By Anne Gibson
Edited by Anne Flinders, dramaturg
The marriage laws of 18th century Scotland appear astonishingly lax. Girls aged 12 and boys aged 14 were able to marry without parental approval. By contrast, from 1753, England’s Marriage Act sought to prevent couples under the age of 21 marrying without their parents’ consent. And it was this that prompted a rush for the border.
On the main route from London to Scotland the first stop over the border was Gretna Green in Dumfries and Galloway. The village’s blacksmith shop presented the first opportunity for a wedding.
“In those days the blacksmith was the lifeblood of any village,” says Frank Clarkson, Gretna Green’s Blacksmith Guide. “The ‘anvil priests’ would perform a ceremony for a wee dram or a few guineas, depending on your status and financial standing. It is said that, like the metals he forged, the blacksmith would join couples together in the heat of the moment, but bind them for eternity.”
This ceremony was possible due to the Scottish rule of “irregular marriage”, which meant that a couple could tie the knot without church or state involvement.
There were three forms of irregular marriage, as Professor Durie explains. “One was a promise between two people…married in front of witnesses. Also, if two people just decided to call themselves married and then live together as if they were, that was cohabitation [with habit and] repute. Third were marriages conducted by ministers of religion but not according to the proper form–without banns [proclamations of marriage] being posted, not in a church, not on a Sunday, that kind of thing.”
The blacksmith was often too busy to perform ceremonies, leaving locals only too happy to take over duties, as Mr. Clarkson explains. “Anybody could carry out marriages. The farmer, the blacksmith, the toll masters, or the landlord of the local tavern.”
The boom times could not continue indefinitely and a change to Scots Law came with the Lord Brougham Act of 1856. The act required one of the couple to be resident in the parish for 21 days before the ceremony. This “cooling off period” slowed the flow of runaways and had an impact on the profits of the wedding business, but canny locals found a supplementary trade in housing the temporary lodgers for the required three weeks.
There have been changes to Scottish law since those heady days of the 18th century. Since 1929 both parties must be at least 16 years old, although still no parental consent is required. Irregular marriages ceased to exist with the Marriage Act of 1939, while the residential requirement was removed from the statute in 1977.
Even now, the romantic notion of running away to Gretna keeps the town in a prosperous trade. Between 3,000 and 5,000 ceremonies are conducted in the area each year.