British Couples Flee To a Marriage Mecca

Since 1754, a Scottish village has been 'Las Vegas' to youngsters eager to wed

Alison Quigley, inside her modest office, is braced to receive the day's first wave of star-struck lovers. As registrar in this Scottish village (pop: 3,149), half a mile across the border with England, she and her assistants perform well over 4,000 marriage ceremonies each year.

"A lot of them are runaways, and I always feel like asking, 'Why don't you tell your mother?' " Ms. Quigley says. "But I never do."

An hour later, her office is crowded with couples waiting to be wed. Others, already married, head out through the swinging doors where the first thing they see is a fish-and-chip shop on the other side of the street.

Tying the knot over an anvil

For impulsive English youngsters, Gretna Green is the equivalent of the White Chapel in Las Vegas, Nev. Couples have been arriving here since 1754, when Parliament in London decided that no one under 21 could get married without parental consent.

The English legislators forgot that Scotland had its own marriage law, allowing couples age 16 or over to declare themselves husband and wife in front of witnesses. Gretna Green was first stop in Scotland on the stagecoach route from England, and the local blacksmith had a brilliant idea: He began offering to marry eloping couples.

With a single bang of a hammer on his anvil he converted starry-eyed teenagers into couples no one could put asunder. The news quickly spread, and Gretna Green soon became a destination for runaway young English couples.

"Some couples still elect to marry over the anvil," says Alistair Houston, whose family owns the building where the first marriages took place. "But nowadays a clergyman must perform the ceremony. We still have the anvil, but the blacksmith is long gone." English and Scottish marriage laws have now been harmonized, he explains, and there is no reason for couples to wed in Gretna Green. "But the romance of this place keeps them coming, even though most settle for a registry office or church wedding," he adds.

An unlikely romantic rendezvous

The word romance does not spring readily to mind when one arrives in the conjugal capital of Great Britain. Gretna Green lies beside a busy freeway and consists of a tangle of drab 1960s houses, modest hotels and motels, and a few dreary shops selling, among other items, plastic souvenir anvils.

The old white-painted blacksmith's shop still stands, but it is almost lost in a nest of fast-food outlets. "We get quite a lot of rain here," a waitress admits, as another downpour begins.

But the weather and tattiness of Gretna Green failed to dissuade more than 750,000 tourists from arriving here by the busload last year, making it Scotland's third-most-popular visitor attraction. "We get people from all over the world, including a lot of Japanese," Mr. Houston says. "Sir James Goldsmith, the billionaire leader of the Referendum Party in this year's general election, was married in Gretna Green some years ago."

Outside Quigley's office, most of the couples exiting into the rainy street are wearing formal clothes. Many of them, an assistant at "Weddings Without Worries" explains, rent top hats and veils. A few couples turn up dressed as Mickey and Minnie Mouse, or in other outlandish garb, she adds with a sniff.

In the old days, furious fathers frequently used to arrive here determined to head off wayward sons or daughters bent on matrimony. It still happens occasionally, Quigley says.

In 1994, a wedding ceremony in her office was disrupted when the couple's parents turned up. The bride's father threatened to kill the bridegroom. The police were called.

A constable told the parents there was nothing they could do. While the argument continued, the newlyweds left by the back door.

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