Monday, July 23, 2012

Gretna Green

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!



Jane Lovering said...

It all sounds fascinating. I'd have to say that the one place I've revisited that has fallen in my estimations would be Stonehenge. I first visited as a small child, and there are pictures of my brother and myself clambering happily over the fallen monoliths and picnicking in the centre of the circle. Now it is all roped off and visitors have to wander around the periphery on carefully laid tarmac, like observers at a zoo. I don't see any harm in letting people in amongst the stones (given careful security against graffiti and chiselling), do you?

Anonymous said...

Fascinating topic, Christina. I agree that the real Gretna can be a bit disappointing and touristy.

I had a Gretna elopment in Bride of the Solway and I did similar research. I blogged about it here, back in September 2007. Seems centuries ago!

My couple married in The King's Head in Springfield which is just next to Gretna and is actually closer to the border. The King's Head is still there, looking much the same as in drawings of the time, but it's changed its name to The Queen's Head!

The advantage of marryng at an inn was that the couple could immediately go next door to a bedroom and do the deed. If an irate father caught them before the marriage was consummated, it would have been a bit more difficult to make the marriage stick. Or at least, that's what they said at the time!

Christina Courtenay said...

I'm with you on Stonehenge, Jane! I also visited pre-tarmac and it was so nice to be able to see the stones close up. I guess they must just be too fragile now?
Joanna - yes, it would make sense to marry at the inn and then "do the deed" as you say :-) Wonder how many brides had changed their mind by that point and wished they'd stayed at home?

Unknown said...

That is so cool that marriages still take place there. I am going to Scotland next year and as much as I'd love to have visited, I think it is too far off the path we went.

I wish you had more pictures in your blog post. I am greedy that way lol

I totally get the whole touristy thing ruining it. Glad you went back a second time though.

Christina Courtenay said...

Thanks Michelle - hope you manage to visit, if not this time, then next trip! It's definitely worth it, but then there is so much to see in Scotland, great country!
Sonali - thank you, glad you enjoyed it :)

sewa mobil jakarta said...

Nice article, thanks for the information.

Gill Stewart said...

Yes, Gretna! Also loved to hear from fellow author Gwen Kirkwood that up to the late 50s (or 60s) you could still see the out-houses the absconding couples had hidden away in whilst they waited to be married.

Nicola Cornick said...

Lovely post, Christina! Thank you. I was disappointed in Stonehenge too - no atmosphere! The other place that was not at all as I had imagined it was Lourdes. I thought it would be very peaceful and reverent but instead there were a lot of tacky tourist shops!

Unknown said...

It would have been a bit more difficult to make the marriage stick.
Budget Flights To Bangkok

petersmith said...

It would have been a bit more difficult to make the marriage stick.
Pawn Shop