Gretna’s famous “runaway marriages” began in 1753 when Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act was passed in England; it stated that if both parties to a marriage were not at least 21 years old, then parents had to consent to the marriage. The Act did not apply in Scotland, where it was possible for boys to marry at 14 and girls at 12 years old with or without parental consent (see Marriage in Scotland). Many elopers fled England, and the first Scottish village they encountered was Gretna Green. The Old Blacksmith’s Shop, built around 1712, and Gretna Hall Blacksmith’s Shop (1710) became, in popular folklore at least, the focal tourist points for the marriage trade. The Old Blacksmith’s opened to the public as a visitor attraction as early as 1887.
The local blacksmith and his anvil have become the lasting symbols of Gretna Green weddings. Scottish law allowed for “irregular marriages”, meaning that if a declaration was made before two witnesses, almost anybody had the authority to conduct the marriage ceremony. The blacksmiths in Gretna became known as “anvil priests”.
Since 1929 both parties in Scotland have had to be at least 16 years old, but they still may marry without parental consent. In England and Wales, the age for marriage is now 16 with parental consent and 18 without.
Gretna’s two blacksmiths’ shops and countless inns and smallholding became the backdrops for tens of thousands of weddings. Today there are several wedding venues in and around Gretna Green, from former churches to purpose-built chapels. The services at all the venues are always performed over an iconic blacksmith’s anvil. Gretna Green endures as one of the world’s most popular wedding venues, and thousands of couples come from around the world to be married ‘over the anvil’ at Gretna Green.
In common law, a “Gretna Green marriage” came to mean, in general, a marriage transacted in a jurisdiction that was not the residence of the parties being married, to avoid restrictions or procedures imposed by the parties’ home jurisdiction.A notable “Gretna” marriage was the second marriage in 1826 of Edward Gibbon Wakefield to the young heiress Ellen Turner, called the Shrigley abduction (his first marriage was also to an heiress, but the parents wanted to avoid a public scandal), Other towns in which quick, often surreptitious marriages could be obtained came to be known as “Gretna Greens”.In the United States, these have included Elkton, Maryland Reno and, later, Las Vegas, Nevada.
In 1856 Scottish law was changed to require 21 days’ residence for marriage, and a further law change was made in 1940. The residential requirement was lifted in 1977.