Gretna Green Revisited by James Matthew Barrie

From A Holiday in Bed and Other Sketches by J. M. Barrie

Sir James Barrie

Gretna Green Revisited

The one bumpy street of Springfield, despite its sparse crop of grass, presents to this day a depressed appearance, a relic of the time when it doubled up under a weight of thundering chariots. At the well-remembered, notorious Queen’s Head I stood in the gathering gloaming, watching the road run yellow, until the last draggled hen had spluttered through the pools to roost, and the mean row of whitewashed, shrunken houses across the way had sunk into the sloppy ground, as they have been doing slowly for half a century, or were carried away in a rush of rain. Soaking weeds hung in lifeless bunches over the hedges of spears that line the roads from Gretna; on sodden Canobie Lea, where Lochinvar’s steed would to-day have had to wade through yielding slush, dirty piles of congealed snow were still reluctant to be gone; and gnarled tree trunks, equally with palings that would have come out of the ground with a sloppy gluck, showed a dank and cheerless green. Yesterday the rooks dinned the air, and the parish of Gretna witnessed such a marrying and giving in marriage as might have flung it back fifty years. Elsewhere such a solemn cawing round the pulpit on the tree tops would denote a court of justice, but in the vicinity of Springfield, it may be presumed, the thoughts of the very rooks run on matrimony.

A little while ago Willum Lang, a postman’s empty letter-bag on his back, and a glittering drop trembling from his nose, picked his way through the puddles, his lips pursed into a portentous frown, and his grey head bowed professionally in contemplation of a pair of knock-knee’d but serviceable shanks. A noteworthy man Willum, son of Simon, son of David, grandson by marriage of Joseph Paisley, all famous “blacksmiths” of Gretna Green. For nigh a century Springfield has marked time by the Langs, and still finds “In David Lang’s days” as forcible as “when Plancus was consul.” Willum’s predecessors in office reserved themselves for carriage runaways, and would shake the lids from their coffins if they knew that Willum had to marry the once despised “pedestrians.” “Even Elliot,” David Lang would say, “could join couples who came on foot,” and that, of course, was very hard on the poor pedestrian, for greater contempt no man ever had for rival than David for Elliot, unless, indeed, it was Elliot’s for David. But those were the great clattering days, when there were four famous marrying shops: the two rival inns of Springfield, that washed their hands of each other across the street, Mr. Linton’s aristocratic quarters at Gretna Hall, and the toll-bar on the right side of the Sark. A gentleman who had requisitioned the services of the toll-keeper many years ago recently made a journey across the border to shake his fist at the bar, and no one in Gretna Green can at all guess why. Far-seeing Murray, the sometime priest of Gretna Hall, informed me, succeeded Beattie at the toll-house in 1843, and mighty convenient friends in need they both proved for the couples who dashed across the border with foaming fathers at their coaches’ wheels. The stone bridge flashed fire to rushing hoofs, the exulting pursuers, knowing that a half-mile brae still barred the way to Springfield, saw themselves tearing romantic maidens from adventurers’ arms, when Beattie’s lamp gleamed in the night, the horses stopped as if an invisible sword had cleft them in twain, the maid was whisked like a bundle of stolen goods into the toll-bar, and her father flung himself in at the door in time to be introduced to his son-in-law. Oh, Beattie knew how to do his work expeditiously, and fat he waxed on the proceeds. In his later days marrying became the passion of his life, and he never saw a man and a maid together without creeping up behind them and beginning the marriage service. In Springfield there still are men and women who have fled from him for their celibacy, marriage in Scotland being such an easy matter that you never know when they may not have you. In joining couples for the mere pleasure of the thing, Simon brought high fees into disrepute, and was no favorite with the rest of the priesthood. That half-mile nearer the border, Jardine admits, gave the toll-bar a big advantage, but for runaways who could risk another ten minutes, Gretna Hall was the place to be married at.

