Gretna is located in Dumfries and Galloway in South West (Scotland). It is known as a border town, the border with England being just to the south. This entry concerns both Gretna and Gretna Green, which is located on the other side of the M74.
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.
Gretna is well served by road, being just off the M74. Both road and railway fork at Gretna to take traffic to Glasgow or Dumfries; a train trip to Gretna is slightly more difficult since passengers on the main west coast line have to get off at Carlisle and take a train north on the Nith Valley line, which stops for Gretna Green very soon after crossing the border and splitting from the main line.
- 1 Gretna Green Story Museum (The Old Blacksmiths), DG16 5EA. Daily 9.00-17.00 (or 18.00). An exhibition in the traditional wedding venue of the Old Blacksmiths. You may catch a glimpse of a wedding taking place. £3.50.
- 1 Gretna Sunday Market, Central Av, Gretna. Not as large and vibrant as it used to be
- 2 Gretna Gateway Outlet Village. Open 7 days a week 10am to 6pm. Gretna Gateway has 50 stores and 5 cafés.
- Gretna Hall Hotel, Gretna Green, Gretna, Dumfriesshire, DG16 5DY, ☏ . Historic 1710 manor house on ten acres of gardens, accommodates weddings, family celebrations, business meetings and overnight stays.
|Routes through Gretna|
|Glasgow ← Lockerbie ←||N S||→ merges with → Manchester|