Welcome to Gretna

Situated immediately north of the frontier between Scotland and England and just nine miles north of England’s ancient northern fortress town of Carlisle, the village of Gretna is the most famous of Scottish border towns. Its fame is based on two quite justifiable titles: it is the Gateway to Scotland and the Marriage Capital of the UK. An ancient settlement with a modern feel, geography has done more to shape Gretna’s history than any other factor.

The name Gretna is thought to be derived from Greot, meaning settlement by, or on, the beach. If true, this suggests the original settlement had a somewhat closer connection to the coast on the Solway Firth, around a mile south of today’s village. Interestingly, archaeology may support this theory. The oldest monument in the Gretna area is the Lochmaben Stone, an ancient granite marker over two metres high believed to have been erected around 3000 BC. Its location, near the Solway, suggests that during prehistoric times, at least, the focus of settlement in the area was far closer to the coast than today, which certainly ties in with what we know about these early peoples, who were rarely found far afield from waterways.

The Lochmaben Stone is also the focus of the earliest tales and myths of Gretna. In an area which for centuries was dominated by the Britons, perhaps it is not unsurprising that such a conspicuous marker came to be associated with the legendary King Arthur, the tribe’s most famous leader. However, we should be reluctant to assume that this is the very stone from which King Arthur withdrew Excalibur to claim the throne, if only because of the enormous numbers of contenders there are throughout the British Isles. We are on more solid ground when we talk of the stone as a neutral meeting place in a dangerous region. For hundreds of years wardens from north and south of the border met by the stone on days of truce to hear complaints and exchange prisoners taken in cross border raids. The notorious lawlessness of the region was for centuries curtailed by little more than what these men discussed in these meetings.

In reality such occasional truces were of little effect; the roots of the conflict were too deep. From the time of the invasion of Scotland by King Edward I of England in 1296, until the Union of Crowns in 1603, countless armies ravaged the lands of Gretna on the long march north, or indeed south, to glory or to slaughter. Eking out a living in this dangerous environment was not easy and led many private individuals into cross border raids, as a means of making a decent livelihood. However, it should also be recognised that the temptation, posed by nearby fertile lands in an adjacent kingdom, which could be plundered without legal recourse, was probably too much for those of a medieval mindset to resist.

A number of border families occupying what were known as the Debateable Land, whose south western extremity was marked by Gretna, claimed no allegiance to England or Scotland and based their economy largely on raiding. Those infamous clans, such as the Armstrongs, Bells, Douglases, Elliots, Maxwells, Kerrs and Scotts, became known as the Border Reivers, whose exploits have become the stuff of legend. Looking at the situation less romantically, however, we should recognise that there can be few regions in the world which have suffered such a protracted period of violence and unrest.

The lawless period of the Border Reivers passed into history after James VI of Scotland ascended to the throne of England, in 1603, and for the first time a ruler was able to tackle the problem from both sides of the border. Gretna undoubtedly benefited from the increased traffic between Scotland and England and its ideal position on the main road between the two countries. The fact that it was the first village in Scotland, when travelling north along that road, laid the foundations for Gretna’s enduring fame. The 1754 Marriage Act gave greater control of all marriages in England to the Church of England and prohibited marriage without parental consent to anyone under 21 years of age; in Scotland this age remained, and still remains, 16. From 1754 scores of youngsters, at times pursued by angry parents in horse drawn coaches, raced to Gretna to tie the knot. Demand was so great that laymen, such as the blacksmith, fisherman and smuggler Joseph Paisley, applied for licences, acceptable under Scots Law, to conduct the ceremonies. He established the Old Blacksmith’s Shop as one of Gretna’s first marriage venues; the legendary shop remains one of the major visitor attractions in the village.

The most important stage in the modern development of Gretna came in 1915, when it was selected as the location for a munitions factory as part of the war effort. Gretna township was constructed in the following two years to house the factory’s workers and the development included a number of interesting buildings, such as the neo-gothic church. This period of development also bequeathed Gretna with a great many facilities, which now benefit the many visitors who come to enjoy this pretty village. And of course, with its unique tradition, Gretna remains one of the most romantic and popular places to wed in the British Isles.