Willum Lang’s puckered face means business. He has been sent for by a millworker from Langholm, who, having an hour to spare, thinks he may as well drop in at the priest’s and get spliced; or by an innocent visitor wandering through the village in search of the mythical smithy; or by a lawyer who shakes his finger threateningly at Willum (and might as well have stayed at home with his mother). From the most distant shores letters reach him regarding Gretna marriages, and if Willum dislikes monotony he must be getting rather sick of the stereotyped beginning “I think your charges very extortionate.” The stereotyped ending “but the sum you asked for is enclosed,” is another matter. It is generally about midnight that the rustics of the county rattle Willum’s door off its snib and, bending over his bed, tell him to arise and marry them. His hand is crossed with silver coin, for gone are the bridegrooms whose gold dribbled in a glittering cascade from fat purses to a horny palm; and then, with a sleepy neighbor, a cold hearth, and a rattling cynic of a window for witnesses, he does the deed. Elsewhere I have used these words to describe the scene:—”The room in which the Gretna Green marriages have been celebrated for many years is a large rude kitchen, but dimly lighted by a small ‘bole’ window of lumpy glass that faces an ill-fitting back door. The draught generated between the two cuts the spot where the couples stand, and must prove a godsend to flushed and flurried bridegrooms. A bed—wooden and solid, ornamented with divers shaped and divers colored clothes dependent from its woodwork like linen hung on a line to dry—fills a lordly space. The monster fireplace retreats bashfully before it into the opposite wall, and a grimy cracked ceiling looks on a bumpy stone floor, from which a cleanly man could eat his porridge. One shabby wall is happily hid by the drawers in which Lang keeps his books; and against the head of the bed an apoplectic Mrs. Langtry in a blue dress and yellow stockings, reminding the public that Simon Lang’s teas are the best, shudders at her reflection in the looking-glass that dangles opposite her from a string.” The signboard over a snuffy tavern that attempted to enter into rivalry with the Queen’s Head depicts the priest on his knees going through the church marriage services, but the Langs have always kept their method of performing the ceremony a secret between themselves and the interested persons, and the artist in this case was doubtless drawing on his imagination. The picture is discredited by the scene of the wedding being made in a smithy, when it is notorious that the “blacksmith” has cut the tobacco plug, and caught fish in the Solway, and worked at the loom, the last, and the toll-bar, but never wielded Vulcan’s hammer. The popular term is thus a mystery, though a witness once explained, in a trial, to Brougham, that Gretna marriages were a welding of heat. Now the welding of heat is part of a blacksmith’s functions.

It is not for Willum Lang to censure the Langholm millworkers, without whose patronage he would be as a priest superannuated, but if they could be got to remember whom they are married to, it would greatly relieve his mind. When standing before him they are given to wabbling unsteadily on their feet, and to taking his inquiry whether the maiden on their right is goodly in their sight for an offer of another “mutchkin:” and next morning they sometimes mistake somebody else’s maiden for their own. When one of the youth of the neighborhood takes to him a helpmate at Springfield his friend often whiles away the time by courting another, and when they return to Langholm things are sometimes a littled mixed up. The priest, knowing what is expected of him, is generally able when appealed to, to “assign to each bridegroom his own;” but one shudders to think what complications may arise when Willum’s eyes and memory go. These weddings are, of course, as legal as though Lang were Archbishop of Canterbury, but the clergymen shake their heads, and sometimes—as indeed was the case even in the great days—a second marriage by a minister is not thought amiss.

