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Chronicles of Gretna Green
Chapter XIV

Erroneous idea that the Priest of Gretna is a Blacksmith.

This shows how false reports sometimes
Fly o'er the land like treason;
And how folks choose to cling to them
In spite of sense and reason.

After all, it is not a matter of much wonderment that the world should be full of false reports, when we know, that as soon as a man is born he goeth astray and speaketh lies.

Divers false reports touching various matters foreign to this history have, from time to time, grievously run over the land, whereby people have too often been misled and deceived; such, however, we leave to those whom it may concern; but there is one particular false report about Gretna Green, with which we have much to do in discoursing of this place ; and for the enlightenment of the shades of error, we will immediately set about enkindling the torch of truth.

Now, the erroneous idea to which we refer is this, — that it is almost universally supposed that the personage who marries at Gretna Green, is by trade a blacksmith.

We have heard of a thousand anecdotes wherein it is mentioned, how certain parties were united by a brawny blacksmith; and how the said parties had no sooner jumped over the broomstick, when the enraged papa, post-haste from England, rushed into the house — but just one moment too late to save his run-away daughter.

We made this much contested subject a particular point of investigation when we were on the spot: but in spite of all our inquiries, and searching, and scrutiny, we could not discover that a blacksmith had of late years performed the ceremony, nor indeed, that a blacksmith had ever done it at any period whatever.

One of the most noted priests here at present is Simon Laing, by trade a weaver, as before remarked, and no blacksmith at all. His father, David, who married Wakefield, also before mentioned, earned his bread, according to his own account, entirely by the practice of marrying (and easily earned it too) during the immensely long space of eight-and-forty years ; but he never wielded a sledge hammer in his life, nor was he ever connected with the business ; before his time, full fifty years ago, the chief priest was a man of the name of Parseley or Paisley—Joseph Paisley—and he was a tobacconist, but no blacksmith; and prior to him the principal functionary carried on the occupation of a fisherman, in the waters of the Solway Firth, as we will presently shew, on the authority of Pennant.

Thus we have traced the apostolic succession back through nearly a century ; but beyond this time no authentic record remains to satisfy our curiosity—indeed, at that period, the laxity of the laws of England rendered it unnecessary to resort thither: and the trade was not monopolized into the hands of a few then, even as it has been since.

That David Laing never was a blacksmith, despite such a supposition so tenaciously clung to, we were positively assured by twenty persons in the village who knew him, and amongst others, by his son Simon, as well as Simon's wife, whom we especially questioned.

It seemed to be pretty generally agreed by the majority of those to whom we put the query, that this veteran had, in his younger days, been a day labourer, ready to do any rough job to gain a subsistence, sometimes in one way, and sometimes in another. When he was produced at Lancaster on the trial of the Wakefields as a witness, and was examined and cross-examined as to his business and occupation, he perseveringly shewed great reluctance in discovering all that the counsel desired to wring from him. He fenced the question as long as he could, and then, when he could not escape making a confession, he tried to raise the rank of his trade, by attaching to it a name of greater consideration.

The following extract exhibits the course of torture inflicted by my Lord Brougham:

David Laino again called and cross-examined by Mr. Brougham.

Are you a Scotch clergyman?—No, I am not.

What are you?—are you any trade at all?—Nothing at all.

Do you mean to say you never were an ostler? — Me an ostler!


How long have you been engaged in this traffic of making this sort of certificates?—Eight-and-forty years. How old are you?—I am beyond seventy-five. Well, before the last eight-and-forty years what did you do to get your livelihood?—that is my question.—Why I was a gentleman—sometimes poor and sometimes rich.

Well, when you were poor, what did you do to get your bread? —what occupation did you follow?—I followed many occupations. Let me hear one of them.—I was a merchant. What do you mean by a merchant—a travelling merchant—a pedlar?—Yes.

What else were you? Were you anything else?—Never.

Thus, after some little chaffering and reluctance, David confessed that he had been a pedlar. The learned lawyer above asks him whether he had not been on ostler? but this question he receives with indignant surprise, and negatives in a very decided manner. We do not know what reason Mr. Broug-' ham had for this intimation, unless it was that he had been informed that the pedlar might once have rubbed a horse down, by a chance, for the sake of turning a penny, although it was not his trade. It is extraordinary he was not" asked whether he had been a blacksmith ;—we say extraordinary, merely oil account of the popular notion ; but as he was not asked the question, it is a strong negative argument in favour of what we assert. Had he ever made it his business, of course the fact would have been mentioned in this cross-examination ; and if he had ever by a chance lifted a sledge hammer upon the anvil, as by a chance he may have groomed a horse, it is rational to suppose that the lawyer would have heard of it, and taxed him accordingly, even as he did about the ostlership, particularly as the current report would so naturally have led to it. It is only curious that the idea itself, without any thing else, did not lead to such a question: but the fact of its having been omitted, proves how little this priest and the trade of a blacksmith were coupled together in the imaginations of persons present.

