On this Valentine’s Day, we revisit the Gretna Green Marriage Registers 1795-1895, a fascinating collection which details the weddings of more than half of all Brits who crossed the Scottish border to marry without their parents’ consent.
The collection, also referred to as the ‘Lang Registers’ , contains the marriage records of Gretna Green’s most prolific minister, David Lang, who was renowned for his ‘immodest air’ and clerical style.
Gretna Green became a popular destination for young English elopers after Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, passed in 1753, required parental permission for all couples wanting to marry under the age of 21. This law did not apply in Scotland where boys could marry at 14 and girls at 12.
A mile inside the Scottish border, Gretna Green was the first changing post in Scotland for the stagecoaches on the main route from London to Edinburgh. It was also the first place couples arrived at when eloping to Scotland, resulting in thousands of weddings taking place in what quickly became known as Britain’s ‘marriage capital’.
Almost anybody could conduct a marriage ceremony in Scotland as long as two witnesses were present. This resulted in a range of tradesmen, including many blacksmiths given that Gretna Green was a changing post, setting themselves up as ‘ministers’ and charging for their services.
Dubbed ‘Anvil Priests’ by the locals, ceremonies were often conducted over the anvil with the blacksmith officiating, which was why the blacksmith and his anvil have come to symbolise Gretna Green weddings.
In order to restrict the rising number of couples eloping to Gretna, Parliament passed an act in 1857 that required for one of the parties to have resided in Scotland for a minimum of three weeks prior to the wedding for the marriage to be recognised in England. Gretna Green marriage rates were never quite the same thereafter yet its reputation as the ‘Las Vegas of the UK’ remained and lives on today.
Gretna Green wedding scandals have made newspaper headlines since the mid-1700s. Among the records are a number of notable people and famous nuptials, including:
- The Shrigley Abduction – A national scandal in 1826, Edward Wakefield duped wealthy 15-year-old heiress Ellen Turner into marriage at Gretna Green by claiming her father, a wealthy mill owner and Sheriff of Cheshire, was a fugitive and if she would agree to marry Wakefield, her father would be saved. Ellen consented and they were married on the 8th of March 1826 by blacksmith David Lang.
- John Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham – The marriage of the British Governor General and High Commissioner of British North America known as ‘Radical Jack’ to Lady Louisa Grey is recorded in 1816. Also a British Whig statesman and colonial administrator, Lambton was appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath in 1837 for his political work at home and abroad.
The Gretna Green Marriage Registers, 1795-1895 were transcribed as part of the Ancestry World Archives Project (AWAP), which provides the public with indexing software and training support to enable them to contribute in making even more historical records available and searchable online. To date, thousands of Ancestry members around the world have contributed their time to this project.
As the original marriage certificates which comprise this collection were badly age damaged, Ancestry experts also spent many months conserving them before they were digitised.