banns proclaimed in church (which would alert the parents), and be married by an Anglican minister: hard luck on Catholics and others.
This Act didn’t apply to Scotland, so if the couple could flee there they could marry, straightaway without any period to establish a legal domicile, but they’d need witnesses and a marriage certificate to wave in the face of cruel Sir Jasper when he caught up with them. A quickie-wedding industry grew up and the fashion morphed into one for eloping to Gretna Green, the Reno of Britain. Here the weddings were held “over the anvil” in the blacksmith’s shop – and still are.
Another notable centre was Port Patrick near Stranraer: Ireland had the same laws as England, so Irish couples would sail over for a quickie-wedding and be on the boat home same evening. Other border villages such as Coldstream saw some of the wedding trade, but the eastern land route was less popular than the packet ships between London and Edinburgh. Three days of upchucking beats nine days in a jolting stagecoach; and if you needed a divorce (unobtainable then in England) in order to re-marry, then you had to be in Edinburgh, to start legal proceedings and establish a domicile.
Hardwicke’s Act was repealed in 1836: English law was loosened and Scottish law was tightened, so there was less difference, and even less from 1940 when “irregular” marriage was ended in Scotland. Yet still they came! It was now tradition rather than fashion, and couples married in Gretna Green not because they were unable to do so at home, but because they chose. Some 5000 marriages are still conducted here each year. One example was Joschka Fischer (foreign minister of Germany 1998-2005) whose first marriage was here in 1967. He's now on his fifth.
Trains run from Carlisle every hour or so, taking 11 mins to 1 Gretna Green then west via Annan to Dumfries. Some then continue north to Sanquhar, Kilmarnock and Glasgow Central, taking 2 hours 30 min. It may be quicker to change in Carlisle for the London Euston - Glasgow trains, which hurtle past east of the village.
Stagecoach Bus 79 / 179 runs from Carlisle every 30 mins via Longtown to Gretna (45 mins) and Annan; Bus 79 continues to Dumfries. Both English and Scottish bus passes are accepted on this route.
By road, the motorway changes its name and numbering at the border. Exit M6 at jcn 45 for Gretna, but for Gretna Green stay on for half a mile to exit at A74(M) jcn 22, which is also the turnoff for A75 towards Dumfries and Stranraer. Non-motorway traffic can follow the old road, which parallels the M6 from Carlisle.
Gretna (the southern part) and Gretna Green (the northern, with most weddings) are only half a mile apart, so walk, trying not to trail your pristine white wedding dress.
- 1 Famous Blacksmith's Shop (Gretna Green Story Museum), Gretna Green DG16 5EA. Daily 9.00-17.00, summer to 20:00. Exhibition of Scots wedding traditions, and what happened to the less-than lawful. The space is often used for weddings so you'll have to work around these. It's also a self-service restaurant and bar, coach park for Shearings Tours, and retail, retail, retail. £3.75.
- 2 Quintinshill is a memorial to Britain's worst rail disaster, at 6.49 am on 22 May 1915. There were passing loops either side of the main double track, both occupied by freight trains. A northbound slow passenger train was therefore switched to wait on the southbound main line to allow two late-running sleepers to overtake - the first of these passed safely. The signalmen were changing shifts and overlooked the continuing obstruction, and a southbound troop train piled into it. A minute later, the second northbound sleeper hit the wreckage. Gas from a train-lighting system escaped, flames engulfed all five trains, and at least 227 people were killed.
- 3 Bonshaw Tower is a 16th century turret in Kirtlebridge village. Yes, it's a wedding venue, what else?
- See Lockerbie for Thomas Carlyle's birthplace in Ecclefechan.
- See Annan for The Devil's Porridge, brewed in Eastriggs 5 miles west.
- Walk all the way to England. The border is the little River Sark which runs south to join the River Esk. In Gretna Green it's at the east end of Main St, in Gretna it's southeast on B7076 towards Longtown. Cameras zoom in on the "Scotland welcomes you" sign once you realise that the border bridge is prosaic and the river a muddy creek.
- Look up your ancestors: the Blacksmith's has complete records of marriages here over 120 years. See also the National Records of Scotland, which are comprehensive back to 1855.
- 1 Gretna Gateway Outlet Village. Daily 10:00-18:00. The Gateway has 50 stores and 5 cafés. Free parking, dog-friendly, some bargains, you could be in any retail park anywhere.
- Most catering is for the functions within the hotels and wedding venues, and there's not much free-standing, but see Gretna Green Blacksmiths above.
- Solway Pizzeria nearby on Main Street is open daily 16:00-00:00.
- The Outlet Store in Gretna (see "Buy") has various eating places.
- foodmall@gretna biker friendly cafe, 119 Central Ave, Gretna, DG16 5AQ, ☏ +44 1461 337561. Small cafe.
- Queen's Head is on Gretna Green Main Street, open M-W 17:00-23:00, Th F 17:00-00:00, Sa 12:00-00:00, Su 12:30-23:00.
- Lots of mid-range hotels, all here for the same reason.
- 1 Gretna Hall Hotel, Gretna Green DG16 5DY, ☏ +44 1461 338257. Historic 1710 manor house on ten acres of gardens, accommodates weddings, family celebrations, business meetings and coach parties. Attractive exterior, some of the rooms are a let-down. B&B double £70.
- The Gables Hotel Gretna, 1 Annan Rd, Gretna, DG16 5DQ (From the train station, follow sign to Gretna under the underpass. From there, head up Mackies Drive until you end up on the main road, Annan Road, where the Co-op is. The hotel is in the opposite direction to the Co-op.), ☏ +44 1461 338300. Romantic hotel within walking distance of the train station.
Gretna and its approach roads have 4G from all UK carriers. As of March 2022, 5G has not reached this area.
- In Annan find out what goes into "the devil's porridge" - a wartime secret.
- Dumfries is where the poet Robert Burns spent his last years.
- Carlisle is a pleasant market town with a crumbly castle.
- Hadrian's Wall stretches from coast to coast, but the nearby western sections are just paths through the fields, agreeable but unremarkable. You need to go 20 miles or so east to reach substantial masonry, Roman camps, and the natural redoubt of Whin Sill.
|Routes through Gretna|
|Glasgow ← Lockerbie ←||N S||→ merges with → Carlisle → Preston|
|Stranraer ← Dumfries ← Annan ←||W E||→ merges with (S)|