Visit to the Gretna Priest.
A visit to the weaver-priest,
A register of names,
A true certificate of marriage,
This chapter now proclaims.
Simon Laing, " weaver and
priest," son and heir, and so forth, to the most notable David the pedlar,
is a personage of much, and most especial respect, a personage whose
interest is great, whose power is confessed, whose influence is extensive,
whose friendship is worth obtaining, whose reputation is unbounded, &c.
In his custody are the most
important volumes of marriage register, come down to him through a long
succession, and by him hereafter to be transmitted to the latest posterity.
This Register descended to its present possessor from his father, who
received it from Paisley, who received it we know not whence. It probably
originated in him, when the plan of monopolizing the trade began to be
It has been the policy at
Gretna Green, for the principal marrier to associate unto himself some
partner in the business : thus, old Paisley took into his confidence David
Laing, and when Paisley died, David connected his son Simon with him as his
partner ; furthermore, when the Angel of Death breathed upon David, and
Simon was left alone, he, the said Simon, became associated in partnership
with one Robert Elliott, of honourable mention.
Now, this apostolic
succession is not thus scrupulously maintained without good reason, that is,
in so far as they themselves are concerned; and, indeed, it was the
discovery of certain advantages to be derived therefrom, that at first
established this consecutive dove-tailing,—this concatenation—of priests.
In the first place, it
enables them, by the extreme exclusiveness of their body, to secure to
themselves the whole of the traffic, and, above all, the emoluments arising
therefrom ; in the second place, it gives vast importance, consideration,
and notability' to him that thus holds "the keys;*' and, in the third, this
concatenation tends to prevent the loss, dispersion, or injury of the sacred
books, so reverently looked upon and so carefully guarded.
In these volumes are entered
the names of all those whom the guardian priest has united in holy bands and
the custody of them gives to their possessor his chief ability to continue
the prevailing system of monopoly. Their importance, therefore, is manifest.
Hence, that they may not pass into the hands of strangers, the necessity of
partnership is acknowledged, so that, when the principal dies, the other
being heir by devise, Succeeds to the inheritance. By looking well to these
things, they engross much commerce and much lucre to themselves, of course
not a little to the envy and prejudice of their neighbours in the parish,
whom the destinies have made less fortunate.
Albeit we had more than once
fortuitously seen Simon Laing, still, we never had, as yet, paid him a
decided visit, by repairing to his own particular abode in the village of
Springfield; wherefore, with the ostensible object of saying amiable things,
such as inquiring after his health and happiness, but inwardly, with the
dire and dark intent of getting a sly peep at the Register, we directed our
steps one evening thitherward. ~
We knocked at the door as one
having business ; incontinently it was answered, but not "by the dignitary
himself, but by his wife.
We inquired whether her other
half—better we know not—or her "master,"as my Lady Morgan writes it, were at
home, as we wished to see him ? But to this Mrs. Laing shook her head, a
sign which, in every part of the known world, whether savage or civilized,
is universally understood to signify a negative.
This question, however, drew
from her a keen and scrutinizing glance—a glance evidently commingled with a
strong suspicion as to the possible object of the visit; for, like Simon
Beatie at the toll-gate, she appeared to think that no stranger could come
into the village, and more particularly right up to the priest's house,
without haying some most interested motive for so doing.
She searchingly scanned over
the new comer, as if to discover whether lie might not wear the feature and
semblance of bachelorship; and if so, whether he had not come there touching
the possibility of ridding himself of a state so irksome and lonely as
bachelorship is unanimously allowed to be. Yet, we do believe, that no
persons in the world are more ready than the priests, and their confederates
of Gretna, to agree that " it is not meet for man to be alone.'"
She declared that in good
sooth her husband was not within at that identical moment, but that the hour
of his coming at eve, when the toil of the day was over, had arrived, and he
would not be absent long ; at all events she did not like to let her visitor
depart, lest he should fall into other hands; so she courteously, but
urgently bid him enter in and abide her husband's coming. And as he never
could resist the alluring accents and persuasive voice of a woman, he
hesitated not in the least to comply with her bidding, especially as he saw
no reason why he should not.
