Had enough of the Royal Wedding? Check out the history of an alternative plan—elopement to the famous Gretna Green.
Everyone has heard of Gretna Green, Scotland’s most famous contribution to wedding history. After the passage of The Marriage Act of 1753 (commonly known as Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act), enacted to curtail the growing problem of clandestine marriages, eloping couples came here to marry without the restrictions of English law.
In myriad examples, historical romances have glommed onto this marital loophole, having some actual couples take off for Gretna, while sometimes the villain attempts to lure the heroine there (requiring a heroic rescue), or they just threaten to go there if their parents don’t agree. For example, the would-be runaways, Stacy Calverly and Fanny, discuss running away to Gretna Green in Georgette Heyer's Black Sheep. More recently, Eloisa James's impetuous heroine Imogen elopes to Gretna Green after faking an injury to ensnare the object of her affections in Much Ado About You.
But back to reality: The Marriage Act of 1753 mandated that both parties had to be 21 years of age to marry without parental consent, but it did not apply to Scotland, where the age of consent was just 14 for boys and 12 for girls. The only requirement was that the declaration be made in front of two witnesses, and blacksmith shops quickly became the equivalent of a Vegas drive-through wedding chapel; sorta like having the guy who changes the oil in your car preside over your wedding.
Gretna Green was the first stop into Scotland on the coaching trail, making it convenient for eloping couples attempting to evade interventionist parents.
Who knew that all the runaway and kidnapped brides and grooms that populate romance novels aren’t just the overactive imaginings of writers, but are based in historical fact?
Yet a marriage sanctuary for runaway underage lovers aren’t Scotland’s only unique contribution to marriage history. Scotland is a land of unique wedding traditions, some dating to the thirteenth century. Several traditions are surprisingly familiar, while others are more inscrutable.
Creeling the bridegroom. Sometimes called reeling, in this tradition a large basket is tied to the groom’s back and filled with stones. He is forced to carry it through the town until his bride kisses him. Imagine trying to win over a disgruntled bride’s favor while bent double beneath a basket of rocks!
Stag night. In this Scottish wedding tradition, it’s the groom who gets ends up naked. The precursor to today’s bachelor, or stag, parties may not have involved strippers like they often do today, but most other hallmarks remain the same: copious alcohol is consumed by a bunch of men and tricks played on the groom-to-be—sort of like Jackass, Highland style. Partiers topped things off with a final prank by stripping the inebriated groom leaving him tied to a tree. Needless to say, this tradition won’t be dying out anytime soon.
Siller. Interpretations of the symbolism of this custom abound, but it is generally agreed that it stems from a promise of the groom to provide economically for his bride. Siller is some form of silver coinage, whether silver coins passed between the bride, groom and priest, or given to local children to purchase a football (ba’siller ).
Vows. Assuming the bride forgave her groom for getting himself tied naked to a tree and donned her wedding dress, the pair would meet the priest at the church doors and recite their wedding vows in vernacular Scottish. This was followed by a longer ceremony in Latin.
Pinning of the tartan. To symbolize the acceptance of the bride by the groom’s family or clan, the groom would pin a scrap of tartan to the bride’s dress. Sometimes the fabric was formed into the shape of a flower. The tradition survives to this day.
Carrie Netzer Wajda is an independent researcher and freelance writer in New York, and can be found at writetocarrie.com. A devotee of romance and mystery fiction, she someday hopes to actually finish one of the 182 gazillion “first books” she has started writing in her lifetime, and maybe even publish it. In the meantime, she loves blogging about her favorite authors.