Have I mentioned I visited Scotland not long ago? Well not just Scotland. Convinced this was a once in a lifetime, check it off the bucket list, trip, my friend and I visited Scotland, England, and Wales. Though I highly recommend almost every place we stopped, I would advise those interested not to do it all in fifteen days. It was beautiful, fascinating, and … exhausting. When deciding what to blog this month, I decided to focus on one of our many stops that might interest an Austen or Regency Era romance reader. So, let’s go to Gretna Green.
Regency romance is rife with elopements making Gretna a familiar landmark for most readers. Why? Because Scotland did not hold to England’s strict marriage laws and Gretna is the southernmost point on the Scottish border. Again, common knowledge to the average Regency reader. What these readers may not know is how this all came about.
As Jane Austen made clear in more than one of her characters, the clergy in England were not always the most reputable men.
But Scotland (that beautiful, rebellious country) refused to change their traditions. Therefore, the legal age remained sixteen and the requirement of simply declaring one’s wish before two witnesses was sufficient to constitute a legal and binding marriage. Let the elopements begin!
Oh, the stories, TRUE stories, that are told at Gretna Green.
Being raised United Methodist, I must admit to a bit of shock when I learned John and Charles Wesley assisted in the elopement of their host’s daughter and a young German bachelor. The presence of another friend who was an artist even insured the moment would be caught on canvas.
Of course not all were stories of love. In 1826 a wealthy mill-owner’s daughter who was not yet sixteen was tricked by a scoundrel into eloping. Her father was also the Sheriff of Cheshire! This rogue was ballsy.
While at school, a letter was received stating the girl’s mother was seriously ill and the daughter, Ellen, must return home. Believing it to be true, she went willingly with the family butler. While stopped in Manchester to change horses, Ellen met a handsome, well-dressed man and became enchanted. He introduced himself as a friend to her father and explained that her mother was not ill after all, that she was travelling to meet her father.
When they arrived at their next stop, her father was not there. The “gentleman” then explained her father was bankrupt and all property was being transferred to her name, but she must marry so that her husband could then return the property to her father. (This man should have been a writer! Have you ever read a more convoluted plot?)
But it wasn’t just the common folk marrying at Gretna. Three Lord Chancellors eloped to this infamous location, but the most notable was Lord Erskine in 1818. After being widowed for eleven years, Lord Erskine decided to marry his housekeeper and mother of several of his illegitimate children. His children from his first marriage were quite displeased as they had no intention of sharing any inheritance with these children born on the wrong side of the blanket.
Not only did they decide to elope, Lord Erskine did so in drag. Dressed as a “rather flamboyant woman”, the Lord insisted he was the bride’s mother until they were before the anvil priest.
Why were his children so concerned? Because Scottish law made bastard children legitimate by the marriage of their parents.
The most wonderful part of Gretna history is that, should you wish it, you can still be wed there over the anvil. In fact, a wedding took place moments after we left the area pictured below.
As a romantic, I was charmed and a bit frightened by some of Gretna’s stories; but as a writer, I was in heaven when I reached their carriage room at the end of the tour. Giggling as I snapped picture after picture, I imagined how the moment was sure to enhance my story telling as I now knew how many people and of what size could fit inside a Barouche, Landau, or Stage Coach. The interiors, the cushions, the space for luggage. My mind still whirls as I look at the pictures and I cannot suppress a smile. If you are ever able, I highly recommend a trip to Gretna.
Would you marry at Gretna Green?
*Pictures taken in the Gretna Green Museum unless otherwise noted. Stories taken from the museum plaques, gretnagreen.com, and From the Hammer To the Anvil: Love, marriage and scandal at Gretna Green by Alan Air.