About the year 1826, the high road to Scotland ran away from Springfield. Weeds soon afterwards sprouted in the street, and though the place’s reputation died hard, its back had been broken. Runaways skurried by oblivious of its existence, and at a convenient point on the new road shrewd John Linton dropped Gretna Hall. Springfield’s convenient situation had been its sole recommendation, and when it lost that it was stranded. The first entry in the Langs’ books dates back to 1771, when Joseph Paisley represented the priesthood, but the impetus to Gretna marriages had been given by the passing of Lord Hardwicke’s act, a score of years before. Legend speaks of a Solway fisherman who taught tobacconist Paisley the business. Prior to 1754, when the law put its foot down on all unions not celebrated by ministers of the Church of England, there had been no need to resort to Scotland, for the chaplains of the fleet were anticipating the priests of Gretna Green, and doing a roaring trade. Broadly speaking, it was as easy between the Reformation and 1745 to get married in the one country as in the other. The Marriage Act changed all that. It did a real injustice to non-members of the Established Church, and only cured the disease in one place to let it break out in another. Lord Hardwicke might have been a local member of Parliament, pushing a bill through the House “for the promotion of Larceny and Rowdyism at Gretna Green.” For the greater part of a century, there was a whirling of coaches and a clattering of horses across the border, after which came marriage in England before a registrar, and an amendment of the Scotch law that required residence north of the Sark, on the part of one of the parties, for twenty-one days before the ceremony took place. After that the romance of Gretna Green was as a tale that was told. The latter half of the last century, and the first twenty years of this, were thus the palmy days of Springfield, for after Gretna Hall hung out its signboard, the Langs were oftener seen at the “big house” than in the double-windowed parlor of the Queen’s Head.

The present landlord of this hostelry, a lightsome host, troubled with corns, who passes much of his time with a knife in one hand and his big toe in the other, is nephew of that Beattie who saw his way to bed by the gleam of post-boy’s lamps, and spent his days unsnibbing the Queen’s Head door to let runaways in, and barring it to keep their pursuers out. Much depends on habit, and Beattie slept most soundly to the drone of the priest in his parlor, and the rub-a-dub of baffled parents on his window-sills. His nephew, also a Beattie, brings his knife with him into the immortal room, where peers of the realm have mated with country wenches, and fine ladies have promised to obey their father’s stable-boys, and two lord chancellors of England with a hundred others have blossomed into husbands, and one wedding was celebrated of which neither Beattie nor the world takes any account. There are half a dozen tongues in the inn—itself a corpse now that wearily awaits interment—to show you where Lord Erskine gambolled in a tablecloth, while David Lang united him in the bonds of matrimony with his housekeeper, Sarah Buck. There is the table at which he composed some Latin doggerel in honor of the event, and the doubtful signature on a cracked pane of glass. A strange group they must have made—the gaping landlord at the door, Mrs. Buck, the superstitious, with all her children in her arms, David Lang rebuking the lord chancellor for posing in the lady’s bonnet, Erskine in his tablecloth skipping around the low-roofed room in answer, and Christina Johnstone, the female witness, thinking sadly that his lordship might have known better. Here, too, Lord Eldon galloped one day with his “beloved Bessy;” and it is not uninteresting to note that though he came into the world eighteen months after Lord Erskine, he paid Gretna Green a business visit nearly fifty years before him. Lang’s books are a veritable magic-lantern, and the Queen’s Head the sheet on which he casts his figures. The slides change. Joseph Paisley sees his shrewd assistant, David Lang, marry his granddaughter, and dies characteristically across the way. David has his day, and Simon, his son, succeeds him; and in the meantime many a memorable figure glides shadow-like across the screen. The youth with his heart in his mouth is Lord George Lambton. It is an Earl of Westmoreland that plants his shoulders against the door, and tells the priest to hurry. The foot that drums on the floor is Lady Alicia Parson’s. A son of Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough makes way for his own son; a daughter follows in the very footsteps of her father, only a few hours between them. A daughter of Archdeacon Philpot arrives at four o’clock in the morning, and her companion forgets to grease the landlord’s hand. The Hon. Charles Law just misses Lord Deerhurst. There are ghosts in cocked hats, and naval and military uniform, in muslin, broadcloth, tweed and velvet, gold lace and pigskin; swords flash, pistols smoke, steaming horses bear bleeding riders out of sight, and a thousand forms flit weird and shadowy through the stifling room.

The dinner of the only surviving priest of Gretna Hall frizzled under the deft knife of his spouse as he rubbed his hands recently over the reminiscences of his youth. Willum Lang never officiated at the Hall. Intelligent Jardine, full of years and honors, now enjoys his ease, not without a priestly dignity, on a kitchen sofa, in his pocket edition of a home at Springfield, and it is perhaps out of respect to his visitor that he crowns his hoary head with a still whiter hat. His arms outstretched to the fire, he looks, by the flashes of light, in his ingle-nook a Shakespearian spirit crouching over an unholy pot, but his genial laugh betrays him, and his comely wife does not scruple to recall him to himself when he threatens to go off in an eternal chuckle. A stalwart border-woman she, in short petticoats and delightful cap, such as in the killing times of the past bred the Johnny Armstrongs and the terrible moss-troopers of the border. A storehouse of old ballads, and a Scotchwoman after Scott’s own heart.

