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New Year is a time, inevitably, in my mind, associated with Scotland and Hogmanay, so I thought today’s post ought to have  an appropriately Scottish theme.

References to Scotland in Jane Austen’s adult works are few, but she did  make use of the different marriage laws in Scotland in three of her novels: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park. In Sense and Sensibility, Colonel Brandon had planned to elope to Gretna with his poor Eliza but was thwarted at the last minute by the folly of her maid exposing their plans. In Pride and Prejudice Wickham planned to elope with Georgiana Darcy to Gretna Green, but his dastardly plan was foiled by Georgiana’s confession to Darcy before they could set out on the road. Quite typically he had no such plans to take Lydia Bennet there ,though she was initially under the misapprehension that Gretna was to be their final destination. In Mansfield Park Julia Bertram and Mr Yates run off to Gretna to be married amid the turmoil of the adulterous goings on between Maria Rushworth and Mr Crawford.

Why Gretna Green? Gretna, or Scotland as Jane Austen mostly wrote when she used the term in her novels, was, in the late 18th century a place where couples thwarted in their plans to marry legally in England and Wales could resort, in order to marry legally without parental consent.

From the implementation of the Clandestine Marriages Act of 1753, it was impossible for anyone under the age of 21 years age to legally marry without their parents ( or guardians) consent. The Act,  An Act for the better preventing of clandestine marriages,was moved through parliament by Lord Chancellor Hardwicke, ( shown below) and it is often referred to informally as Hardwickes Marriage Act. Do allow me to quote directly from it to give you some idea of its all encompassing edicts:

…from the and after the twenty- fifth day of March in the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and fifty-four all Banns of Matrimony shall be published in an audible manner in the Parish Church or some Publik chapel….according to the Form of Words prescribed by the rubrick prefixed to the Office of Matrimony in the Book of Common Prayer, upon three Sundays preceding the Solemnization of Marriage during the time of Morning service, or of Evening Service (if there be no Morning Service in such Church or Chapel upon any of these Sundays) immediately after the second Lesson…

Provided always and be it enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That no Parson,Minister,Vicar or Curate solemnizing Marriages after the twenty-fifth day of March One Thousand seven hundred and fifty-four, between Persons,both or one of whom, shall be under the Age of twenty-one Years,after Banns published, shall be punishable by ecclesiastical Censures for solemnizing such marriages without Consent of Parents of Guardians, whose consent is required by Law…

The only way round these strictures was to travel out of the jurisdiction of England and Wales to marry. There are some reports of boats ready and able to take such desperate parties from the port of Southampton to Guernsey in the Channel Islands, which was outside the jurisdiction of the English courts and where theoretically they could legally marry ,but most desperate couples headed north to Scotland to try to evade parental control.

(Map of Scotland in 1820)

Gretna Green in Dumfries-shire, was, as you can see from this map of Cumberland, below, taken from my copy of John Cary’s book, Cary’s Traveller’s Companion or a Delineation of the Turnpike Roads of England and Wales etc. (1812) the first stopping point on the main West Road as it crossed the border into Scotland, trailing off from the Great North Road which had in its turn travelled though Lancester,Penrith and Carlisle. It was described in the Traveller’s Companion as follows:

A village near the mouth of the river Esk.It has been much celebrated since the marriage-act as the resort of young people who chose to be married without the consent of their parents of guardians. The ceremony is now performed by a blacksmith.

Inn: Gretna Hall.


Here is a photograph of Gretna Hall in the early 20th century, by which time it had become a respectable hotel, but in the 18th century it was a posting inn,and many marriages are thought to have taken place on its premises.

