I traveled to Scotland because of books.
No, not “Outlander.”
I’m a romance novel reader, usually opting for the paranormal kind (well-endowed vampires, etc.), but many months ago, I tried some regency romance books by authors such as Sarah MacLean, Tessa Dare, and Lisa Kleypas. The stories were funny, feminist, and posed interesting questions about the evolution of Western perceptions of marriage. I was hooked.
For those wondering, regency romances take place around the early 1800s. Tales of lords and ladies and, even better, the rakes and rogues. (The rakes are my favorite.)
I can go on and on about this genre . . . but back to Scotland.
At some point I noticed that almost all of these authors mentioned the same place: Gretna Green. “We’re for Gretna,” a character says in Dare’s “One Dance With a Duke.” The entire plot of Kleypas’s novel “Devil in Winter” is about a pair who gets married in Gretna Green for practical reasons, and then fall madly in love.
“What is Gretna Green?” I asked. I remembered hearing about it in “Pride and Prejudice,” but these books made it seem more important — like Las Vegas, but instead of chapels under neon lights, there was a blacksmith shop where you could get married quick.
During an intense late-night googling session, I learned that Gretna Green is just that — a parish in Scotland, just over the border of England, that became a popular place for weddings after the passing of the Marriage Act of 1753. That act, also known as an “Act for Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage,” said that in England and Wales, you had to be 21 — or have parental permission — to get hitched.
The new rule resulted in young people running over the border to get married by the blacksmith in Gretna. Why the blacksmith? In Scotland, you could get married by anyone, as long as there were witnesses. The blacksmith’s shop was literally the first business over the border. The man in charge was happy to marry people over his anvil, for a fee, of course.
Almost three centuries later the entire community of Gretna is still a wedding destination because of its history. There are more than 3,000 weddings a year in Gretna, which means that the village — which has fewer than 3,000 people — hosts more than 10 percent of all marriages in Scotland.
When I — a relationship writer — saw that this seemingly fictional place devoted to love and commitment was very much real, I said to myself, in the voice of Tiny Fey on “30 Rock,” “I want to go to there.”
So I did.
My close friend, writer Sara Faith Alterman, said she’d go with me. I should note that Alterman does not read regency romance novels, nor is she obsessed with why people get married. (She is actually married, so she doesn’t have time for that.) My point is: She is a very good sport.
Once there, we both felt like we had stepped back in time.
It is quiet in Gretna Green; our cell service was spotty. When we arrived, we walked a path to town that took us through a field of cows, then down a small road. It was as if I had stepped into one of my favorite romance novels. I wished I was wearing a corset, but only for about two seconds (they seem quite uncomfortable!).
“How do they keep this place so preserved?” I wondered, looking at the open green field. The answer turns out to be a man named Alasdair Houston.
Houston, 57, is the fourth generation of his family to run this place. His great-grandfather bought the Gretna estate in 1885 for farmland (those cows we passed belong to Houston). It was the family’s “start, by mistake, in international tourism,” Houston explained with a laugh when we met.
Even though the marriage act was repealed, people were still coming to Gretna to see the blacksmiths shop where lovers would say their vows. The family realized it was good business to let them keep coming.
Over the past century, the family has expanded the number of wedding-related attractions. There are 11 ceremony venues for weddings that are usually booked throughout the day. There’s also the Famous Blacksmith Shop Museum, which is devoted to the history of the area, with statues, dresses, and carriages that would have driven across the border.
The weddings happen around the tourism. During my one-day visit to Gretna, there were seven weddings — and it was a Tuesday! A middle-aged bride held flowers in the Smiths at Gretna Green, the most modern-looking hotel in town. Groomsmen wandered various properties throughout the day. During a tour of the Gretna Hall venue, built in 1710, we noticed that the entire cobblestone path was covered in confetti from multiple weddings. Tiny hearts all over the walkways. Apparently it’s hard to clean.
Inside and outside of these small 18th-century buildings, there were also anvils. Anvils everywhere. One in Gretna Hall. One near a garden by what they call the Kissing Gate.
Diane Boyd, the Gretna marriage rooms manager, said the people want their anvils. It’s part of the history.
“This is Gretna Green,” she tells us. “If you don’t watch yourself, you’ll trip over an anvil.”
I should note that when you walk around this small community with Houston, in particular, it feels a little like you’re the guest of someone very famous. Alterman and I received looks from employees, like, “Who are those two? They’re with !” I imagine it’s like being given a tour of Fenway Park by Matt Damon.
Houston is very happily married. When I asked him whether he’s ever asked for relationship advice, seeing as he’s the king of marriage town, he laughed.
“That would be a very dark day,” he told me. “We do not set ourselves off as marriage guidance advisers. We certainly advise couples on how to have a wedding at Gretna Green.”
Houston — who Alterman decided would be played in a movie by Iain Glen (Jorah Mormont on “Game of Thrones”) — said he has upheld the spirit of Gretna throughout the years. If someone calls to find out what couples are getting married there, the names are kept secret. Gretna, after all, is a place for escape.
Houston hosted handfasting commitment ceremonies before gay marriage became legal in Scotland. He proudly keeps a rainbow anvil in the museum.
On a tour of the museum, by the way, is where things can get creepy. Unromantic, indeed. Yes, there were many couples who escaped over the border to avoid a betrothal to the wrong person. They did it to pursue life with a true love. But there were also kidnappings, young people taken from parents, older people marrying much younger people.
The legal age to marry in Scotland, at that point, was 12 for girls, 14 for boys.
Alterman and I did not like this. Houston reminded us that people did not live as long, but he admits quickly that it was not good. The legal age is now 16.
(In the context of any of this history, by the way, I would be an all-caps MEGA-SPINSTER at 42 years old. In a Kleypas or Dare book I’d be Lady Goldstein, the woman rolling her eyes in the corner. I’m very comfortable with this.)
Houston notes that many of the people now getting married in Gretna are middle-aged and older, and are on a second marriage. Houston tells me there’s also a trend of people renewing their vows over the anvils.
He also gets more visitors who aren’t getting married at all because of the new attractions. In Houston’s time, he’s added public art, including a Ray Lonsdale sculpture called “The Big Dance,” which has become the Instagram spot of choice in town. It features two massive hands coming together, perfect for couples posing beneath.
There is also the Courtship Maze, which boasts the slogan, “Where getting together has never been so hard.”
You enter the maze on one side. Your betrothed (or in my case, Alterman) enters from the other. There are distractions and intentional roadblocks, but eventually the hope is that you meet in the middle. Houston admits it’s really just one more thing to do, to make a day out of the whole Gretna experience, but he’s philosophical about it.
“We all enter this world at a different point,” he said. “Only if we make certain decisions on this journey that we call life do we meet up with what might turn out to be our life’s partner. It can be a freak party invitation that you did or didn’t accept. In the courtship maze, we have different entry points.”
When Alterman and I do meet in the middle, there’s little more to see. Our train will take us to a stop over the border in England, where we’ll transfer to a train back to Scotland. It’s a day trip, perfect for lovers or the kind of people who like to read about them.
And that’s why I think this place is missing one thing: a bookstore.
Meredith Goldstein writes the Love Letters advice column for The Boston Globe. You can hear audio of her trip to Scotland on the Love Letters podcast at Boston.com/loveletters/podcast. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org