Gretna Green : its Toll-gate
keeper and Marrying-houses.
Some good advice is here
For those who stand in need :
The Toll-gate keeper is described
For those who choose to read.
Although in the last chapter
we said we were not paving the way to Gretna Green by writing these pages,
and although we said that we would lose no opportunity of appending a
wholesome moral to each anecdote which it will be our province to record,
yet let it not be concluded that we are therefore one of that Axctfpix of
modern philosophers, who go about decrying matrimony altogether, as a state
into which the rising generation had better not think of entering, and which
ought to be looked on by those who do venture into it, at best but as a
That which is natural cannot
be wrong: and that compact between the sexes which is of divine origin,
.must be right from its very origin. If, therefore, there is anything
whereof to complain, the fault lies in ourselves, and not in the
institution. The institution, in itself, is purposed to ensure our
happiness, and where it does not achieve this, it is not referable to the
divine framer of the condition, but to our own weaknesses, petulancies, and
devilish evil passions.
We hold matrimony to be
necessary; the only thing is, to enter upon it advisedly, wisely, and
discreetly. Thus, then, when we say that we are not now paving the way to
Gretna Green, we mean what we say—videlicet, that we are not paving the way
to Gretna Green, or persuading people to go thitherward, but are by no means
counselling against marriage in other more creditable places. Let all marry,
so be they do it considerately;. and let them do it before the altar in the
midst of Mother Church, with well-approving friends and neighbours around
them; and if, after having done our best to obtain a peaceful life, we
discover that we have been deceived in our judgments of the partners we have
selected, why, the misfortune must be considered in the same light as other
appointments in this world are considered, that is, as one of the trials
which it has pleased Providence to lay upon us. It is an after-satisfaction
to reflect that we took the step to the best of our reason, and with the
best concurrence of our relations ; but such after-satisfaction cannot
alleviate those who have to remember that they ran away to Gretna Green
against the wishes, counsel, or consent of their parents, guardians, or
whomsoever it might have been.
There is no sting so bitter
as that of remorse ; and to be angry with ourselves for having done a
.foolish thing, cuts ten times sharper than the anger of all the whole world
else. The anger of another against us may fire our resentment for a moment,
and enkindle our rage against that other; but remorse for our own misdeeds
is a never-dying worm, which gnaws the heart in secret, corrodes it like
acid eating into metal, and dives deep, like the canker grub that creeps
into the centre of the rose-bud. Compared with this, the outburst of rage is
almost a noble passion. Rage against another, where we have justice on our
side, is a swelling, an inspiring, an expanding passion; but remorse is a
humiliating, self-degrading, lessening, compressing passion: and where we
feel little in our own eyes, painful indeed is the sensation. Wherefore,
good reader, eschew Gretna Green for fear of this remorse, and have
rectitude on your side by repairing properly to church.
Immediately after the
way-farer has passed the Sark, he will perceive a toll-gate just beyond the
bridge on the right-hand side ; this is the first building over the border,
and is situated close thereunto, as the reader will conceive. Now, this is a
right excellent situation for business : as it lies at the very entrance of
the Sister Kingdom; it is on the chief road of the country, over which
everybody journeying into western Scotland' must pass; in fine, it is there
like the open mouth of a net set against the stream.
The advantageous site of this
toll-gate was too valuable to be neglected, and herein dwells one Simon
Beatie, collector of tolls, tribute, and so forth, and a man who may be
described as being "wide awake." He is a knowing and shrewd personage, well
to do in the world, and knows "what's what," which, as we take it, is a
praise far above common.
As the office of marrying in
Scotland is not restricted to a certain privileged few, but is open to all,'
to be performed by every one whom it may concern, and as he who thus
accommodates the needy does not do so there for nothing, any more than
elsewhere, why it follows that this trade may be made not an unprofitable
one, if the self-ordained priest can only procure customers. Well, now, we
have said that Simon lives on the great thoroughfare—this was a wise choice
for locality; but then, scores of candidates for matrimony might come over
the bridge on foot, (as they often do to lull suspicion,) and pass through
the gate on their way to the Green, for foot passengers have no excuse for
tarrying at toll-gates, having no tribute to pay. Be it so : but we have
said that Simon was " wide awake," and so he determined to give them an
excuse for stopping. He set up a large and attractive sign-board over his
door, whereon is notified, in bright paint, that he is the vender of " ale,
porter, and spirituous liquors," so that the weary and the thirsty may now
enter his dwelling, in order to rest their bones and moisten their clay.
