There are some place names that instantly evoke an image in your mind and Gretna Green is definitely one of them for me. Ever since I read my first Georgette Heyer books, some of which feature elopements across the border, I had a picture in my mind of the place where such clandestine marriages were performed. However, it doesn’t quite correspond to the reality …
I first went to Gretna Green about twenty-five years ago on a very bleak and rainy autumn day. My husband and I had been on a week’s holiday in Scotland and on the way home I insisted we stop at Gretna. Having read so much about this romantic location, I just had to see it for myself, but I was sorely disappointed. The blacksmith’s shop itself was sort of the way I’d imagined it, but the surrounding buildings had been turned into a tourist attraction and all I remember of that visit are busloads of people milling around and shops selling tartan. I went home thoroughly disillusioned.
Fast forward to the present - last week I happened to be in that area again, visiting a friend in Dumfries and I thought I’d take the opportunity to go and see whether things had changed in Gretna. I figured perhaps I’d been a bit harsh in my judgement all those years ago. Also, last time I went, I wasn’t an author, and I wondered whether I could now recapture more of the romance by using my imagination a bit better. Fortunately, this turned out to be the case.
Although it’s still very “touristy”, I really enjoyed my visit this time. In my mind’s eye, I stripped away all the shops, souvenirs and people and imagined myself as a runaway heiress, arriving in Gretna after a long and no doubt nerve-racking drive north, my irate father or brother hot on our heels. The old smithy (situated in the rooms which now house the exhibition that tells the story of the marriages) would have seemed like a very welcome haven, and after a hurried ceremony performed by the blacksmith, I could see myself and my new husband staggering to the nearest inn to celebrate. The relief of success would have been sweet! Or perhaps I’d wake the next day to a mountain of regrets and a lover who’d only wanted me for my money? Either way, I’m sure I would never forget the place where it all happened.
The weather was lovely, bathing the buildings in sunshine and dispelling some of the gloom I’d encountered last time. I enjoyed wandering round the exhibition, reading all about how these marriages first began after the 1754 Marriage Act was introduced. The strict laws this brought scuppered many plans and it’s no wonder young couples in love chose to defy everyone and run away to Scotland, where a marriage by ‘handfasting’ (declaring your intent to wed in front of two witnesses) remained legal until 1940. I was amused to see no less than three anvils, although the one in this photo claimed to be the original Gretna anvil. And although you have to marry at the registry office first these days, there are still ceremonies performed in the blacksmith’s shop, as I saw firsthand. A bride wandered around outside while a piper, complete with kilt and bearskin hat (!), played the bagpipes. It felt very special and I almost regretted my own conventional marriage in a church.
All in all, I came away feeling much happier and I’ll now be able to use this location in my stories, should I need it, because I can imagine it as it once was.
Are there any places you’ve visited, which completely ruined your imagined picture of them? Or others that were just as you’d thought they would be? I’d love to know!