If Las Vegas is the wedding centre of the United States, then certainly Gretna Green is the Las Vegas of Great Britain, billing itself as the world's number one marriage venue. Yet Gretna Green is a small village just over the English / Scottish border, so you would not be the first to wonder why so many people came to this tiny town to wed.
In Scotland, by tradition, a woman and a man over the age of sixteen could be married simply by declaring themselves husband and wife in front of witnesses. In 1753, a law was passed in England which required both parties to be wed to be at least 21 years old, unless consent to the marriage was given by the parents.
As this new act only applied in England, young elopers began fleeing England and angry parents and heading up to Scotland. As Gretna Green was the first village at which they arrived, it became the home of numerous "runaway marriages."
In the town of Gretna Green, the focal point of the village traditionally was the Blacksmith's Shop. Ceremonies began to be carried out over the anvil, and soon a "blacksmith priest" was officiating over these marriages. The blacksmith's anvil became the symbol of runaway weddings; as metals were jointed together in the heat of the fire, couples were joined together in the heat of the moment!
Ye Olde Tourist Centre
Gretna Green has been a centre for romantic lovers for more than 250 years now, with wedding and romance traditions still going strong in modern times. In Scotland today, no residental qualification or parental consent for couples over sixteen is required to marry. Couples continue to run away, as the only requirement needed in Gretna Green in modern times is a stop at the Registrar.
Even if you are not here to marry, the modern day tourist is welcome to stop and be a part of the Gretna Green experience. The old blacksmith shop now sits in what is best described as an open-air tourist village, full of shops, restaurants and attractions.
The focal point of the tourist village is, of course, the Old Blacksmith's Shop Museum. You may take part in an anvil wedding ceremony, watch another, or have your wedding vows blessed here. The story of the town and its romantic runaways and the famous anvil is revealed inside (enquiries: 44 (0)1461 338 224 or http://www.gretnagreen.com).
Some will find the museum a bit tacky, I am sure, although it has won a Scottish Tourism Award. The village itself has a nice atmosphere, with attractive buildings surrounded by the open skies, green fields, and paths lined with sculpture and antiquities.
The shops are thankfully more original, offering crafts and unique wares alongside the red wigs with the tartan hats (who BUYS those?!). Of special interest is The Tartan Shop, where you may type in a family surname and search for your clan tartan. Naturally, you can purchase your clan tartan and a certificate of your clan history as well as your motto and crest.
If being swept up in the romantic excitement has made you hungry, you could continue to shop for Scottish specialties in the Scottish Larder within the Tartan Shop. Alternatively, you can eat in the various dining areas located within the centre, which include a pub/bar, cafe, and self-service restaurant.
My mum-in-law and I ate at the self-service restaurant, Old Smithy, during our recent visit. I would highly recommend avoiding it, although the soup which I passed up smelled pretty good. My mum-in-law enjoyed her sandwich, but it was extremely overpriced, as was my Shepherd's Pie, which was practically inedible. The restaurant, overall, was quite disappointing.
Elsewhere in Gretna
I suppose if a tourist tires of the Old Blacksmith's Shop Centre, and/or wishes to make a longer visit to Gretna, there are other attractions available to keep a visitor occupied. Gretna Green's modern village, just down the road, is called Gretna, and the Gretna Gateway Outlet Village (enquiries: 44 (0)1461 339 100 or http://www.gretnagateway.com) should keep shoppers happy for a day or so.
Gretna also has ties with history that go beyond its reputation as a romance centre. On Burgh Marsh, across the Solway River from Gretna, you'll find a monument to King Edward I. This monument marks where he died on his last attempt to conquer Scotland. Earlier still in ancient history is the Lochmaben Stone, which can be seen on the Solway shore near Old Graitney farmland. This stone marks the spot where a local tribal leader, Mabon, fell in battle, around 600 A.D. Originally the stone was called "Clock Maben," which meant "Maben's Stone." The Lochmaben Stone was a recognised assembly place for Scottish troops during the many battles that took place between the Scots and the English in this area.
Overall, my feeling is that Gretna Green makes an interesting day trip or stop on the way to and from Scotland. It may be a fun place to marry as well, but I can't see how someone would want to spend more than a day or so here. Thus, enjoy Gretna for what it is, a touristy, historical day trip, but personally, I wouldn't recommend planning to spend much more time here.
Marks out of 10 for Gretna Green: 4.5
Families with children in tow will be pleased to note there is quite a large children's play area at the Old Blacksmith's Shop Centre.
Even if you aren't planning on staying too long, the Tourist Information Centre at Gretna Green (a short walk from the Blacksmith Shop) makes a good stop, where you can get information on the rest of Dumfries and Galloway, and other parts of the country.