If one may form a judgment by
the appearance and furniture of the chamber into which he was shown—a
chamber which embraced at once all the varied attributes of parlour,
kitchen, bed-room, nursery, and larder, it would seem that the occupier
thereof had not solemnized many profitable marriages of late—none such as
Joe Paisley performed whilst he lay on his death-bed ; for indigence became
revealed to his eyes, wherever he directed them.
The floor was neither boards,
nor flag-stone, nor brick, nor tiles, nor lime-ash; it was nothing but plain
unsophisticated mother earth, beaten flat—or rather, not flat, for it was
like human life in this world, all ups and downs. The tables and chairs were
like angels'' visits, so that it was not until after much searching that one
of the latter could be found to sit down upon ; they were made of
native-grown ash, pine, or oak; and the possessor had evidently conferred
the favours of his patronage on several different upholsterers, since no two
resembled each other in pattern, but they were all of divers and dissimilar
fashion in their make. Some pieces of peat that had been cut on Sol way Moss
were piled-on the dusty hearth, out of which issued the melancholy pretence
of a fire; and the flickering flame, that darted about like an adder's
tongue, inconstantly licked the bottom of a smoky iron pot, that the
reverend dweller might have his evening meal when he should arrive. The
lime-washed walls, once white, were now brown by age and neglect; a few
prints of miserable execution, and one or two popular ballads, taken for all
we know from the Border Minstrelsy, were stuck upon them by means of wafers
at the corners, for the sake of adornment rich and rare.
Other decorations, ornaments,
and articles of furniture consorted passable well both in style and
semblance with such as we have enumerated; and the woman herself, in
appearance and vesture, suited, not unmeetly, the poverty around.
These important observations,
so imperative to the perfect compilation of a complete History of Gretna
Green, had scarcely been achieved, when the latch of the door was lifted,
and. no less a personage than Simon Laing, "weaver and priest," walked into
To say the truth, and nothing
but the truth, he certainly looked much more like the weaver than like the
priest. But Simon bears a good reputation, and a fair name for integrity;
never demanding a higher fee from his employers, than his predecessors have
been wont to demand before him; much consideration is due to so great a
dignitary from "his high place" alone; and if it be that the Evil One may
sometimes prompt him to a little exorbitance of charge, still, we know that
Shakspere says, "Let the devil be honoured for his burning throne."
He is a kind of happy medium
in stature, neither tall nor short; in face he is somewhat spare, and not
much otherwise in limb; and for that particular, very different from his
rival at the toll-gate, the stout and stalwart Simon Beatie.
His greeting was evidently
that of an encouraging welcome; for, like the woman whom he had taken for
better for worse, he manifestly boded that some good would arise out of this
Like a perfect diplomatist
who has a secret victory to gain, he begged his visitor to be seated and at
ease ; he then entered into a pleasant strain of conversation, not bluntly
assailing the topic which was nearest his interest, and as he conjectured,
nearest the interest—or at all events nearest the heart-^-of this said
visitor, but discoursed of subjects foreign to the matter, only now and
then, by way of judiciously feeling his ground, casually alluding to the
loving politics of his parish.
But his visitor had also a
secret victory to gain; he had an unrevealed object in view, which was, to
elicit from Simon the knowledge of certain facts touching his reverend
calling; and to compass this, he had recourse to a little diplomatic
hypocrisy, by putting the priest on a wrong scent, even as Pennant and his
friends did, when they sought out and gossiped with the fisherman.
He gave him to understand
that he had not come to Gretna " for nothingwhich assertion, broached with
an air of significance and mystery, led the comprehensive mind of the weaver
to infer that he had really come there for a great deal,—a great deal more
than his modesty permitted him to express all at once.
This was just the thing;
Simon shrewdly intimated that a word to the wise was enough; whilst his
visitor chuckled within himself, and thought that a wink was as good as a
nod to a blind horse.
Both parties, therefore,
having come to a clear understanding, they now began to talk with less
reserve; but the applicant discovered, in prosecution of his diplomatic
negotiations, that the surest way of coining by the knowledge that he
sought, was to start innumerable objections and many fears, as to the plans
so readily proposed by the priest: for, by starting difficulties on one
side, it was necessary that they should be explained away on the other; and
this course served to impart the very knowledge that was desired.