This was considerate. But dost thou think, right courteous reader, that
Simon reared up this huge emblazonment solely and simply to decoy the
parched over his threshold ? Oh, no! Simon is a shrewd man, as aforesaid,
and can look as far into an oak plank as most men. He intended it as an
excuse for the shy and diffident, who might not at first have courage to
declare the true object of their coming. All persons whatsoever, let their
motive for journeying this way be what it may, have, under the authority of
this board, an allege-able reason for stepping in. and asking after his
health; this is just the very thing he intended. It is the plea of the
thirsty, and the cloak of the modest ; they allege the first, being stricken
with fear through the power of the second.
Touching this enterprising
individual, there are many witty and waggish anecdotes current in the
parish, ay, and beyond the bounds of the parish, too ;' these, for the most
part are, peradventure, set abroach by the villagers, rather through envy
and jealousy of a thriving rival in the trade, than as being broadly based
on' truth; yet, it is certain, that in much falsehood spoken, some truth
will ever be found to run astray. Not a being passes the bridge but Simon
searchingly scans him with his eye, first through the little diagonal window
which flanks and commands the road, such as all toll-gates possess, and then
from his front door, at- greater advantage, for he is anxious to secure him
ere he can get to the other marrying-shops. If there be anything in the
stranger's appearance that looks like wedlock, or as if bent on wedlock,
Simon courteously, but bluntly, (for such is his manner,) bid him
welcome over the border by coming to the threshold, as if to receive toll
or, if the stranger be on foot, so as to be wholly exempt from paying scot,
he will then come, merely prompted by a feeling of philanthropy, which he
should appear to bear towards every fellow-creature, and inquire how matters
speed in the south country.
Some say that he is somewhat
of an inquisitive turn, because he is wont to be very loquacious to those
who cross the bridge.
"How now, traveller " he will
say to him, as he approaches, "I ken ye find the roads dusty," (or heavy, or
wet, or dry, or rough, or pleasant, or unpleasant, as the case may be,) "how
far gang ye? 'tis a far cry to Annan."
"I am not going to Annan,"
the wayfarer may answer.
"And right too, for ye'll na
get there till ye are tired. Ye ken not the distance to Annan; ye are a
stranger in these parts by your talk."
"I know this country but
imperfectly," is the likely reply; "and if I had never come thus far, I
should have known still less."
"Aweel, aweel, now, and
that's true; and those that coom here, pick up knowledge that they'll na
learn anywhere else."
"Every locality has its own
peculiar history, and each place we journey to furnishes something new. It
is not strange, therefore, that this neighbourhood should be the home of
facts, or traditions, or legends, that are not to be met with elsewhere."
"Right; and facts, too, as no
other parish in her majesty's dominions ever contained the like. Why, ken ye
what parish ye have stepped into, now that ye have passed yon river ?"
"What parish? I know nothing
of the divisions of your parishes in Scotland, or where their boundary lines
begin and end; but, if I am not mistaken, the village of Gretna Green is
somewhere about here, though I don't mean to say I can tell how far off."
"And that's the name of the
parish ! the most celebrated parish in all the whole earth; and this
toll-gate is the most famous toll-gate that ever was built, not because I
take so many bawbees from passers by, but for reasons much more important,
as I ken."
"Certainly," the peregrinator
will observe, as he gives a glance at the white-washed house ; "I should not
have been particularly struck with the external appearance of the building,
for it looks much like most others of the same class."
