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Chronicles of Gretna Green
Chapter XII


Rivalry of the Gretna Priests.

The practices of Gretna priests,
Where each is each one's rival;
And how they fight like savage beasts
For every new arrival.

A recent talented author has given some excellent advice to young ladies, as to the motives which should sway them in the bestowal of their hearts and hands, or rather, of their hands. We say, especially of their hands, for their hearts are always bestowed as their disinterested love directs, but their hands, too often, according to the suggestions of worldly gain, selfishness, prudence, money, or the like.

"Whatever may be the accidental and ultimate advantages in respect of fortune or social station," says this writer, "expected to be realized by a woman, in forming a union with one who would be otherwise regarded with indifference, or dislike, or disgust, she may rely upon it that she is committing an act of, deliberate wickedness, which will be attended probably for the rest of her life with consequences of unutterable and inevitable misery, which even the obtaining of her proposed objects will not compensate, but only enhance.

"It is equally a principle of our law and of common sense, that people must be understood to have contemplated the natural and necessary consequences of their own acts, even if hastily, but by so much the more, if deliberately done. When, therefore, they come to experience these consequences, let them not complain.

"A marriage of this description is, so to speak, utter dislocation and destruction to the delicate and beautiful fabric of a woman's character. It perverts, it deflects the noblest tendencies of her lovely nature; it utterly degrades and corrupts her; she sinks irretrievably into an inferior being; instead of her native simplicity and purity, are to be seen, henceforth, only heartlessness and hypocrisy; her affections and passions denied their legitimate objects and outlets, according to their original weakness or strength of developement, either disappear and wither, and she is no longer woman, or impel her headlong into.coarse sensuality, perhaps, at length, open criminality; and then she is expelled indignantly, and for ever, from the community of her sex.

" It is not the mere ring and the orange-blossoms that constitute the difference between Virtue and Vice."

Certes, there is a something despicable and degrading in forming connexions of this kind; and yet, until a better state of morals shall have been infused into society in general, we fear it will be o'er long ere it will be much otherwise.

Whilst friendship betwixt man and man, and sometimes, though less frequently, betwixt woman and woman, land again, betwixt woman and man, depends on the entertainments which they can give each other, or on the number of carriages or servants they keep, the.wherewithal to procure those carriages and servants will constitute the ultimatum of worldly desire — he or she who is richest will be the most, amiable creature; and, therefore, to acquire lucre, whether by honest or by vicious means, will be the great object of every transaction in life. Thus, young hearts are bought and sold for bullion ; thus, people love one way but marry another; and thus, discontent, misery, dislike of home, criminal love, or adulterous affection, are fostered and nurtured throughout the land.

Pride is the root of this evil, or rather, train of evils. If people could cure themselves of the pride of making a great show towards their neighbours, who, after all, only care for them as long as they can get dinners out of them, marriages would oftener be made in heaven than in hell, as they are, though celebrated on earth, and much happiness would accrue.

It is not to be concluded, that, because there are marriages at Gretna performed by such as David Laing deceased, after the manner of those we have described, that a wedding is never celebrated in the parish church by a clergyman. Such a supposition has gone abroad, and spread itself over divers regions and districts of the great world ; but it is a mistake, an error, and one which, out of consideration to the less headlong Scotch, we would now correct.

It is the strangers, the fugitives from England, who go to the Hall, the King's Head, the toll-gate, or elsewhere, but the native dwellers on the soil eschew such practices as unmeet; they are always united to each other by the clergyman in the church in preference, and need not resort to other expedients, except, peradventure, under peculiar and extreme circumstances.

We were informed that, in this parish, it was the custom for those who wished to marry to be proclaimed in the holy building three several times by the precentor or clerk, that is, by one of them, for there are two. They must be proclaimed three times and no less; but it is not imperative that this public advertisement and proclamation take place on three separate Sundays; they may be thus proclaimed all three times in one day, if absolutely necessary. Neither,' said our informants, is it required that the minister be present; but only that there be a few persons in the church, enough to constitute a congregation, and the precentor gives out that he is reading a proclamation of marriage between John Stiles of so-and-so, and Mary Baker of such-a-place, as the case may be, concluding, after the manner of publishing banns in England, this is the first, second, or third time.

Although this form differs but triflingly from that of this our sister kingdom, the resemblance between the two is not so exact as to make them one and the same; in fact, they are precisely alike, all but the difference. The Scotlanders, as well as ourselves, where there is no need for going to fearful lengths, prefer a man in holy orders to perform the ceremony, as it gives a greater force and sanctity to the compact.

