When 78 year old William Hutton walked the length of Hadrian’s Wall (and back) in 1802, stating with great pride that he was the first, and probably the last to do so (how wrong he was there), he made a special detour to Gretna Green just over the border in Scotland:
“I saw Gretna Green, that source of repentance; but being myself half a century above par, and not having with me an amorous lass of eighteen with as many thousands, I had no occasion for the black-smith. My landlord and his wife, where I slept at S -, had been handsome. She told me that ‘hers was a Gretna Green wedding, which cost a few guineas; and that she was descended from a good family.’ But it was easy to see, that poverty, a pot of ale, and the sorrow of fifteen years, were the result.”
Hutton continues, “The Rev. John P -, however, does not always act the farce for a few guineas. Interest prompts him to carry a stamp of every dimension; and he sometimes procures a note of a hundred from the happy bridegroom, which stands a chance for payment should the lady’s papa come to a reconciliation.”
Hutton’s words show how firmly the Gretna legend – and reputation – was established by this point. As Olga Sinclair writes in “Gretna Green – a Romantic History”: “Mention Gretna Green and almost inevitably it raises a smile, a chuckle, not quite a dirty laugh, but certainly a mischievous grin.”
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the ingredients of a runaway marriage – also known as a hot marriage – were: a dash up to Scotland on horseback or in a horse-drawn carriage, two witnesses, and a quick ceremony over the anvil, often performed by “The Rev. John P – .” If “Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage”, then Gretna epitomised the phrase at this time.
The “Rev. John P – ” was the infamous roisterer John Pasley, or Paisley, of Gretna, frequently called the “Blacksmith Priest” – but was he truly a blacksmith? I’ll return to this shortly. In order to create the Gretna Green legend, certain elements had to come together, and the first of these was the 1754 Marriage Act instituted in England by Lord Hardwicke.
It often comes as a surprise to learn that prior to the 20th century, not all marriages were conducted by the Church, nor were they required to be. Marriages were either “regular” or “irregular”, and an irregular marriage was so-called simply because it was not carried out according to the form required by the Church or the State. It endowed the pair, however, with perfectly legal status as a married couple and all it needed was agreement between the participating adult parties, and the presence of two witnesses. The Fleet Prison in London was infamous for carrying out “irregular” marriages and the men who conducted the services were not priests or ministers, although some claimed that title – they did not need to be. Marriages could even be backdated, in one instance to 18 years previously.
Hardwicke’s Act outlawed irregular marriages in England – and the legend of Gretna Green began. Irregular marriages were still perfectly legal in Scotland, and all a couple needed to do was hie themselves o’er the border with all speed, and find someone to carry out a brief “ceremony” in front of two witnesses. As long as they were over 16 (and were otherwise free to wed, of course), they did not require parental authority – and so another element of the Gretna Green wedding was created – the image of the runaway couple in a horse and carriage hotly pursued by (usually) the bride’s Papa.
One of the best known examples was that of the Earl of Westmoreland and Sarah Anne Child, daughter of a wealthy banker, Robert Child. (It has to be said that, as William Hutton’s words indicate, quite a few of the elopements involved wealthy heiresses, and some were as much abductions as seductions, but that does not seem to have been the case here.) During the course of a frantic pursuit, the Earl shot dead a horse ridden by a groom from the Child’s Northamptonshire home. Other versions of the story have the father shooting dead one of the carriage horses, only to find himself blocked by supporters of the lovers so that they could carry on to Gretna.
In fact, Gretna’s reputation mainly grew from its location, just over the border, but “irregular” marriages were taking place all over Scotland. They were mostly in inns, and not carried out by blacksmiths at all; so how did this part of the legend enter into it? And how did Gretna Green come to receive most of the attention?
It’s possible that the term “Blacksmith Wedding” is a continental concept, with clear symbolic meaning. After all, the blacksmith has always been a quasi-mystical figure, shrouded in his own mystery, legends and traditions. He works with fire and iron – and the Roman god Vulcan was married to the goddess of love, Venus. The smith can fuse hot metal together on the anvil; and Alan Air in “From the Hammer to the anvil: love, marriage and scandal at Gretna Green” alludes to this “horn shaped totem” which “grew all powerful in popular imagination.” Whatever the origin, it’s clear from Hutton’s words that Gretna and the blacksmith were already firmly joined together in popular thought by the early 19th century. That didn’t always go down well with the professional blacksmiths, though, who wished to disassociate themselves from this trade.
