Why is Gretna Green famous for weddings?

The Scottish building closest to the English border (photo by shirokazan - CC-BY)

Gretna Green, a small village in Scotland just across the border from England, is renown for the many weddings celebrated there: more than 5000 each year and one in six Scottish weddings. It is especially known as a place where young couples eloped to.

It all started in 1754, when Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act took affect, formally known as An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage. Contrary to popular belief, the act was not directed against minors’ marrying, but rather to prevent marriages within Fleet Prison and its environs. Those weddings were exempt from canon (church) law, which required that marriages take place in the parish of one of the parties and that banns be posted and read in the church on three Sundays prior to the wedding, or that a license issued by a bishop allowed marriage in another parish. Canon law also required the couple to be of age or have their parents’ permission, but that was not the primary concern of the act. In the 1740s, half of the marriages in London were “Fleet Marriages,” performed by Anglican clergymen, the only strict requirement, but avoiding the control of the Anglican Church. The act was the first statutory legislation to require formal marriage.

Prior to the act, there had also been dispute about the validity of a Scottish marriage, which only required the couple to declare their intentions before two witnesses, Scotland not being subject to Anglican canon law. Lord Hardwicke’s act only applied to England and Wales.

Clandestine marriages in England were eliminated. Couples wishing to marry outside their parish or to avoid banns, eloped to Scotland, where, in fact, a boy and girl 14 and 12 years of age, respectively, could marry without parental consent (raised to 16 for both in 1929. In England and Wales, they must now be 18 to marry without consent). Until 1940, a Scottish marriage still only required two witnesses. Since then, it must be conducted by a minister of a religion or an authorized registrar, but there is no residency requirement, as in England.

In the 18th century, getting to Scotland was more of a problem. Gretna Green only rose to fame after a bridge was built in the 1770s and the stage road made it more convenient to reach. Since almost anyone could conduct a marriage with two witnesses, a couple could exchange vows. The two blacksmiths in Gretna Green became popular, the smiths being referred to as “anvil priests.”

Now it takes only four or five hours by the train from Euston or King’s Cross station in London to Gretna Green.

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  • Efrem says:

    Please correct the spelling of the word meaning religious law to “canon.” “Cannon law,” if such a thing existed, would probably refer to rules enforced at the point of a gun! :)

  • eiffel says:

    Thanks for the correction, Efrem. We’ve fixed the incorrect usage.

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