There is a tradition in Springfield that a pleasant dialogue, referring to these matters, took place at the above trial, between Laing and the lawyer; albeit this dialogue certainly does not appear in the minutes as they were published at the time : no matter, the good people of this village tell the anecdote.

They say, that whilst he was giving evidence, certain expressions were elicited from him, which either then firsfr attached the title of blacksmith to him, or else renewed, raked from oblivion, and confirmed it to him; supposing he had ever before been so called, or had ever been connected "with the trade, in some almost forgotten way, until thus raked up They say, • that the counsel, being aware that lie went by the name of " the blacksmith," plainly asked him why he was so designated, since, upon inquiry, it appeared that he neither was a blacksmith then, at the time of the trial, nor had he ever been so during the whole course of his life? To this question, they add, he returned a facetious answer, to wit:—"Because," said he, "I weld two people together with the quickness and strength with which a blacksmith welds two pieces of hot iron."

Some people affirm, that tradition is not always to be implicitly believed, and that history is truer than fiction—and so forth. This we had always denied up to the -present time: hut when people declare that the word blacksmith, as applied to the marrier-general of Gretna Green, only originated through this anecdote at the trial of the Wakefields in 1827, we decidedly think they* lie—under a mistake. Our faith in the infallibility of tradition was never shaken till now: but if tradition asserts that this term is no older than 1827, we think that tradition is in error ; for certainly it did exist long before that time. It is possible, however, that David Laing was the first to whom it was given, since the commencement of his career dates as far back as the year 1779, or forty-eight years before the trial. We have not discovered any person or any chronicle, or better still, any tradition, that can make the designation so old as this remote period.

This man died in the year 1827, in a house in Springfield, situated in the street, on the opposite side from that on which the King's Head stands, and at about a bow-shot higher up, or towards the triangular Green of Gretna. It is said that he caught cold at the trial at Lancaster in March of that' year, that he had been exerting and heating himself by exercise in the first instance, and then possibly sat in a draught afterwards; an imprudence that is believed to have given him too severe a chill for a man of seventy-five to get over. He lived three months after the shock, but was never thoroughly well, and then he died; but such an apparently slight cause as a chill—a cold —the effects of sitting in a draught after being warm, has killed many a younger person than David Laing.

That philosopher said well, when he exclaimed— "There are no such things as trifles in the world." Serious ends sometimes arise out of apparently trivial beginnings — a sequel that proves those beginnings were not so trivial as they were supposed to have been.

A short time, comparatively, before his decease, he had occupied a house near his son's present abode,— that is, on the same side of the street as the King's Head, but lower down, or in'the direction towards England; and in his younger days, long previous to that, he had dwelt in a cottage a short distance from Gretna church, opposite the Hall, and near the divergence of the roads to Dumfries and to Glasgow. This cottage has since been pulled down.

So much for David Laing.

In chronologically tracing back the apostolic succession of Gretna priests, we next come to Joseph Paisley, or old Joe Parseley, as they are pleased to pronounce him in his own locality.

He had grasped into his own hands the great share of the business before he died, and left it to Laing,' who had for some years been his partner. It will be natural to ask then: Was Paisley a blacksmith, and did the term originate with him ? The answer is decidedly, No; for a dozen people in Springfield, some of whom were aged and recollected him, confidently declared that he was by trade a tobacconist, and not a blacksmith. From all accounts, it appears that, before his era the lucrative occupation had not been so exclusively monopolized, as it was afterwards: that the regular line of priests does not go back very decidedly beyond him, except peradventure to one individual mentioned by Pennant: and that he was the first person who so carefully thus studied to monopolize it—or at all events, the first who gained much celebrity by the practice.

