The Dumfriesshire Companion
Haig Gordon



Some Historical Background

The Border

From Westerkirk to Westminster Abbey -
Thomas Telford

Robert Burns - Doonhamer

The Sage of Ecclefechan - Thomas Carlyle

Hugh MacDiarmid and the Muckle Toon

Other Literary Figures

The Artists

Fame and Fortune

Other Pairs of Eyes


The name is derived from Old English for 'gravelly hill'. Earlier forms included Gretenho and Gratnay. The latter survives in the farm name Old Graitney close to the Solway shore.

Old Graitney is the location of the Clochmaben Stone or Clochmabenstane.

The name is a tautology, since cloch is Gaelic for stone/stane. It is a single chunk of granite that may once have been part of a ceremonial circle erected some two or three thousand years BC.

The Romans referred to it as Locus Maponi, meaning the meeting-place of Maponus, a Celtic god associated with music and poetry.

Much later it became a recognised meeting-place of a more secular kind, where Scottish and English officials of the Western March gathered for negotiations (see The Border).

The stone also served as a northern marker for one of the fords across the Solway.

Historically, Gretna as a whole can be divided into three distinct communities: Gretna Green, the original 'runaway' marriage venue; Springfield, an eighteenth-century weavers' village; and the twentieth-century Gretna Township.

Gretna Green's famous and sometimes infamous marriage trade began after 1753 when 'irregular' weddings were outlawed in England. Scotland was then the only part of the British mainland where couples could be legally married without parental consent. Scots law of the time still allowed marriage by declaration in front of witnesses. In most cases, with disapproving relatives in hot pursuit of the couple, the deed had to be done as hastily as possible and Gretna Green, being the first place in Scotland across the western end of the Border, suited the purpose perfectly. Neither special premises nor qualified personnel were required. The local hostelries were the handiest venues and any Tom, Dick or Hamish could set himself up as the 'priest'.

The Gretna Hall Hotel. The sign above the door reads 'The Original Marriage House Built 1710'

These masters of marital ceremonies became known, entirely incorrectly, as the 'Anvil Priests'. This term was based on the myth that they were blacksmiths. The misapprehension may have originated when an inn-keeper touting for weddings erected a big picture of a couple round an anvil, which was meant to be symbolic of marital 'welding'. In the 1770s the travel writer Thomas Pennant wrote: 'As I had a great desire to see the high priest, by stratagem I succeeded: he appeared in form of a fisherman, a stout fellow, in a blue coat, rolling round his solemn chops a quid of tobacco of no common size.'

The first of the self-appointed amateur registrars was Joseph Paisley (died 1811), a hard-drinking, 25-stone ex-smuggler. He was so strong that he could manually straighten a horseshoe, another detail that may have helped give currency to the blacksmith myth. For well over half a century Paisley made a good living from quickie nuptials.

Not surprisingly the clergy loathed him. A Gretna minister described him as 'a fellow without literature, without morals and without manners whose irregular conduct has rendered him an object of detestation to all the sober and virtuous part of this neighbourhood'. Paisley and his ilk were dismissed as 'imposters and priests of their own erection who have no right whatever either to marry or to exercise any part of the clerical function'.
Joseph Paisley by C. Turner 1800

Of course the local minister had a vested interest in condemning a secular rival. Another travel writer,Richard Ayton, had no such axe to grind but he too was disgusted by the phenomenon when he visited Gretna in 1813:

At the risk of incurring the scorn of all masters and misses under twenty-one, I venture to raise my voice against this prophanation of a solemn and beautiful service, by these vulgar mercenaries.there is unquestionably an indecency and a profligacy in this abuse of a sacred rite, worth the consideration of cooler heads than those of the couples who post to Gretna. The law of Scotland may not be able to check these irregularities, but there is a power, I suppose, that can alter or add to the law, and it would surely be no encroachment on the liberty of the subject to insist that, while a man must have a licence to sell whisky, he should not unconditionally practise the trade of marrying.

There was a change to the law in 1856. From then on at least one of the parties to an intended marriage had to have been resident in the parish for a minimum of 21 days. While this detracted from Gretna's just-over-the-Border advantage, it did not by any means see the demise of the 'Anvil Priests'. It was not until the Marriage (Scotland) Act was passed in 1939 that they were finally put out of business. This stipulated that the marriage ceremony must be conducted by either a man of the cloth or an authorised civil registrar.

Richard Rennison

At this point Richard Rennison, a former saddler from Northumberland who was the last of the celebrity 'priests', came to the end of a career during which he had presided over 5,147 unions by declaration. He recalled one New Year's Day when, returning home from a funeral, he found eight couples on the doorstep waiting to be married. When challenged by his critics, Rennison liked to point out that his surname backwards was 'no sinner'!