Ronald Webber, in his book “The Village Blacksmith” cites an early example of the use of the term “blacksmith marriage” in “The Diary of Mr Justice Rokeby”, published in 1693. In this instance a Mrs Seager had sued a Mr Hopkins for slander for proclaiming openly that they were united by a “blacksmith’s marriage.” Webber also notes that by 1639 “border marriages”, meaning exactly the same thing, were being performed in Scotland. He also suggests that the phrases “blacksmith wedding” or “blacksmith marriage” were known in Britain from the 15th century onwards.
The union of Gretna and the blacksmith seems to have emerged almost instantaneously with the Marriage Act. In 1783 a musical play “Gretna Green” was performed at the Haymarket Theatre in London. Its opening scene was set in a blacksmith’s shop. The “Famous Blacksmith’s Shop” at Gretna Green, however, was actually not put into service for marriages or blessings “over the anvil” until the early 20th century. Strictly speaking, it is in the village of Springfield, which is where many of the Gretna “blacksmith priests” originated, but the geographical line between Springfield and Gretna Green is very fine indeed. People were still mostly flocking to the inns or private houses to be wed in the late 18th century, and then the famous Sark Tollhouse, the first house in Scotland over the River Sark, became the obvious choice for those wanting to be “married in a fever hotter than a pepper sprout.” From the 19th century onwards, Gretna Old Hall took up the lead in offering organised weddings to the public, adding more elegance to the proceedings, although its “blacksmith’s forge” was a later addition.
There is no evidence to show that Joseph Paisley, the most infamous of the anvil priests, was a blacksmith at all, although he was a man of immense strength and bulk, swelling in later life to over 25 stones in weight. He is credited with performing such feats as straightening a horseshoe with his bare hands. He’d almost certainly participated in the lucrative Solway smuggling trade until the discovery that marriages were just as lucrative, if not more so – and less risky. He was frequently drunk and one one occasion is said to have married two couples to the wrong partners, shrugging it off with the comment “Ah weel, just sort yersels oot.”
So there we have all the elements fused together – a young couple falling madly in love, the adrenaline fuelled dash to Gretna in a carrage drawn by galloping horses, the pursuers left behind, and the grand finale: the crashing down of the blacksmith’s hammer on the anvil so that the sparks stand witness to the union. It is summarised brilliantly in “Romances of Gretna Green” by “Lochinvar”: “If Gretna Green marriages do not always prove the happiest in the end, they are at least by far the merriest at the time; and Miss Lydia Languish was partly in the right when she pettishly remarked, that there was no fun in a love affair that did not lead to a leap from a window into a lover’s arms, a chase, a challenge, and, as a matter of course, a paragraph in the newspapers.” The Border poet Will Ogilvie captured the atmosphere of the pursuit and challenge perfectly in “A Ballad of Gretna Green”, based loosely on the Westmoreland elopement:
“The whip cut deep on the dapple greys
And the sorrels dropped to the dark behind
Then we saw the lights of Carlisle blaze,
And beyond them the road to the Border wind.
Our galloping hoofs from the stones struck stars,
And the men-folk guessed what our haste must mean,
And the maidens waved from their window bars,
And shouted ‘Safe journey to Gretna Green!'”
– Will. H. Ogilvie
Thus Gretna Green was – and is – celebrated in song and story. It is referenced in Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” as well as one of her juvenile works. Gretna Green had major resurgences in the 19th century, with the arrival of the railways; and in the 20th century, when a dash for the border was made by dozens of youngsters who camped out about the place in order to fulfil the requirements to be resident in Scotland for three weeks. This was due to an amendment to the 1754 act, added by the 1856 Act of Lord Brougham, and summarised in the hilarious phrase “cooling off period,” which is also something that blacksmiths would understand and appreciate.
The blacksmith’s marriage, or blessing, has survived – and thrived on – changes in the law and in attitudes. The Famous Blacksmith’s Shop at Gretna was one of the first places in Scotland to provide civil ceremonies outside a register office. For some, Gretna Green is all about the spirit of “beautiful rebellion” as the current owner of the Famous Blacksmith’s Shop, Alasdair Houston puts it. Visitors still throng to this place that is filled with energy and excitement. And there’s a carriage museum at the Famous Blacksmith’s Shop, as a reminder of, and a tribute to, the thundering hoofs and throbbing hearts that galloped to the border long ago.
“How far, how far to Gretna?
‘Tis years and years away,
And chaise and four will never more
Fling dust across the day;
But as I ride the Carlisle road,
Where life and love have been,
I hear again the beating hoofs
Go through to Gretna Green.”