A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it” —John Steinbeck
Tucked just inside the southernmost reaches of Scotland, the tiny, picturesque village of Gretna Green rests a little over three kilometres out of reach of an 18th-century English law that restricted the right of young couples wanting to wed.
Introduced in England in 1754, the Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act forbade any couple under the age of 21 from marrying without their parents’—or guardians’—consent. North of the border, however, the Scots refused to alter their traditions of allowing girls aged at least 12 to marry boys aged 14 or older, with anyone permitted to marry a couple simply ‘by declaration’, and so Gretna Green became the UK’s eloping capital for loved-up English teens. (English law has long since been amended to allow couples aged 18 and over to wed without parent’s consent, but the Scottish minimum age remains lower at 16.) It even spawned a whole new (unofficial) profession known as the ‘blacksmith anvil priest’.
Way back when, blacksmiths were among the most respected figures in any given community, mending everything from carts to carriages to farm equipment, as well as the more traditional tasks like making horseshoes. The Blacksmith Shop was positioned in the heart of Gretna Green and soon these upstanding village patriarchs were sought after to oversee the marriage ceremonies by way of ‘declaration’ before announcing the marriage by way of a celebratory strike of their anvil with a hammer. It also served as a highly profitable venture for the tradesmen, with one blacksmith telling the Times in 1843 that he had performed in the region of 3,500 marriages over his 25-year career.
Joseph Paisley was one of the first blacksmiths to turn celebrant, in 1753, the beginning of a family tradition that lasted generations. Arriving in 1926, Richard Rennison was one of Gretna Green’s last blacksmith anvil priests and went on to oversee more than 5,000 vows. The practice caused issues south of the border, with a Newcastle MP in 1855 declaring that it was “lowering the habits, injuring the character, and destroying the morality of the people of the northern counties of England”; but it wasn’t until 1940 that ‘marriage by declaration’ was outlawed in Scotland.
Gretna Green remains a marriage mecca, mainly for English couples (the Mill Forge Hotel, for instance, hosts around 600 weddings annually, 80 percent of them for their southern neighbours). Its visitors are no longer predominantly young runaway teens drunk on forbidden love, rather everyday couples seduced by the romantic history of it all, the creaking white cottages and manicured country gardens. And so this humble hamlet that houses less than 3,000 souls hosts an astonishing 5,000 marriages each year (to give that some perspective, the neighbouring county of Cumbria has around 3,000 weddings a year—and a population of half-a-million).
The original Blacksmiths Shop, the Old Smithy, still serves as a wedding venue, joined by numerous inns, old churches and purpose-built chapels where couples get hitched while stood behind an iconic blacksmith’s anvil, their union celebrated not with the peal of church bells, but still with the striking of that sturdy metal block before being sealed with a kiss.
Romancing the Stars
A run down of some celebrity couples who hightailed it to get hitched in secret.
Jennifer Garner & Ben Affleck
The pair first met on the set of Pearl Harbor and starred together again two years later in Daredevil. Both Garner and Affleck were, however, in relationships at the time and didn’t officially become an item until 2004. They wed the following year at a private ceremony at Parrot Cay in Turks and Caicos, inviting only two guests. But the couple split a decade later.
Rachel Weisz & Daniel Craig
The notoriously private British couple had been dating just six months when they tied the knot in 2011, a decision that appeared to even take Weisz by surprise—she’d been anti-marriage until she met ‘James Bond’. “It was not an ambition of mine,” she told the Evening Standard. “I couldn’t relate to romantic comedies—marriage seems to be the whole point of them. Then it just happened, happily, at a more mature moment.”
Jodie Foster & Alexandra Hedison
The relationship hadn’t quite yet hit the year-mark when Jodie Foster married her photographer girlfriend, Alexandra Hedison, in secret, in April of 2014. Foster, famously private, famously came out publicly at the Golden Globes in 2013, having been in a 20-year relationship with producer Cydney Bernard, with whom she has two kids. Hedison is a former actress also, and a former flame of Ellen DeGeneres.
Isla Fisher & Sacha Baron Cohen
Just six close relatives and two-year-old daughter, Olive, witnessed the marriage of the Aussie actress to her comedic husband at a traditional Jewish ceremony in Paris in 2010. Fisher revealed the importance of having a private celebration owing to their lives in the public eye, and told friends that they wanted “no fuss”.
Mila Kunis & Ashton Kutcher
Keeping their service secret wasn’t enough for this Hollywood duo who even went so far as to send the press on a wild goose chase ahead of their vows. Kunis and Kutcher wed in California in 2015 before heading to Yosemite Park on honeymoon with their young daughter, but not before uploading a series of misleading social media posts at different locations to throw those pesky paps off the scent, which Kutcher later described as a “ninja effort”.
A spate of high-profile elopements caused such moral panic in late 19th-century America that the Philadelphia Times declared the phenomenon was “wrecking society”, while Life magazine, in 1884 said the “elopement epidemic… has played havoc with so many hearts and homes”. Notable examples included an older man who escaped with “a handsome brunette, 18 years of age”, and Pastor Jacobs who eloped with Mrs Carroll, the wife of a church deacon.
Tanan is the name given to the ancient practice of elopement in the Philippines, usually taking the form of a woman making a break for it under the cover of night, often to escape an arranged marriage. It occurs under similar circumstances in Indonesia, where it is known as kawin lari, though such marriages are rarely legally recognised.
Nowadays, western elopements are often done for financial reasons rather than to escape the wrath of disapproving parents or due to a shotgun wedding. Couples are able to drastically reduce—or even eliminate—their guest lists while rolling their wedding and honeymoon into one trip. According to the Office of National Statistics’ International Passenger Survey, the number of Brits getting hitched in the US trebled between 2006 and 2016; quadrupled for South Africa; and increased eight-fold for Italy. There are even specialist ‘eloping’ travel agencies that deal with such trips.
In October 2018, married couple Randy and Melvin Berlin each aged 89, made a pilgrimage to Crown Point, Indiana, the place to where they eloped from their parents’ Chicago homes some 70 years earlier. “We thought that Crown Point, Indiana, might like to know what happened to us,” Randy told the Chicago Tribune, before her husband added of their precious day that the judge had joked that they forgot their baby! Randy hadn’t, however, been pregnant, rather too excited to wait any longer to marry her beau.