Before the present host and hostess tenanted the King's Head, that hostelrie was for seven years occupied by a Mr. and Mrs. Sovverby; and they, together with such honourable local authority as Simon Beatie of Toll-gate fame, the reverend Laings, and divers others of especial mention, not knowing the origin of the term blacksmith as applied to these worthies, conceive that possibly it may have been palmed upon Paisley merely from his personal appearance: he was a tall, stout, and stalwart man ; compact and firm in build and proportion; brawny and muscular in the configuration of his limbs ; and therewithal possessing great strength. Hence, as he looked like a blacksmith, or one of powerful exterior, some have conjectured that the expression arose in him; yet all, at the same time, uniformly agree that he never had to do with the trade, but was a tobacconist.

The house in which he died stands immediately opposite the King's Head in Springfield. It is related of him, that as he lay 011 his death-bed, waiting for the grim Angel of Death to open the Janua Mortis and lead him through to the next world, several carriages and four hastily drove into the village, making such a noise and clatter as would have roused the dead in their graves : wherefore he, who was not actually dead, although very near it, opened his eyes at the sound. They contained three loving couple from the south, who had gone like fury over Solway Moss. The place was in infinite commotion, since every one divined that this arrival would prove a good catch. The old priest lay in a condition so extreme, that it was considered useless to apply to him to do the needful; but like loyal subjects who profess love and allegiance to a dying king, they begun to turn their thoughts towards his successor. He, however, became wide awake, when he heard the rumbling of those wheels, well knowing that they were tired with gold rather than with iron. By an effort he summoned strength to make inquiry touching the new comers ; and feeling the ruling passion strong within him still, he declared his willingness to play the blacksmith once more, by welding them together in holy matrimony. This, it is said, he really did, even as he lay there; and it is further said that, when the business was achieved, he found himself no' less than <300 richer than he was before.

Shortly after this, the said Angel of Death verily did enter the house and come up to his bed-side. It cried out to him, " Now, Paisley, come along." •He made no answer, for by this time he was dead!

Now then, we come to the era before Paisley.

Not even on the spot could we discover that the pursuit had been engrossed by any individuals exclusively to themselves, prior to him : but in default of tradition, Pennant furnishes us with an historical information—and if we cannot procure from rumour, that which we desire, we must e'en be content to put up with authentic history.

This great peregrinator, and learned man, was at Gretna Green in the year 1771 ; and albeit he says, "here the young couple may be instantly united by a fisherman, a joiner, or a blacksmith," he subsequently mentions that the chief priest was a fisherman by occupation. It is true, he tells us of a blacksmith—the only notice of the sort we have fallen upon—but he speaks of him incidentally, together with others of other trades, clearly shewing that the business was then open to all artisans whatsoever, and blacksmiths among the number:—and where is the village that does not contain such a functionary, who shoes horses and mends ploughshares for the farmers?

"This place," he continues, "is distinguished from afar by a small plantation of firs, the Cyprian grove of the place—a sort of land-mark for fugitive lovers. As I had a great desire to see the high priest, by stratagem I succeeded. He appeared in the form of a fisherman; a stout fellow in a blue coat, rolling round his solemn chops a quid of tobacco of no common size. One of our party was supposed to come to explore the coast: we questioned him about the price, which, after eyeing us attentively, he left to our honour. The Church of Scotland does what it can to prevent these clandestine matches, but in vain; for these infamous couplers despise the fulminations of the Kirk, as excommunication is the only penalty it can inflict."

From this passage it is clear that the principal marrier, or "high priest," as Pennant calls him, was a fisherman ; to whom he gives greater consideration than to the fortuitously mentioned joiner and blacksmith : and hence, also from this passage, by his collectively speaking of them all, it is manifest that the trade was not subject to so strict a monopoly as now.

It is a curious thing that the popular idea of a blacksmith-priest should prevail, not only in distant places where the real truth might not be known, but actually in the very parish itself, where that idea is unanimously declared to be utterly false and without foundation.

True it is, however, that popular errors do often exist in the minds of the inhabitants of a district— errors touching themselves, or their usages, which they know to be unworthy of credence: and yet, since they are popular fancies, they are clung to and perpetuated with as much respect and diligence, as if they were based on the rock of well-established truth. That such an idea does exist at Gretna as well as at other places is certain, although no one appears to know whence, where, how, or when it arose.

We hope that the most companionable reader, who has sociably journeyed along with us all through these pages, is satisfied, as we certainly are, of the unreasonableness of adhering to it: and yet, at the same time, we admit that it is so strong, so deeply imprinted upon the imaginations of many, and has taken root so firmly in the affections of the world at large, that we have ofttimes wholly failed in conversation, when the topic bore upon this matter, to convince our hearers, whether by argument or assertion, that this long-cherished belief was an entire fallacy.