The stranger then honestly
confessed—certainly he would not conceal it—he would not deny it—he
confessed that he ran great risk in the course he was pursuing; that
marrying at Gretna Green was not the form he should prefer; that he should
always counsel everybody to take so important a step advisedly ; that he
would rather have been married in England in the usual way; he avowed openly
he preferred it, and approved of it; but that desperate ailments demanded
desperate cures; and in fact, to conceal nothing, but to unburden his bosom
frankly to the weaver, he had now, in a state of the maddest delirium, fled
from his home, his country, his friends (all but the sole sharer of his
affections) and had hastened to the Gilead of Gretna to collect balm.
The sympathising mechanic,
howbeit, saw no necessity for any anxiety whatsoever; that the stranger, in
coming to him from home and friends, had done no more than hundreds had done
before ; that his troubles were altogether imaginary, unreal, and without
foundation ; and that, if he would only send to the King's Head Inn for his
ladye love, where he concluded she was doubtless secreted, he would cure him
of all his afflictions in the space of about two minutes.
Certainly this was a plain
and friendly offer; but his visitor had not as yet learnt all he desired,
and therefore it should seem that his. perplexed mind could not immediately
come to a cool and definite resolution. He much wished to know whether the
affair could really be achieved with so much ease, and expedition, and
secrecy, as his reverence declared; whether it could be assuredly
accomplished in despite of all denial or opposition from hostile parties ;
whether, if done in opposition to parents and guardians, the tie would be
equally secure; whether, if so done, ' it would hold good against English
law, and defy all the Alexander the Greats of the Inner Temple who might try
to undo it—and whether, in defiance of half a dozen other whethers and ifs,
it would be all right, legal, tight, proper, and so forth?
To all these difficult
questions and honest doubts, put forth, as the knight of the hand-loom
thought, by one who had been driven by adversity and persecution to a just
desperation; yet, by one who had not quite lost his powers of reflection, or
of calculating the consequences of a rash act, he returned answers that were
most encouraging and consolatory.
So eloquent at last did Simon
get, when he now resolutely set about persuading away all obstacles,— so
thoroughly indeed did he succeed in removing them,—so enticing a course of
argument did he take up in favour of the advantages attendant on marrying at
once, without waiting to deliberate, which, lie declared, always brought
doubt and mistrust,—so completely did he make it appear that those who
deliberate on matrimony are like those who deliberate going into a cold
bath, who, instead of plunging in at once, stand on the brink waiting and
considering, until they at last begin to shiver and turn away in
disgust,—and so entirely did he succeed in drawing a bright picture of
wedded love and happiness, and so on, that his visitor almost began to
regret that he had not brought any lady to the King's Head or the Hall, for
whom, as the priest suggested, he might send.
This only shows how weak and
irresolute human nature is; how we may be won over to do a thing which, but
.five minutes before, we had no idea of; and how easily we may be persuaded
to go astray when the devil* becomes our counsellor. Simon's new friend,
however, nobly triumphed over temptation, for the possibility of yielding
thereunto" was beyond his reach. Of a truth, he never was married at Gretna,
and he hopes he never may.
But all this time he had
totally failed in obtaining a glimpse at the important books of Register,
for the priest was wary, cautious, and jealous. Hints would not do ; direct
questions were unavailing ; and therefore, dissembler that he was, he now
"veered his mayne sheete," as Edmund Spenser made one of his crafty heroes
do in a difficult case, and baited his treacherous hooks with an
irresistible morsel of sweet flattery.
Who be they that declare it
is only women that nibble at this gentle? Peradventure, it is not women who
say so, but rather those who would seek to disown such a weakness in their
own sex, by essaying to naturalize it as pertaining inseparably to the
No matter; he enlarged upon
Simon's widely extended fame—upon the sanctity of his calling—his honourable
position—his exclusiveness and note, as being the much sought after by all
the noble and the simple who might be in duresse—and the undeniable fact of
his being the custos rotulorum or librorum Registrorum.
Hard, indeed, must the weaver
have been if he could have resisted all this: the bait was taken, and the
float disappeared under the water.
He was palpably touched when
he was assured that his fame had found its way far south of the border; and
being now awakened to his own importance as custodier of the sacred volumes,
he evidently betrayed traces of being pleased with himself; and when a
person is pleased with himself, it is a sure argument that he is also
pleased with those who may be around him. Like the toad in the fable, he
began to swell up at the idea of his own pride of place; so that (in his own
eyes) he soon became twice as big a man as he had been only a few minutes
before. At length, going to a closet, he produced the very books.