"No, no, no," Simon will
answer hastily; "no, ye'll na say there's anything aboot it; and no more
there is, barring the inside. I ken ye're tired;— we sell home-brewed beer,
ale, porter, cider, foreign wines, whiskey, and other spirituous liquors;
and though, as ye say, there's nothing striking outside —except the board
that bears those words of course —the inside is one of the neatest insides
ye ever went into, especially the parlour with, the corner window that looks
down the road."
"No doubt, no doubt. How far
is it to the nearest public?"
"Oh! now, I ken it's a far
cry, and ye'll be overmuch tired an ye go further till ye've rested awhile,
and filled your painch with a farl of bread, or a bannock, and a mutchkin of
"No," I am neither tired nor
hungry: and if I stand in need of no rest, nor require any of your
berry-brown or heather-dew, why should I tarry here and dally by the
"Ye are na in sieh a hurry as
that. There's a braw big hoose up at the Green, where they will charge ye
for just looking into the gateway : an if ye gang into the door, ye'll na
coom oot again till your bawbees are a' gone. He who goes in there will
change weight between his heart and his purse ; and when he comes away he
will find his purse as light as his heart might ha' been when he went in,
but yet not nearly so full: and his heart will be as heavy as his purse
might have been, but not with gold though—so tahk that for a truth."
"And pray what is the name of
this ' braw big hoose,' against which you warn ipe?" - " Oh, they cahl it
the hahl." "The hall?—Gretna Hall? " "May be ye've heard on it afore." "I
have heard the name."
"Aweel sir, ye've na coom to
Scotland for nothing—have ye?"
"I never go or come anywhere
for nothing; if I did, I should be wasting time and strength to very little
"That's true ; and may be
ye've not coom to Gretna for nothing neither."
"Of course not. I should be
spending time and strength uselessly if I had—just as I said before."
"Perhaps you would. Any information . that you want about the customs of
this parish I can give you better than any man on the border, and you will
do well to inquire here before you go further, for you know not whom you
meet or how they will try to persuade you."
"You speak as if I had
entered a region of difficulties, temptations, and perplexities, wherein I
am to be tried, and sounded as to my motives, and watched and dogged and
questioned as to the object of my coming amongst you. Surely I may pass
through Gretna Green unnoticed, 'or tarry as long as I like, and go when I
like, without being subject to such scrutiny ?"
"Oh Lor, sir, this is the
land o' liberty as far as that goes, and ye be welcome over the Sark; but
when we see a stranger on the Moss cooming this way, we like to know what is
the news that he brings along with him ; for it is a true saying, that no
two men possess the same knowledge—not if they both came from the same
place, and had lived there all their days among the same people—and so ye
ken that every one, whoever he is, always brings some thing different?
"Very good, that is like
Thus Simon will feel his way,
and probe the unsuspecting who travel thitherward. He will appear
particularly anxious to welcome him — no matter whom or from whence
emanating—to the land of cakes and ale ; he will ask the news south at
Carlisle, how business speeds, whether the traveller has succeeded in the
undertaking he had heard he was engaged in, when it is likely to be
completed, whether he is not wearied after his walk, and indeed, whether he
will not come in for five minutes and crush a cup or so? These and such like
wary questions, judiciously urged, will sometimes elicit from the visitor
the purport of his coming, yet if the said visitor, when he has discovered
wherefore he is thus catechised, wholly disclaims being bent on a
matrimonial adventure, Simon is so suspicious lest he may be deceived, and
so fearful lest the rival priesthood in the village should take the job from
him, that the strongest asseverations to the contrary, will rarely satisfy
him that no wedlock is contemplated.
