Gretna Green Gossip


Gretna Green is the name of an insignificant village in the Border country between England and Scotland. It is situated in Dumfriesshire, near the mouth of the Esk, nine miles north-west of Carlisle, and consequently within a mile of the English border. Probably no place of such absence of pretension to size and population has attained the notoriety which attaches to the name of Gretna Green, a distinction it has obtained merely through its being the first place suitable for stoppage after the English border was once passed. This close proximity was utilised by runaway couples, who, dispensing, for various reasons, with the preliminaries of anyone’s consent to their union, or the publication of banns requisite by the English Marriage Laws, could, when once on Scottish ground, accomplish their wedding by simply declaring before witnesses their mutual willingness to undertake the contract. To the facility, then, which the Marriage Laws of Scotland offered to amorous and impatient couples (minors or not), the fisher-village of Gretna Green owes its repute as a chosen altar of Hymen. A marriage once declared here was henceforward considered valid, and after exchanging before any witness the mutual promises, the pair might return to England at once, the knot being tied beyond all chance of dispute. As might be expected, haste was a great factor in these summary pairings, and consequently postillions were largely employed to get over the distance between Carlisle and Gretna, a course upon which, no doubt, many a tough race has been run between prudent parent or guardian and ardent runaways.

The “parsons” of Gretna were the ordinary inhabitants, who were weavers, fishermen (Gretna being at the head of the Solway), blacksmiths, &c., and their fees were entirely arbitrary, being fixed on the spot, according to the private information of the postillions, or according to the appearance and simplicity of the young couple. Marriages have been contracted here for a glass of whisky, while on the other hand a fee of twenty pounds has been paid, as in the case of Lord Chief Justice Erskine, who availed himself of the easy ceremony, and even much larger sums, as in the cases of the Earl of Westmoreland, Lord Deerhurst, and others, who paid to the officiating “cleric” upwards of one hundred guineas. In the absence of any local person to receive the attestations to the contract, the postillions themselves have been known to assume the sacerdotal functions.

The first broker in Gretna Green marriages was one Scott, who lived at a point called the Rigg, a few miles from the village. It is said that he commenced his infamous profession about the year 1750, but beyond the fact that he was a crafty fellow, who could turn the emergencies of the time to his own advantage, little is known of him. The next who undertook the remunerative duties of high priest was George Gordon, an old soldier, who invariably wore as canonicals a full military uniform of a by-gone type—a tremendous cocked-hat, scarlet coat, and jackboots, with a ponderous sword dangling from his belt. His “church,” which had the appearance of a barn, stood a little to the left of the public road; his altar was an ale cask upon which was placed an open Bible. Following Gordon, Joseph Paisley (sometimes called Pasley) became the recognised parson. He was a fisherman, who agreeably united with the duties of that position the pursuits of smuggler and tobacconist. He has been also called a blacksmith, but this was simply a fanciful allusion to the part he took in the Gretna Green marriages, Vulcan being the marriage maker of the gods as well as their smith. He commenced the matrimonial business in 1789, and from being retiring in his manner of dealing, became audaciously unscrupulous, going so far even as to supply fictitious signatures to the certificates, instead of, as at first, resorting to the less culpable proceeding of signing his own name as a witness. It is said of this man that at his death, about 1811, he weighed twenty-five stones. He was a coarse, blatant individual, and habitually appeared in a sort of priestly dress, even in his constant dissipations. At his death the priesthood was taken by his son-in-law, Robert Elliott, who kept an account of his transactions, and afterwards published them under the title of “The Gretna Green Memoirs.” In this he states that between 1811 and 1839, not less than 7744 persons were united by him at Gretna. The Times, in a review of the book, doubted the accuracy of the assertion, which drew from him a reply in the form of a letter to that paper. He said, “I can show registers for that number from my commencement, and which either you or any respectable individual may inspect here, and which I can substantiate on oath.”

We give here an extract from the “Memoirs” of Elliott. He says:—“As the marriage ceremony performed by me and my predecessors may be interesting to many of my readers, I give it verbatim: The parties are first asked their names and places of abode; they are then asked to stand up, and inquired of if they are both single persons; if the answer be in the affirmative, the ceremony proceeds. Each is next asked, ‘Did you come here of your own free will and accord?’ Upon receiving an affirmative answer, the priest commences filling in the printed form of the certificate. The man is then asked, ‘Do you take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife, forsaking all others, and keep to her as long as you both shall live?’ He answers, ‘I will.’ The woman is asked the same question, when, being answered the same, the woman then produces a ring, which she gives to the man, who hands it to the priest; the priest then returns it to the man, and orders him to put it on the fourth finger of the woman’s left hand, repeating these words, ‘With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, with all my goods I thee endow, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.’ They then take hold of each other’s right hand, and the woman says, ‘What God joins together let no man put asunder.’ Then the priest says, ‘Forasmuch as this man and this woman have come together by giving and receiving a ring, I therefore declare them to be man and wife before God and these witnesses, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.’”

