In 1754 Lord Hardwicke introduced a bill which forbad irregular marriages. Many people objected to marrying in churches, so began using centres across the border in Scotland, where the couple's own consent to marriage before witnesses was legal under Scottish Law. Gretna is the most famous of these centres. Marriages were conducted by self appointed ministers at the border Toll booths along these roads into Scotland. These self-named 'priests' had other jobs, where the story of being married over an anvil by the village blacksmith began.
The index at the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies covers entries 1795-1895, with a few earlier references. In all over 4,500 entries are recorded for those lost marriages.
There is evidence that runaway weddings took place in Gretna up to 20 years before the passing of the 1754 bill.
A marriage act was passed in 1857 in an attempt to prevent the abuse of the Scottish Marriage Law by persons outside Scotland. It laid down that one of the contracting parties must be domiciled or have lived for the previous twenty one days in Scotland. The act had the effect of restricting the number of marriages for about forty years. The trade was resumed and continued until 1940 when an Act of Parliament put a stop to marriages over the anvil. The Act required proper notice of marriage to be given and the ceremony to be conducted by a Minister of Religion of any Christian denomination or in the office of an Authorised Registrar.
The minimum age of marriage in Scotland remained at sixteen years, and this continued to be taken advantage of by people from England and abroad where the minimum age of marriage without parental consent is usually 21.
Here is an interesting news story from the Carlisle Patriot around 10th October 1856.
GRETNA GREEN IN REALITY - A ludicrous and disgracefal scene occurred on Saturday last, as related by an eye-witness. A couple from Cumberland arrived at one of the inns, intending to be joined in holy matrimony, but the official, who is no teetotaler, having indulged too freely in John Barleycorn, was found rather incapable of performing the ceremony. The host, unwilling that the nuptial knot should not be tied, and the ceremony duly performed, took upon himself the trouble of filling up the "lines", and going through all the preliminaries. However, the last and most important part of the ceremony had to be gone through, placing the host in a fix, for his "reverence" was unable under his load to support himself, and was brought up to the "sticking point" leaning on the shoulder of his friend of the tap. There being now no retreat from performing his part, the official, in a very incoherent and unintelligible jargon, grumbled out "I declare you married people - go together as long as you like, ye young devils that you are. Hurra! Jenny, dang the weaver". His hostship then withdrawing his support, down went his reverence, receiving a black eye in his fall, and thus ended another bymeneal drama at Gretna.