Thus it is, that his
neighbours merrily relate how he one day forcibly waylaid an old woman and
her nephew as they were returning from Carlisle market, and well nigh
constrained them to enter into the holy estate, in spite of all their
protestations against the proceeding. It was in vain they declared that they
were actual aunt and nephew, and repudiated the very idea ; it was in vain
they swore they were only two innocent relations returning quietly to their
homes after a day of traffic and toil; it was in vain the old woman called
her nephew, "boy," and "child," and "lad" (for he was forty years younger
than herself), Simon was deaf to all argu-ments.andall expostulations ; he
had taken the notion into his imagination, and he was headstrong and
determined. These boisterous words reverberated widely through the valley,
until they accosted the ears of certain of the villagers at a distance; aud
this served to attract them hastily to the spot, where their assistance was
verily in request. Gentle entreaty and mild persuasion wholly failed to
achieve their deliverance ; and it was not until more decided measures were
taken that they succeeded in rescuing these victims from Simon and from
'Tis also pleasantly told,
that a man travelling along the road, whereon he had never been before,
being a stranger in these parts, did by a mere chance meet a woman of whom
he inquired the way; and how Simon pounced upon them both as they were
holding converse ; and how he desired to make them forthwith swear hymeneal
faith and love to each other till death should them part; and forsooth, how
it was that none could persuade him that they were strangers and had never
met before ; and even if that were true, he saw no reason, nevertheless, why
he should not wed them. Surely these be witty conceits, and right merrily
We have not told our friends
by what chance it was that we were suddenly stirred up to repair to Gretna
Green, and when there, to tarry several days in the parish for the purpose
of collecting, "interesting materials," such as should serve for this
authentic history—but it can be done in a few lines.
It so befel for our pleasant
recreation, we had been making a peregrination round the Highlands, and were
returning homeward toward the dew-dropping south—ay, and had even crossed
the Debateable Land, and arrived in the ancient city of Carlisle.
By another chance also, we
here became acquainted with a funny, laughing specimen of hu-inanity, who
had himself taken a wife to his bosom at Gretna, and who was full of
anecdote touching the adventure, so soon as he saw how curious and amused we
were. He eloquently narrated how impatiently his lady-love and himself sped
over the border in the carriage, and never saw one bit of Solway Moss or the
country, for the reasons before given ;—how he found " the blacksmith" so
called, infinitely drunk, and fast asleep;-—how he shook him by the
shoulders to arouse him to life and to duty imperative — how the said
blacksmith rubbed his maudlin eyes, and cried out for another noggin;— and
how he could have been married for a shilling, only he came in a chaise, and
so he paid half a guinea.
Such words were not without
their effect; the man was stirred up within us; we repented us- of our sin,
and incontinently girding up our loins for the journey, we forthwith
hastened back over the Sark, and took up our lodgment in the mansion hard by
There are several
marrying-shops in this most remarkable and interesting parish, by the
proprietors of which the trade is pretty much monopolized to the exclusion
of many others who would set up for themselves in so profitable a line, if
they could contrive it; but when strangers rush hastily into the place, they
must of necessity repair to some hotel or inn, there to abide whilst the
ceremony is being perpetrated ; and thus the proprietors of such
establishments possess advantages in monopoly which no private persons can
cope with, although any inhabitant may have equal right to marry the
strangers, just as much as the innkeepers. Thus a kind of understanding has
been set up, and entered into between the inn-keepers of Carlisle and the
inn-keepers of Gretna : the former sending customers to the latter, their
friends, and the latter playing back into the hands of the former by sharing
the rich proceeds; —and in this manner they reciprocally carry on a right
slashing business. .
The wisdom of such a
situation as that of Simon Beatie close to the bridge over which every one
must pass, will now manifestly be perceived ; for he knew how many rivals,
enemies, and monopolizers prowled about the village; and hence, by getting
just within the border, he was determined to secure the first chance, and to
forestal them as much as possible.
mentioned—or simply, "the hall," as it is there designated — is now the
principal aristocratic and fashionable resort, since the new road has been
made ; but formerly, when .the great thoroughfare lay through Springfield, a
little inn ycleped "The King's Head," situated in the centre of that
village, was the temple whereunto the noble and the gentle repaired, as we
shall soon take upon ourselves to set forth.
Besides these, and Simon
Beatie, it is true there are one or two other minor beer-shops in which a
man may ruin himself; but these do not require especial mention now, though
they may be touched upon incidentally as occasion may suggest; yet friend
Simon at the toll-gate must on no consideration be slighted; and, to be
candid, we think we cannot do better than commence with him.
