This time of year all romantics’ thoughts are with St Valentine and where better to have a romantic time than Scotland. Arguably the most famous place in Old Scotia for lovers is Gretna Green. But why Gretna ?
Gretna Green sits beside the small town of Gretna (Graitney) near the mouth of the River Esk in Dumfries and Galloway. Grainy (the place of gravelly hill from the Old English words for ‘grit’ and ‘hill-spur’) was on the old coaching route from London to Edinburgh and the first stop over the Scottish border. The village sat near the Lochmaben Stone, a megalith used traditionally as a meeting place on the England / Scotland border. Gretna Green was the junction of five old coaching roads and the heart of the “Headless Cross” was the Old Blacksmiths Shop. In days gone by the village blacksmith was the lifeblood of any village.
Gretna became famous in the mid 19th century after the introduction of the Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act in 1754. This prevented marriage of persons under 21 without parental consent. The Act applied to England and Wales only but in Scotland it was possible for boys to marry at 14 and girls at 12 with or without parental consent. Gretna Green was the first village over the Scottish border and when the Border toll road in the 1770s a Mecca for runaways wanting to marry.
The village blacksmith shop was the first building couples reached in Gretna Green. At first couples just presented them self for a ‘marriage by declaration', or ‘handfasting’ (Old Norse handfesta “to strike a bargain by joining hands";) ceremony. All that was required in the neopagan ceremony was two witnesses and assurances the couple were both over the age of 16 and free to marry. Blacksmiths were dubbed 'Anvil Priests' and performed the ceremony for "a wee dram or a few guineas." The hammering of the anvil soon became the equivalent of the tolling of church bells. The Church denounced all forms of marriage not conducted by the clergy. Couples married irregularly were unable to attend the church ceremonies unless the 'sinners' sat the Repentance Stool (or cutty-stool) in full view of the congregation and be severely reprimanded from the pulpit.
Later the Scottish Law was changed by Lord Brougham and from 1856 couples required to stay in Scotland for 21 days prior to their common-law marriage. This became known as the “cooling off" act but encouraged locals to start taking in lodgers and hay barns soon became places of residence. Anvil weddings were eventually outlawed in 1940 and now only the local Registrar can legally marry couples. The residential requirement was eventually lifted in 1977 when the age of consent was lowered in England and Wales to 18. Despite the initial opposition from 1985 onward couples could marry in a religious ceremony outwith the church and both religious and civil ceremonies were both possible over the historic anvil. The result is a renewed flow of couples to this romantic place. Currently there are over 5,000 weddings each year (or one of every six Scottish weddings).