Relatively Speaking: Gretna Green marriages

June 9, 2010 at 1:09 a.m.

Scotland's Gretna Green is noted for runaway marriages.

Scotland's Gretna Green is noted for runaway marriages.

By Martha Jones


Have you ever heard of a "Gretna Green" marriage? If you work with genealogy marriage records for any length of time, you will learn about Gretna Green.

In Scotland, there is a village located in the Dumfries and Galloway Region, along an old coach route just across the English border called Gretna Green. It is noted for runaway marriages performed there for couples in England who wanted a quick marriage. They eloped to Gretna Green. All they needed was to make their wedding vows to a clergyman in the presence of witnesses. In 1753, the English Parliament passed a marriage act that stated if both parties in a marriage were not at least 21 years old, then consent to the marriage had to be given by the parents. The act did not, however, apply in Scotland were it was possible for boys to marry at age 14 and girls at age 12 without parental consent. Therefore, for the next hundred years, many English couples rushed across the northern Scotland border into the first town they came to and married without parental consent. But, in 1856, another act of Parliament abolished the practice begun in 1753.

Gretna Green was the first village encountered by elopers from England when they crossed the border. The first shop they came to was the Old Blacksmith's shop built around 1712. Folklore claims the blacksmith shop was the focal point for the marriage trade. The blacksmith and anvil became symbols for Gretna Green marriages because Scottish law allowed for "irregular marriages," meaning that if a declaration was made before two witnesses, almost anyone had the authority to conduct the marriage ceremony. Blacksmiths became known as "anvil priests," and the symbol of the blacksmith and his anvil became known for Gretna Green marriages. Today, any town where couples go to marry in haste is called a "Gretna Green" and the marriage is referred to as a Gretna Green marriage. As Gretna Green's popularity soared, so did the establishment of countless inns serving as backdrops for the wedding. Today, Gretna Green, Scotland, is one of the world's most popular wedding destinations, hosting more than 5,000 weddings each year, one out of every six Scottish weddings. The lore attached to Gretna Green has made the site much more enticing for a wedding than a local city hall. Are there any Gretna Green cities in the U.S.? Yes. Cities such as Elkton, Md., Reno, Nev., and later, Las Vegas, are included in the count. In years past, many couples up and down the Ohio River, and within a wide circle of counties in Indiana and Kentucky, married in Cincinnati in haste. If there is no marriage record in a nearby county where a couple may have lived, chances are good the entry may be found in the Cincinnati marriage records, although they are often incomplete.

One last note: There is an anvil in Gretna, Manitoba, Canada, to symbolize the blacksmith and the source of its name; Gretna Green marriages lives on.

Happy Researching.

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