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Scotland Elopement History

September 14, 2023

As we wrote recently in our blog post about how to have a sustainable elopement, Scotland has been named as the second most popular destination for couples from the US.

But Scotland is not a new place to elope.

In this blog, we are going to go through the history of eloping to Scotland and find out that it is not just Gretna Green.

Couple elope in Edinburgh

Gretna Green

In the middle of the 18th-century English law, lords approved new laws to tightened marriage arrangements. Couples had to reach the age of 21 before they could marry without their parents’ consent and their marriage had to take place in a church.

Scottish law, however, was different: you could marry on the spot, in a simple ‘marriage by declaration’, or handfasting’ ceremony, only requiring two witnesses and assurances from the couple that they were both free to marry. Actually, to this day a verbal contract is legally binding within Scotland

So, with such a relaxed arrangement within easy reach of England, it soon led to the inevitable influx of countless thousands of young couples running-away to marry over the border. Gretna Green was the first village in Scotland and conveniently situated on the main route from London into Scotland.

In the mid 19th century, Scottish marriage laws were changed to try and limit the amount of runaways crossing the border to get married. The new requirement was that the couple should be resident in the parish for 21 days prior to marriage and was designed to allow the pursuing families time to put a stop to these runaway marriages.

However, enterprising locals turned this into a new business and many inn keepers would allow couples to stay for the required three weeks keeping them hidden from anyone who might come looking.

Scotland still allows those aged 16 and over to marry without consent and while the notice period remains in effect the residency requirement does not. So you don’t have to spend 3 weeks in an inn if you don’t want to.

Gretna Green has now become synonymous with elopements in the UK

Scotland Elopement Photographer Portfolio Image

But is that where it all started…

The “Original” Elopements

Some of the earliest elopements can be traced back to around the middle of the 14th century when the term ‘elope’ was actually used to describe when a married woman left her husband in order to run away with her lover. At a time when most people didn’t leave their village or town (except to go to market) this was surprisingly common and actually pretty easy.

But we can go earlier than that

The Shetland Islands now form part of Scotland but 1000 years ago, this wasn’t the case. They were part of the Kingdom of Norway and stayed that way until 1472 when the King of Denmark, Norway and Sweded (Christian I) gave the Shetland and Orkney Isles to Scotland in lieu of a dowry from a marriage.

Now, the reason I give this little bit of history is that in the Egil’s Saga relates how, in AD 900, an eloping couple from Norway found themselves shipwrecked in Shetland, and sought refuge in ‘Morseyarborg’ or Mousa Broch. Mousa Broch is truly the most amazing place and I was luck enough to be able to film there. Check it out –Mousa Broch Video.

So I think that this is the earliest recorded elopement in Scotland.

Elopements these days

The modern definition of eloping is that you forego a formal, traditional wedding and instead, choose to elope for the ceremony. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you secretly run away with your partner without telling anyone. Although some of our clients do still choose to go for down the secret route.

Some elopements will just involve a small wedding with two people, any necessary witnesses and the celebrant, whilst others will include a lot more. Some couples will ask their family members to join them while others will choose to have a very private union. Unlike traditional weddings which primarily focused on the guest experience, and everything was done to ensure the guests enjoyed themselves, elopement focuses on celebrating you, your love and your story.

Are you looking to elope? Download our guide at the bottom of the page or get in touch.

Thanks for reading!

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