For one half hour did these
two amuse themselves in turning over the variously written pages, the priest
satisfying his visitor's curiosity touching many of the personages whose
names there appeared. Truly, he was not a little amused at what he saw laid
open to his wondering eyes; for almost every page turned up something to
speculate upon ; the noble, the gentle, the illustrious, the notorious, the
wealthy, the wicked, the wild, the gay,—there they were, manifestly,
Before we bade this worthy
dignitary farewell; we had yet one other small matter of business to
transact with him: and that was, to obtain a marriage certificate, such as
is employed in the true, legitimate, and usual mode of performing the
ceremony at Gretna. At first he hesitated, thinking, that when we should be
in possession of this paper, we might go and get united to the lady who was
concealed, as he believed, at the King's Head, without his assistance or
co-operation, by somebody else, and of course to his prejudice. These
scruples were natural enough; and it was not until after we had solemnly
declared that our main object in coming to Springfield was partly owing to a
fatal curiosity, which we would gladly cast off upon the other sex if we
could, and partly for the purpose of collecting authentic materials for a
standard work; that, indeed, we were only an innocent tourist returning from
the Highlands; that we had not any intention whatever of being wedded within
the bounds of his parish; and that, to satisfy him in every point, we would
pledge him our word, our honour, and all we held sacred, that if
peradventure we really should be married there, though totally against our
present purpose, of a truth, nobody else besides himself should perform the
office for us.
These protestations, so
seriously pronounced, served to overrule every objection; and when the
weaver heard a broad silver piece ring upon the table, he produced the
certificate with most admired readiness.
At such time of the arrival
of the disobedient children at the Hall, or other hostel, who have conspired
betwixt themselves to run away from home, and have, by means of certain
subtle contrivances and stratagems, succeeded in eluding parents or other
keepers, and have actually declared their intention and most foul design of
thus perpetrating matrimony, then will such a certificate be duly called
into immediate requisition.
We believe we have elsewhere
declared that mine host requires no elaborate explanation as to the motives
for the visit; for those who live upon sin in others readily anticipate
iniquity, even before it is pointed, out to them.
The spaces left blank in the
paper are filled up with the names and places of abode of the parties, (here
shown in italics) ; and then they subscribe their names at the right hand
lower corner, whilst two witnesses (who may be the innkeeper and the
postilion) do the same on the other side of the document.
This is all that is necessary
to constitute a legal and binding marriage, and the certificate is always a
sufficient voucher that it has taken place. It often happens, let it be
recorded, that the fugitives from England, in spite of their iniquity in
pursuing this course, are not without some good still lingering in their
minds. They are not married beneath the roof of Mother Church, because,
peradventure, they could not get the knot tied there; but, owing to impeding
circumstances, they were enforced to fly to Scotland, although they would
have preferred the church if possible. Thus, they really look upon the
ceremony in a religious view, and would rather have availed themselves of a
clergyman ; but, sooner than not get married at all, supposing them bent
upon so doing, they have had recourse to such simply legal forms, by way of
pisaller, as the enactments of the land recognise to be valid.
For such piously disposed
elopers, even the priests of Gretna have provided. For those, indeed, who
wish to throw a greater air of sanctity over the transaction, than the usual
hasty and profane mode of procedure seems to carry with it, these
dignitaries will pronounce the following words, namely: —"What God has
joined together, let no man put asunder." In many instances, howbeit,
methinks that to say these words were but to utter sheer blasphemy. This is
not all; in some cases, if the parties require it, they will repeat the
Lord's Prayer, and the native artist who painted the sign of the "Gretna
Wedding" appears to have had this idea in his head when engaged about that
work; for the blacksmith is there represented kneeling down, with an open
book on the anvil before him, (no book is required, generally speaking,) and
with his clasped hands raised, as in the attitude of prayer.
Should "the happy couple"
choose to abide at the Hall for a space, they will there find passable good
accommodation; David Laing has assured us that the cellar contains "the best
of shumpine;" and ourself can aver that there are divers knotty-limbed trees
around the lawn, whereon those who have "married in haste," and have
afterwards weepingly discovered their mistake, can hang themselves up by the
neck in the wind, and there dry their tears whilst they "repent at leisure."