Upon a certain morning during
our sojourn, we idly, but designedly, directed our steps down towards the
bridge; and whether we were thirsty when we read the sign-board over the
door, or whether we had any other motives for approaching Simon's abode,
making this one the cloak, or whether we came for the purpose of collecting
historical and traditionary notes, or whether we had any other reason
whatsoever, but so it was, somehow we entered in and besought the tapster
for a stoup of the best by way of preliminary. Simon Beatie himself, at that
identical moment was seated upon a stool before a table, on which stood a
looking-glass, a mug of hot water, and a circular pewter box: his chin, his
lips, and his cheeks up to his ears, were covered with a fine white lather,
and in his right hand he held a brush, which, on our entering, he was laying
down in order, to take from a red case a well stropped razor:—in short, he
was just about to commence the cursed operation of shaving. Whatever ills
the disobedience of Adam and Eve have entailed upon the softer sex, surely
we may say that the curse of shaving has lighted grievously upon their
masters. This, however, is not the curse of ancient Adam, but the curse of
modern fashion. Ye gods ! every morning in summer — ay, and even twice in
one day, upon occasion of a very select evening party, and in winter perhaps
a little less often, (for, an you be a lady, gentle reader, we will tell you
that the beard does not grow so fast in cold weather as in hot,)
imperatively and assuredly does the task come round, even as regularly as
the sun rises above the horizon. Simon, howbeit, shaved away in silence, as
a martyr endures the rack without a murmur, when he knows that nothing can
ward off his doom.
He called a deputy to perform
the honours of his house, and, although he ceased not his occupation until
it was completed, he was evidently wide awake as to the possible unrevealed
motive for this visit. He appeared to think that the stranger had only come
to negotiate, or arrange preliminaries — a thing he always does think
whenever a stranger comes in—and that there was some nice girl concealed
behind the hedge, or in the nearest cottage, who in five minutes would be
produced, so soon as such preliminaries might be satisfactorily made out.
He soon started the subject
which was near and dear to him, (because'it was one of the most lucrative in
which he dabbled,) and he readily entered fully and freely into it, wherever
he might do so without revealing too many of the state secrets connected
with the trade.
"So, Simon," we observed,
"you carry on two occupations at the same time ; you collect tribute on her
majesty's highway, and you sell strong waters under royal licence?"
"You are right, sir," said
he; "but I should soon starve upon those, if I did not carry on a third that
pays better than both the others put together.''
"Assuredly, then, that third
trade must be an excellent one."
"Right again, sir. Do you
want to be married?" "Want what?"
"To be married. You know you
are in Gretna parish, and that's the trade I mean." " Stay, stay; you are
too precipitate." "I only thought that the young lady who is waiting for you
whilst you spoke to me, would be tired."
"Oh ! she is much indebted to
you, indeed. But you really do marry?"
"No doubt of it; and I do
more business than any priest in the village. Perhaps you have a wife
"Well, that may be; I canna
say for certain. Once I thought you looked like a married man." "Once, ay ?
and how did I look that once?" "Why, sir, a married man has always got a
different sort of look upon him to what another has; I canna say exactly
what it is, but it's a something." "What gay and happy, I suppose?" "Oh no,
sir, more to other." "And pray what is ' more t' other?" "Why, grave and
thoughtful like, sad and broken down in spirit."
"Ha, ha, ha ! that is
admirable." "Now, sir, you look for all the world like a bachelor."
"If,, then, I really am a
bachelor, as you say I look when I laugh, methinks you do not give me much
encouragement to change my state."
"You may safely change it
here; Gretna weddings always turn out well."
"Do they, indeed? Well, that
is more cheering."
"If you are married, you have
not been married at Gretna Green, I would venture a bawbee or two."
"True, I have not been
married at Gretna Green. You say that weddings achieved here always turn out
well: now, I think I know one couple, at least, who came here as fast, as
four horses could carry them, who now sometimes scratch each other's faces."