If the authority of Pennant, of its single self, were not enough to assure us that it was erroneous to fancy that a blacksmith was the chief marrier during the earlier stages of Gretna's celebrity, we may also-call in the name of the learned Dr. Dibdin, a passage in whose Northern Tour, fully corroborates the idea, that a fisherman was then the principal.

"Surely," says he, when speaking in strong terms against the practices there,—"Surely, the only available and effectual remedy would be, a statutable declaration against the legality or validity of such matches; and then the fisherman's occupation is gone."

There is no mention here about any other tradesman, saving the fisher ; and by the way in which he is named, it should seem that he was sole monarch of the parish.

In Chambers' Picture of Scotland, we have also a very plain assertion, that error has gone abroad into the world touching these matters ; an assertion which tallies well with the other meritable authorities to which we have had recourse.

"The trade," it says, "was founded by a tobacconist, (not a blacksmith as is generally believed) named Joseph Paisley, who, after leading a long life of profanity and drunkenness, died so lately as 1814."

This is but an indifferent epitaph for old Joe, whose mundane celebrity, and the riches of his last visitors from England, brought him three hundred pounds as he lay on his death-bed.

The passage continues in these words:—" The common phrase { Gretna Green' arose from his first residence at Meggs Hill, on the common or Green, between Graitney (as it is sometimes spelt), and Springfield; to the last of which villages, of modern erection, he removed in 1791."

These authors we had not consulted until after we had quitted the place under consideration, and had begun to write this work; but we do confidently aver, that they all corroborate the result of our inquiries, and also corroborate each other.

We were never knocked down, or told we decidedly lied, when we have assured folks by word of mouth what we here say by word of pen ; but if angered looks, and looks incredulous, could have done so, verily we should have been knocked down and told as much long ago.

People never like to hear a popular belief questioned or impeached, even though they know it to be erroneous. There is a something within us so enamoured of romance and tradition, that we would almost always rather continue in the cloud of romantic error, than clear if off, or exchange it for dry and matter-of-fact reality.

That the notion of the blacksmith is popular even in Springfield, is evident from the emblazonment on the sign of the "Gretna Wedding " before mentioned, where everybody knows it to be false. We have already set forth this achievement at full; and we will here refer to it in amplification of this topic, by reminding' the reader that the scene is laid in a veritable smithy, where an anvil forms the altar, where the priest has laid down his sledge-hammer to take up the book; and where the background, instead of being a painted window, through which shines a dim religious light, is decorated with certain horse-shoes fixed up against the wall with large nails.

When debating this anomaly and contradiction in Springfield, here falsely displayed at the very head quarters, we particularly demanded an explanation to a fact so unaccountable; how it was, that a native artist should lay the wedding scene in a blacksmith's shop, when every Scotchman averred that marriages in Gretna parish never were celebrated in such places? To this the answer was, "Oh, why, we know it's wrong, strictly speaking ; but then we know that our best customers the English, whom we wish to attract and please, have taken such a notion into their heads; and the fact of its popularity is quite recommendation enough for us to adopt it as a sign. Never mind strict truth in this matter; when a party of runaways from the south comes over the Moss into the village, they immediately, see a sign that coincides with the favourite idea, and the pleasure derived from this concordance, from seeing their cherished fancy revealed to them here in bright colours, is a thing not to be passed by or withstood. The truth, therefore, is nothing ; you perceive the policy of the sign."

It should seem that even Sir Walter Scott himself has blindly adopted this delusion, without looking further into it than the giving of credence to a flying report; and from his incorrect notice of localities, it further appears manifest, that he could never have been either at Springfield or Gretna Green.

The passage alluded to is this :—

"The village of Gretna," he says, "towards the termination of Solway Firth, has been famous in the annals of matrimonial adventure, for the clandestine marriages of fugitive lovers from England, whieh have been solemnized at this celebrated temple of Hymen. The priest, who died lately, a blacksmith by trade, (being no other apparently than old David Laing, the pedlar,) has been known to draw one hundred guineas from one couple for performing the ceremony. Springfield, another flourishing village, is only a short distance from Gretna. At the port of Sarkfoot, there is a considerable importation of wood, tar, slates, and other merchandise."

There is also, over and above, a notion gone abroad that the said blacksmith makes his visitors jump over a broomstick, as one part of the ceremony; and right graphic delineations of such feats of agility do sometimes adorn the books of the curious; but when we gravely inquired as to the veracity of this part of the statement—oh! good gracious how they did laugh!

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