"In that part of the kingdom," says a recent writer, "nothing further is necessary in order to constitute a man and woman husband and wife, than a declaration of consent by the parties before witnesses, or even such a declaration in writing, without any witnesses; a marriage which is considered binding in all respects. Still, a marriage in Scotland, not celebrated by a clergyman, (with the exceptions we are about to mention,) is rarely or never heard of,- [that is, by the Seoteh themselves,] a result of the nearly universal feeling which is in favour of a religious celebration of the contract, and whieh would look upon the neglect of that solemnity as disreputable.

"What the Scottish people, however, eschewed as evil, the-more lax English, under certain circumstances, did not fail to avail 'themselves of; and the rigid Marriage Act of 1754 had not "been many years in force, before 'love found out the way' of evading its enactments, and still, to a certain extent, playing propriety. It was only requisite that the knot should be tied in Scotland, to set at defiance all parents and guardians, fo matches so made appear to have been almost exclusively ' stolen or 'runaway,' and the parties all English."

My Lord Hardwicke's rigid Marriage Act of 1754 alluded to in the preceding extract, compelled all persons in England to wed each other through the agency of a clergyman within the walls of mother church ; a practice which had not been necessary for many years before ; and we believe it did not show the considerate toleration towards Jews, Turks,

Infidels, and Heretics, and the body of dissenters from the established religion, that it should in christian charity have done ; so that, finding impediments to matrimony throughout that land wherein this law had dominion, they fled over the northern Border to escape its severity.

To this statute we may ascribe the great celebrity of Gretna Green, during the later half of the last century, as a fane dedicated to the rites of Hymen; a celebrity which the new Act of 1837 would be likely to impair, if the English were 'less fond of considering the contract in a religious light than we rejoice to say they are.

It has been observed elsewhere, that the trade here is sadly monopolized by a few fortunate individuals, to the exclusion and detriment of a host of others, equally qualified, but not equally favoured. This usurpation of priesthood is grievously complained of by the excluded, who have no participation in the business, and the profits thereof; they wish " the trade to be thrown open," and see no reason, forsooth, why it should not be so, just as well as the China trade.

The difficulties, however, are enormous, much more so than ever existed in the East, and for this one manifest reason, that the obstacles there have been removed, but not so those at Gretna.

If it be true that any inhabitant in the parish may marry, how comes it that every person really does not perform the office? And then, if so, no complaint could be urged against this monopolization.

Why, it is thus :—

Supposing one of you, our ladies patronesses—yet no, not any of you, for we would not have you marry there, as we have heretofore declared; but supposing, for instance, that one John Stiles were to drive from the ancient city of Carlisle, right over Solway Moss, but without seeing one bit of it, and to arrive at his destination with this loving intent; his driver or postilion would of course take him to some hostelrie which he well knew through knowledge attained by former visits ; whereas himself, being a stranger, (for it is mostly strangers from England who go there,) would not know where to put up for the nonce, but would be entirely in the hands of this driver, to stop just where he might please.

Thankful, then, to attain to some inn, whereinunto he may enter, not only for the sake of eschewing the gaze of certain strangers who have perchance more curiosity than wit, but also for the sake of hastening on the catastrophe of his journey, he asks for the best private sitting-room, and officiously escorts his intended bride to it.

Well, mine host knows in the "wynkynge of an e'e " what is required, and what is the motive for this visit. We have before hinted that these Bonnifaces here are always wide awake, and can see as far into an oak plank as most folks; that they are all eareful enough never to sleep, but have their lamps ready trimmed, replenished, and lighted ; and that the principal one, yeleped John Linton, or else his son, will ever abide at home ready for the coming of the bridegroom, whether he come at high noon-day, or whether he come like a thief in the night.

"We have also observed that a wink is as good as a nod to a blind horso ; and that even much less than either a wink or a nod would be necessary to these wide-awakes, who neither are blind, nor yet ever sleep. These things being pretty well understood, no explanations are needful.

If the lord and governor of this comminglement of the temples of Mercury and Hymen both under one roof, be not his own " priest,1' he has an understanding (to share the profits) with some friend in the village, to whom he sends a messenger; and rest assured this friend doth not tarry long by the way, but uses all convenient haste to attend the pleasant subpoena.