Today there is no pressing reason for anyone other than a local to get married in Gretna. Yet the tradition carries on and business increases year by year. The town is perceived as 'romantic', though the evidence of one's eyes would surely tend to contradict that notion.

There are more marriage venues than ever. Even the former St Ninian's Roman Catholic Church has been turned into something called 'Anvil Hall'.

The local registration service had become so busy that in 1991 new larger premises were opened. 54 couples were married in Gretna on St Valentine's Day 2008.

To the east of Gretna Green, Springfield began as a planned village in 1791 when Sir William Maxwell, laird of Springkell at Eaglesfield, issued the first building permits. The new inhabitants were mainly weavers.

What is now the town-centre of Gretna began in 1915 as a greenfield creation known as Gretna Township, a dormitory for the vast World War 1 explosives factory centred on Eastriggs.

During the First World War the schoolchildren of Gretna were unwitting guinea-pigs in the experiments of A S Neill, the guru of 'alternative' education. Unfit for war service, Neill became headmaster of Gretna Public School and horrified parents with his liberal approach to discipline and exams, and his promotion of self-discovery in preference to the rigours of traditional learning.

The small free-standing memorial outside the Episcopal church is for the 28 victims of a Second World War bomb that fell on a Masonic hall on 7 April 1941.

Masons from both sides of the Border were having a meeting at the time.

Wartime reporting restrictions meant that it was only years later, through careful research, that a definitive list of the fatalities could be compiled. Among the dead was a 14-year-old girl described as a 'servant'.

The memorial was erected in 1996.

To the north-east of Gretna, just onto the English side of the Border, is the site of the Battle of Solway Moss which took place in 1542. At the time the nobles of Scotland, under James V, were fatally divided between the pro-France and the pro-England factions. So when the forces of Henry VIII came north for a fight, the Scottish response was half-hearted and the English had a walkover.

In the aftermath of this defeat King James suffered a nervous collapse, took to his bed, and died within weeks. He was just 31.

Shortly before he expired he was told that the Queen had given birth to a daughter. After the loss of two sons, this news was of no consolation to James. That daughter later took her own place in the country's gory history as Mary Queen of Scots.

The rise and fall of Gretna Football Club is one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of British soccer. The journalistic cliché 'fairy tale' was habitually cited in coverage of its unprecedentedly swift ascent from amateur obscurity to the professional top-level. Gretna did indeed go to the ball (Scottish Cup Final, Premier League etc) but in no time at all was turned back into a pumpkin. For the former fans who crowded into Raydale Park during this most transient of heydays, memories of the humiliation will be a long time fading.

The club was founded in 1946 and, except for its first season in the Dumfries Junior League, played entirely in the north of England until 2002 when, at its third attempt, it was admitted to the Scottish Football League. Within five years Gretna had fought its way from the Third Division to the Premier League. In 2006, while still in the First Division, Gretna played Hearts in the Scottish Cup Final, losing 4-2 on penalties after drawing 1-1.

This phenomenal rate of success was due entirely to the blank cheques provided by Carlisle-based businessman Brooks Mileson, who had made a multi-million-pound fortune in construction and insurance. He had plenty of spare cash to lavish on a hobby and that expensive hobby became Gretna FC. The problem was that for the costly recruitment of playing talent the club was totally dependent on Mileson's continuing beneficence. When the chain-smoking and chronically sick sugar-daddy became too incapacitated to maintain his interest, the flow of funds suddenly ceased and the club's inherent instability was cruelly exposed. Mileson died in November 2008.

Even if Mileson had continued to sign the cheques, Gretna would still have been troubled. Raydale Park was not up to the standard required for Premier League games and so Gretna had to play their 'home' matches at Fir Park, the stadium of Motherwell FC in Lanarkshire. This necessitated a 150-mile round-trip for local supporters and only a small hard-core were willing to make the journey. Gate receipts became unsustainably low.
Brooks Mileson

The club, with debts of four million pounds (despite Mileson having spent some eight million), was placed in receivership and summarily relegated from the Premier League back into the Third Division. Even at that reduced level the club was unviable and in June 2008 it simply resigned from the SFL. The Gretna dream had come to be what the soothsayers of Scottish football had always predicted, a ghastly and ridiculous fantasy.

There was one consolation for Dumfriesshire. The team that took Gretna's place in the Third Division of the SFL was close neighbour Annan Athletic.

These days visitors to Gretna come not only for 'romance' but also for retail therapy. Gretna Gateway Outlet Village, opened in 1999, specialises in the sale of end-of-the-line brand-name goods. Calling a shopping mall a 'village' is a particularly irritating corruption of language.


Kirkpatrick Fleming
Newton Wamphray

Acknowledgements     XML Sitemap     HTML Sitemap     ROR Sitemap    
Copyright © Galloway Publishing 2012.    All rights reserved