"Suppose you do, sir, there
is no harm in that—"
"Oh ! good morning—"
"Besides, I take it, they
went up into the village, to the Hall, or the King's Head, instead of coming
to me ; so that, if they do fall out now and then, why surely it is more
their fault than mine."
"Certainly, it is not yours
if you had no hand in the matter."
"You Southrons are too long
about these matters ; you ponder over them too much, and that makes you
hesitate, and hesitation brings mistrust; and when people begin to mistrust,
it is all up with their happiness. They have no time here to ponder, to
hesitate, or to mistrust; the thing is done as soon as thought of, and then
they have only to set about making themselves as comfortable as they can."
"' Marry in haste and repent
at leisure,' saith the proverb."
"I respect proverbs in most
cases, because they are founded upon truth and experience ; but proverbs are
not gospel, although you will find several chapters of them in the Bible."
"Just so, just so."
"By my position close to the
bridge, you see, sir, I have the first chance of those who come over : those
who come on foot are my own for certain ; but those who come in carriages
generally make for the Hall, and drive so furiously I can't stop them. When,
however, I see anything coming over the Moss at a fair round pace, I go and
shut the gate. Whilst I am pulling back the bolts to let them through, I
have time to find out what they are, and try if I canna get the job out of
the hands of my neighbours. Now, sir, I tell you that during the first three
years I kept this gate, I married two thousand couple.1
What think you?"
"That thou carriest on a
"Ay, and they have turned out
well and happy. I have done more for the happiness of this world than any
other man under the blue sky."
"Truly, then, the universe is
much beholden unto you."
"I canna deny it, and I woona
try: I married five couplc only yesterday morning ; first two couple came in
with their friends, and then the other three."
These facts are honourably
presented unto the reader even as Simon Beatie delivered them ; and despite
the jealousy which the villagers cherish towards this all-potent rival, many
of them afterwards confessed to the truth of his assertions.
Simon Beatie is a large
stalwart man, taller than many, and fatter than most; he speaks by short,
rapid, and detached sentences, like one having a nervous and mercurial
temperament; and furthermore, his speech is a rough comminglement of the
Cumberland and Scotch dialects; facts which, added together, render it very
difficult for a southerner to comprehend him.
"We did try by various
innuendos, and even by more decided questions, to elicit from him what the
"damage" might be for being wedded? but these questions he civilly combatted
and eschewed, manifestly thinking, with Shakspere, that "two can keep
counsel putting one away: "so he preferred the policy of keeping his own
counsel in this matter to himself, and not sharing it with another. He
answered by crying out against the exorbitant demands of his fellows in
trade, and concluded by saying that, "he would do it just as well and
effectually as they could if wc would only produce the lady, and he would do
it much cheaper, too."
This "brawny Scot" is
discreet and wary as it should seem, and will not let his tongue cut his
head off, as such unruly members have in aforetime done for their wearers:
nevertheless, notwithstanding Simon was cautious to maintain his secret for
obvious reasons, yet there were plenty of others, his neighbours, who had
not the same interest or inclination for doing so, but who, on being
questioned, divulged all they knew of Simon and his practices. They said
that neither he nor any other " priest" in the parish "had any fixed charge,
nor was there any settled demand established whether by law or custom; that
the great aim was by them all, " to get as much as possible;" that when a
stranger made application, he judged by the appearance or manner of the
party, and asked accordingly ; that the ignorance of the party making
application, gave both him and his brothers in office the opportunity for
undue exaction ; that if his demand is preposterous, (as it often is,) he
may be beat down ; but that rather than miss a chance, and allow others to
reap the spoil, he has been known to unite man and wife in the bands of holy
matrimony for the most particular sum of one shilling!
These facts apply more or
less to all the functionaries in the place, it being the object of each and
all to drive bargains as lucrative to themselves as they possibly can; and
for having enlightened the reader on these matters, we consider that we are
entitled to some acknowledgment, seeing that if he now goes to Gretna in
haste and precipitancy, he will not go ignorant of what concerns his
interest, but will be able, through his knowledge, to save more money in his
negotiations than will pay for this work twenty times over.