The day that Gretna Hall became an inn, its landlord felt himself called to the priesthood, and as long as he and his son remained above ground, marriage was the heaviest item in their bills. But when Gretna knew them no more, Jardine’s chance had come. Even at Springfield the line has always been drawn at female priests, and from the “big house” used to come frequent messages to the shoemaker with its mistress’s compliments and would he step up at once. The old gentleman is a bit of a dandy in his way, and it is pleasant to know that Nature herself gave him on those occasions a hint when it was time to dress. The rush for him down dark fields and across the Headless Cross was in a flurry of haste, but in the still night the rumble of a distant coach had been borne to him over the howes and meadows, and Jardine knew what that meant as well as the marriage service. Sometimes the coaches came round by Springfield, when the hall was full, and there was a tumbling out and in again by trembling runaways at the rival inns. Even the taverns have run couples, and up and down the sleety street horses pranced and panted in search of an idle priest. Jardine remembers one such nightmare time when the clatter of a pursuing vehicle came nearer and nearer, and a sweet young lady in the Queen’s Head flung up her hands to heaven. Crash went her true lovers’ fist through a pane of glass to awaken the street (which always slept with one eye open) with the hoarse wail, “A hundred pounds to the man that marries me!” But big as was the bribe, the speed of the pursuers was greater, and the maiden’s father looking in at the inn at an inconvenient moment called her away to fulfill another engagement. The Solway lies white from Gretna Hall like a sheet of mourning paper, between edges of black trees and hills. The famous long, low room still looks out on an ageing park, but they are only ghosts that join hands in it now, and it is a clinging to old days that makes the curious moon peep beneath the blind. The priest and the unbidden witness still are, but brides and bridegrooms come no more. To the days of his youth Jardine had to fling back his memory to recall the gravel springing from the wheels of Wakefield’s flying chariot. The story is told in Hutchinson’s Chronicles of Gretna Green, the first volume of which leads up to but does not broach the subject, and is common property at Springfield. The adventurer’s dupe was an affectionate school-girl on whose feelings he worked by representing himself as the one friend who could save her father from ruin and disgrace. The supposed bankrupt was said to have taken flight to Scotland, and the girl of fifteen, jumping into Wakefield’s coach at Liverpool, started with him in pursuit. A more graceless rascal never was, for at Carlisle the adventurer swore that he had talked with Miss Turner’s father in an hotel where he was lying hidden from the sheriff’s officers, and that the fugitive’s wish was that she should, without delay, accept Mr. Wakefield’s hand. The poor lassie, frantic with anxiety, was completely gulled, and on the eighth of March, 1826, Wakefield’s coach drew up at Gretna Hall. Too late came the pursuit to stop the marriage, but the runaways were traced to France, and the law soon had the husband of a week by the heels. He had trusted, like all his brotherhood, to the lady’s father making the best of it; and so, perhaps, he did; for the adventurer’s address for the next three years was—Newgate, London.

Spiders of both sexes kept their nets at Gretna Green, but a tragedy was only enacted at the hall between a score of comedies; and they were generally love-sick youths and maidens who interrupted the priest to ask if that was not the “so—sound of wh—wheels on the gravel walk?” A couple whom it would almost have been a satisfaction to marry without a fee (for the mere example of the thing) was that which raced from the south of England with the lady’s father. When they reached the top of a hill his arms were gesticulating at the bottom, and they never turned one corner without seeing his steaming horse take another. Poor was the fond lover (dark his prospects at Gretna Green in consequence) but brave the maid, to whom her friends would insist on leaving money, which was the cause of the whole to-do. The father, looking on the swain with suspicious eye, took to dreaming of postillions, high-roads, blacksmiths and Gretna Green. He would not suffer his daughter to move from his sight, and even to dances he escorted her in his private carriage, returning for her (for he was a busy man) at night. Quick of invention were the infuriated lovers. Threading the mazes of a dance, the girl was one evening snatched from her partner’s arms by the announcement that her father’s carriage barred the way below. A hurried explanation of why he had come so soon, a tripping down the stairs with trembling limbs into a close coach, a maiden in white in her lover’s arms, and hey-ho for Gretna Green. Jardine is mellowed with a gentle cynicism, and sometimes he breaks off in his reminiscences to wonder what people want to be married for. The Springfield priest, he chuckles, is a blacksmith at whom love cannot afford to laugh. Ay, friend Jardine, but what about the blacksmith who laughs at love?