Here is a close up of the section of the map showing the position of Gretna, and the blue arrow also points to its location:

The reason why Scotland had different marriage laws from England and Wales was that the Scottish Court of Sessions (the highest legal authority then in Scotland) refused to agree to overthrow the ancient Scottish marriage laws which permitted contract and private marriages. The result of not bringing Scottish law into line with English law was that the remedy for couples desperate to marry without parental consent was to travel to Scotland, nip over the border and marry there. The tiny village of Gretna then became famous,  from the mid 18th century and for about 100 years, as a marriage mecca, catering to both the seriously intent and the casual visitor. However, it would be more accurate to say that the border area of Scotland became a mecca for clandestine marriages as many places other  than Gretna were associated with clandestine marriages: the villages of Coldstream and Lamberton over the river Tweed and over the Eastern border with Scotland were places where such marriages took place, as were those of Annan and Lockerbie, both beyond Gretna in the direction of the town of Dumfries. But colloquially,the term Gretna, or Scotland when referring to marriages, became the all-encompassing name for the nearest place to England  where clandestine marriages could be legally performed.

The loophole in the law that allowed clandestine marriages to be performed legally under Scottish Law was only closed in 1856, when a bill introduced into parliament by Lord Brougham was passed and made into law: the new act prevented marriage in Gretna from being legal unless the marriage had been preceded by three weeks residence in Scotland(enough time for desperate parents and guardians to find their run-away charges ). The main reason for the passing of this bill was the growth of the railway system which threatened to turn the trickle of clandestine marriages north of the border into a flood.

Today Gretna is a tourist town, its fortunes still built on the romantic vision of being married in Gretna, traditionally by a blacksmith,the service performed  over his anvil, as shown in this cartoon of the 1820s.

Why blacksmiths? In Gretna Green Romances by Warren Henry (1926) the lie is given to that myth:

The shop at Headlesscross (near Gretna-jfw) was certainly and authentically the smithy of the village, and the ancient calling is still pursued there…A tenable conclusion is tha the mid 18th century occupants of the smithy were perforce involved in the arrival and return of the eloping parties and that an honest blacksmith in cases of haste and emergency would minister to man and maid as well as to the horse of the outfit. There was always money in it, time was often everything and breakdowns( of carriages-jfw) were of frequent occurrence and the knowledge and skill required to marry two unparticular fugitives were of the most elementary kind. There seems to remains no logical reason then why a blacksmith at Headlesscross should not have entered from time to time into this simple business. It is only necessary to re affirm that of all the known practitioners of the marriage “service” not one was a blacksmith by calling or repute. But it makes no matter. Teh forging of bonds and fetters was the essence of the whole undertaking and a contorted allusion to Vulcan  and to the domestic hearth may well have helped to create the “blacksmith” tradition thus breeding out of a germ of truth a whole tissue of romantic nonsense…

If you go today you will still see, however, the famous  blacksmith’s smithy ready and willing to be the host to many now very legal and correct marriages.

A place which does not appear to have changed much externally from the early 20th century,and possibly the early 19th century too if the evidence of this photograph taken by my grandparents is anything by which to judge ( they were “married” at Gretna over the anvil as a bit of fun in the 1920s):

Inside are reconstructions of the early 19th century marriage ceremony,

A smithy where  marriages take place today…

The “original ” anvil safely on show  in a glass case

Certificate of marriages under Scottish Law, this one dating from 1810:

An exhibition of period coaches, repaired by blacksmiths or not……

And a series of prints, A Trip to Gretna Green, dating from the 1820s telling an idealized version of the tale:

The Elopement

The Pursuit

The Marriage and finally….

The Reconciliation.  A likely story…….

You can still marry at Gretna, and be surrounded by Scottish produce in the shops that surround the Smithy- fill of whisky, shortbread and tartans ….and can be serenaded by a piper as we were here:

And on that appropriately Scottish note, I shall take this opportunity of wishing you all, my Readers, a very healthy happy and prosperous New Year and I invite you to join me next year in 2011 to celebrate amongst other Austenian things the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Sense and Sensibility. Not my favourite of The Six, but I hope to entertain you with some posts on that subject nevertheless.

A Very Happy New Year to You All.

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