Report on Marriages at Gretna (Part 1)
This short paper presents information on the rapid growth in the number of marriages taking place at Gretna over the last twenty-five years, from fewer than 100 each year in the mid-1970s to over 5,000 in 2000. It shows that whilst the majority of the couples come from England, as was the case between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries during Gretna's original period of fame, they are now more likely to be older. Moreover, Gretna has become a popular marriage venue for a small but increasing number of couples from outside the United Kingdom. The paper also considers the striking rise in the number of religious marriages at Gretna during the 1990s and gives some information on the denominations involved.
Gretna's popularity as a marriage venue dates back to 1754 when Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act decreed that parental consent was required if either party to a marriage was aged under 21. However, as this Act did not apply in Scotland, a large number of young couples travelled north to Scotland where a valid marriage could be contracted merely by a declaration before two witnesses. Gretna, being just a few miles over the border on the London to Edinburgh stagecoach route, became the most popular destination.
Any responsible person was able to conduct the marriage, but the local blacksmith often carried them out 'over the anvil'. A link with this historical practice has become very popular in recent years, with many ceremonies taking place, for example, at the Old Blacksmith's Shop.
The total number of marriages at Gretna at this time is not known, but over the following 100 years or so it was certainly several tens of thousands. The numbers dropped dramatically after 1857 when Scots Law prescribed certain conditions for 'irregular' marriages. Though such marriages were recognised until 1939, they were not included in the official marriage registers. The small numbers of marriages registered in Gretna between 1855, when civil registration was introduced, and 1975 are shown for selected years in Figure 1.
Table 1 and Figure 2 show the rapid growth in the number of marriages registered at Gretna over the last twenty-five years. The late 1970s saw the annual numbers increase to over 200 and over the period 1983 - 85 there was a further increase to over 1,000 per year. During the 1990s the annual total surged from some 1,500 to over 5,000. The sharp increase in 1991 - 92 was associated with greatly improved facilities in the registration office. Table 1 also shows that Gretna now accounts for more than one in six (17.4%) of all marriages in Scotland.