The following are among the memorable matches effected through the agency of Robert Elliott, and recorded in his Memoirs:—

1812.—Rev. Wm. Freemantle, an English clergyman. C. Ewen Law, son of Lord Ellenborough, to Miss Nightingale.

1815.—A “droll gaberlunzie without legs or arms, to a comely damsel, both appearing anxious for the ceremony,” to the disgust of the not too fastidious parson himself.

1816.—Lord Chief Justice Erskine. Within a year, however, his lordship unsuccessfully tried to loosen his matrimonial chains by a divorce by the Scottish law.

1826.—E. Gibbon Wakefield, with Miss Turner. Of the trial which ensued upon this union we give particulars below.

During the latter part of Elliott’s “ministration” competition in the marrying business became brisk, and he had numerous rivals, the most powerful of these candidates for clerical emolument being another son of Mars, named David Laing. The competition became so pronounced that the rival parsons canvassed for the assistance and co-operation of the postillions, who, commencing by receiving a commission per runaway pair, at last ended by working upon a system of equal shares with their priestly co-partners.

In 1827, at the Kent Assizes, a Gretna Green marriage was the subject of a curious trial before Mr Baron Hullock. The action was taken against one Mrs Wakefield and her two sons, for conspiring “to take away by subtle stratagems” a young lady named Turner, who had not yet left school. The David Laing above mentioned was called as a witness on behalf of the defendants, and he affirmed that the couple were married lawfully according to the Scottish fashion—namely, by putting on the lady’s finger a ring. The witness said he was seventy-five years old, and had spent more than half of his life in the performance of marriages. In cross-examination by Mr Brougham, he admitted obtaining £30 for this particular ceremony, or even £50, but could not remember exactly, “being somewhat hard of hearing.” The accused was found guilty of causing this young lady to “contract matrimony without the consent of her father, and to the great disparagement of the King’s peace.” The chief prisoner, E. Gibbon Wakefield, was convicted of abduction, and the marriage, which excited considerable public attention, was afterwards rendered invalid, and annulled by an Act of Parliament specially obtained. After this flagrant case Gretna Green marriages fell into disrepute, and the business showed a steady decline, though cases of the employment of pseudo-parsons are on much later record. In 1853, a person named Thomas Blythe, a witness before the Court of Probate at Westminster, stated that he lived at Springfield, Gretna Green, and that he obtained his livelihood by means of agriculture, but that he not unfrequently took advantage of opportunities to increase his income by small strokes of business in the “joining” line. Again, the demise of another “joiner” was announced so late as 1872, when the obituary of Simon Laing appeared in the Glasgow Herald. It is probable, however, that the pursuit of his “clerical” profession ceased long before the date of his death, for, in 1856, the old law by which the mere verbal declaration of consent before witnesses was sufficient to constitute a Scottish legal marriage became effete through the passing of the Act of Parliament, 19 and 20 Victoria, cap. 96. By this Act the laws of Scotland and England were brought into assimilation, and in that year the occupation of the northern hedge-parsons was virtually gone.

It may be said such marriages as those we have described were considered as clandestine and ill-advised in Scotland, as in more southern parts, the Church of Scotland doing all that lay in its power to discourage and prevent them. The only punishment, however, which it had for transgressors being excommunication, the restraint by the Kirk was very slight, its injunctions and fulminary condemnations being treated with contempt.

Probably the best known of the notable marriages which have taken place at Gretna is that of the Earl of Westmoreland with the daughter of Child, the banker, whose counting-house was at the sign of the Marygold, in the Strand. The romantic but determined couple had the advantage of an early start, one starlight night in May, but the pursuit was not less hot than the departure had been well arranged, and when within a few miles of the Border the coach was nearly overtaken by Mr Child’s carriage. The Earl, however, not to be baulked when so near the end of the journey, shot down one of the pursuing horses, while one of the servants cut the carriage straps behind. The crown of firs which mark Gretna from the surrounding country came quickly into view, the bridge was crossed, and the village was reached by the reckless couple. A parson was found, and quickly the Earl and Miss Child were made one. Within a year Mr Child died, it is said, of the mortification and disappointment connected with this affair. The elder daughter of the match, Lady Sophia Fane, afterwards married Lord Jersey, and inherited his immense fortune, including Child’s Bank at Temple Bar.