Half a century ago Mr. McDiarmid, a Scotch journalist of repute, loosened the tongue of a Springfield priest with a bowl of toddy. The result was as if the sluice had been lifted bodily from a dam, and stories (like the whisky) flowed like water. One over-curious paterfamilias there was who excused his visit to the village of weddings on the ground that he wished to introduce to the priest a daughter who might one day require his services. “And sure enough,” old Elliot, who entered into partnership with Simon Lang, crowed to his toddy-ladle, “I had her back with a younger man in the matter of three months!” There lives, too, in Springfield’s memory the tale of the father who bolted with an elderly spinster, and returning to England passed his daughter and her lover on the way. Dark and wintry was the night, the two coaches rattled by, and next morning four persons who had gone wrong opened the eyes of astonishment.

When David Lang was asked during Wakefield’s trial how much he had been paid for discharging the duties of priest, he replied pleasantly, “£20 or £30, or perhaps £40; I cannot say to a few pounds.” This was pretty well, but there are authenticated cases in which £100 was paid. The priests had no fixed fee, and charged according to circumstances. If business was slack and the bridegroom not pressing, they lowered their charges, but where the bribed post-boys told them of high rank, hot pursuit, and heavy purses, they squeezed their dupes remorselessly. It is told of Joseph Paisley that when on his death-bed he heard the familiar rumble of coaches into the village, he shook death from him, ordered the runaways to approach his presence, married three couples from his bed, and gave up the ghost with three hundred pounds in his palsied hands. Beattie at the toll-bar, on the other hand, did not scorn silver fees, and as occasion warranted the priests have doubtless ranged in their charges from half-a-crown and a glass of whisky to a hundred pounds.

Though the toll-bar only at rare intervals got wealthy pairs into its clutches, Murray had not been long installed in office when pockets crammed with fees made him waddle as heavily as a duck. Fifty marriages a month was no uncommon occurrence at Gretna at that time, and it was then that the mansion was built which still stands about a hundred yards on the English side of the Sark. The toll-keeper, to whom it owes its existence, erected it for a hotel that would rival Gretna Hall, and prove irresistible to the couples who, on getting married on the Scotch side, would have to pass it on their return journey. But the alterations in the Marriage Laws marred the new hotel’s chances, and Murray found that he had over-reached himself. Perhaps one reason why he no longer prospered was because he pursued a niggardly policy with the postillions, ostlers, and other rapscallions who demanded a share of the booty. The Langs knew what they were about far too well to quarrel with the post-boys, and stories are still current in Springfield of these faithful youths tumbling their employers into the road rather than take them to a “blacksmith” with whom they did not deal.

There is no hope for Gretna. Springfield was and is the great glory of its inhabitants. Here ran the great wall of Adrian, the scene of many a tough fight in the days of stone weapons and skin-clad Picts. The Debatable Land, sung by Trouvere and Troubadour, is to-day but a sodden moss, in which no King Arthur strides fearfully away from the “grim lady” of the bogs; and moss-troopers, grim and gaunt and terrible, no longer whirl with lighted firebrands into England. With a thousand stars the placid moon lies long drawn out and drowned at the bottom of the Solway, without a lovesick maid to shed a tear; the chariots that once rattled and flashed along the now silent road were turned into firewood decades ago, and the runaways, from a Prince of Capua to a beggar-maid, are rotten and forgotten.

A Holiday in Bed and Other Sketches