Lying close to the English border, Greta Green became notorious in the eighteenth century as a place where people could get married quickly. Different legislation in each country meant that it was far easier to get married in Scotland than England. In England anyone under the age of twenty-one needed their parents’ consent to get married – legally parents could stop a marriage taking place if they disagreed with their child’s choice of partner or did not feel their child was old enough to be wed. In contrast Scottish young people were able to marry of their own free will once they were sixteen. The other blow to the coffin of easy marriage in England was also enshrined in the 1754 Marriage Act of Lord Hardwicke. The Act proclaimed that marriages could only take place in churches or public chapels and could only take place after banns had been published or a licence granted. Hardwicke’s Act ensured that marriages that were not legally performed would not be recognised.
The attraction of Gretna Green was the ease with which it could be reached from England, enhanced in the mid nineteenth century by the opening of a railway station. In 1857, in an effort to curb the ever increasing Scottish marriage trade, Lord Chancellor Henry Brougham introduced legislation that meant that at least one of the couple planning to wed had to live in Scotland for at least three weeks before their marriage could take place. This led to a lessening of marriages at Gretna, for a large part of the attraction had been the speed with which a couple could marry, making it a romantic destination for eloping couples. Jane Austen refers to the attraction of quick Scottish marriages in her novel Pride and Prejudice - when Lydia’s family believe she has eloped with Wickham to Gretna Green they are scandalised.
Today, should you so choose, you can still get married at Gretna Green. In modern times Scotland and England are closer than they were in terms of marriage legislation, but there are still differences – for instance there are differing rules governing divorce, thus it can be quicker to get a divorce in Scotland than in England.
If you are interested in learning more about past marriage traditions in Scotland I highly recommend Iona McGregor’s Getting Married in Scotland (Scotland's Past in Action). The book explores the historical context of marriage laws and customs developed in Scotland – I found it a fascinating read.