Any fan of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice has heard of Gretna Green, the small Scottish village just beyond the English border. Spoiler: Lydia writes to her sisters, telling them Mr. Wickham is taking her to Gretna Green to be married.
Turns out going to Gretna Green to be married was not so uncommon during the Regency. A new law in England was instituted in 1754, making it illegal for a person to be married without the permission of their parents if they were under the age of 21. In Scotland, such a law didn’t exist so the small border town became a getaway for young lovers wishing to elope.
Getting married in Scotland was exceptionally easy—the hardest part was getting to Gretna, located over 300 miles from London. In Scotland, a “declaration” marriage was the only ceremony required to be legally married. Ambitious blacksmiths took advantage of this and introduced a new service to their smithy shops: wedding chapel. These “anvil priests” would perform the ceremony quickly and cheaply and the couple could return to their families in England, legally bound to their sweetheart.
Although marriage by declaration was outlawed in Scotland in 1940, the village of Gretna Green continues to draw couples inspired by the impulsive actions of young couples in love of days gone by.