Now, as the stranger and the lady of his election, are in his house, and peradventure the carriage and horses in his coach-house and stables, he has the power of sending to whom he may please, and none but whom he may please to favour can enter and do the agreeable to these new comers, that is, of tying them up in a knot after the fashion of Gordius, a knot very difficult to undo.

If the whole population of the parish were to insist on entering the hostelrie, and boldly to prefer their equal right to marry the visitors, it is probable that John Linton and son would stand in no want of good company at Gretna Hall. If the said visitors were not particular in their choice of an altar, but should

prefer being wedded out in the open fields, the case might be different; any one who chanced to be on the spot first might play the priest, and the especial friend of mine host would have to argue the privilege with many rivals.

The particular priest who does business for Alexander Beattie at the King's Head, is Simon Laing, son of that David Laing who united Mr. Wakefield and Miss Turner, and many others of estate. He is by trade a weaver; and to say the modest truth, there is much more of the weaver than of the parson-in his external; and of the weaver, about as dirty a specimen as ever Spittalfields produced.

Thus, it will be understood, with regard to this personage, that if any pair of fugitives who are wearied of single cursedness, arrive at the King's Head, Alexander forthwith sends for Simon to come and do the needful, first having agreed between themselves to share the golden fleece of which they shear the bridegroom, and, indeed, sometimes the bride, as we will tell ye anon.

In this way the trade is monopolized by the innkeepers and their friends, to the unspeakable regret of the many hungry starvelings of the village.

With the bold design of breaking through this tyrannous monopoly, an enterprising citizen, whose great name is Thomas Little, hath opened an opposition shop at about the distance of a bow-shot east of the King's Head, and on the opposite side of the way. This shop, or rather beer-shop, for such it is beareth emblazoned over the lintel of the doorway, a most tempting and popular sign,— to wit—the " Gretna Wedding."

Behold here its form and portraiture:

GRETNA WEDDING.

The bridegroom (60 called because he grooms down the bride) is represented in this achievement as taking the matter very easily; he is fierce in regimentals, and over-belayed with broidery and gold lace. The lady, who had before yielded up her heart, is now yielding her hand; and that too, with downcast eye, and air as modest as ever was assumed by that Empress of Modesty, Diana. The blacksmith on one side of the picture, and his helpmate on the other, having lost all reverence, are both of them right merrily grinning.

The scene here is laid in a blacksmith's shop, and by the appearance of the " priest" who is doing business, one would be disposed to conclude that the candidates for his help had but newly arrived, like thieves in the night, and had caught him at imawares, and certainly in dishabille ; for he is set forth without coat or any other such external vestment, but with his lawn sleeves drawn up his arms and tucked above the elbow: his loose collar is unbuttoned and thrown back, even as if he had, up to the moment of the arrival, been hard at work; and the cap of labour (not of liberty) rests upon his head: the anvil is before him, whereat he had been engaged welding iron; and so hastily has the affair been driven on, that this anvil, being the first thing at hand, is converted into an altar, on which is laid the book. His fellow-labourer in both trades, stands forth in much the same fashion and costume. Furthermore, the extreme yet characteristic suddenness of the whole transaction, is also demonstrated by the. dresses of the " happy couplethe bridegroom has not had sufficient time to doff any part of his out-door riding appurtenances, whilst his better half appears in her travelling dress, and with. her hat and feathers upon her head.

The reader may fancy that we have been needlessly prolix in our notice of this sign; but with all deference, and under correction, we beg to insist that the emblazonment lays greater claim to consideration than may at first appear. One reason is, it portrays the popular and local ideas respecting the common fashion of doing these things at Gretna; another, that it was done by a native artist, who collected his ideas on the spot; and a third reason is, that he has laid the scene in a blacksmith's shop, and made the priest, so called, a blacksmith. This part of the picture will perfectly agree with the prevailing belief of the world at large, that a blacksmith is in the habit of performing the ceremony; but in spite of all our inquiries, diligently made actually at Gretna Green, we could not discover that a blacksmith ever married any person there. The reader is possibly sceptical, because this is a fond notion that has taken deep root in the popular mind; but many other erroneous ideas, besides this one, have, ere now, gone abroad into the wide world; and, with respect to this especial fancy, we- have only to say that a portion of this most authentic history will shortly be devoted to the subject, and then, like a true historiographer, we will set down the whole course of our investigations, together with the results at which we arrived.


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