The Broader Picture: With rings on their fingers

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The Independent Culture
GRETNA GREEN has long inhabited a curious place in the national psyche as a place of romance and drama, synonymous with the sort of love which laughs at locksmiths and conquers all. Couples have escaped parental opposition and barriers of age or class here since the 18th century, and the village is full of their stories' echoes.

On Saturday, Valentine's Day, it will be overrun with Nineties couples racing across the border to infuse their vows with Gretna's magic. "The couples we see now are more likely to be escaping a big wedding than angry parents," says Maggie Everett, the marriage co- ordinator at Gretna Hall Blacksmiths, "but we do get all sorts of people fleeing all sorts of very modern pressures, including parents who object." Nowadays, aged anywhere between 16 and 90 and from all over the world, couples can be married at the register office or, for a small fee, have a traditional "blacksmith's marriage" where alliances are forged over the anvil by a member of the clergy. Wedding bookings for Friday, the superstitious 13th, are noticeably down, however. Couples pursuing symbolism do not court ill omens.

English and Welsh lovers have long taken advantage of Scotland's liberal marriage laws - wanting to marry and being over 16 has traditionally been enough to cut through the red tape - and by accident of geography Gretna Green, literally the first village over the border on the main route from England to Scotland, became a destination of elopement. "In the old days, people were married by whoever got to them first," says Ms Everett. This was usually the toll-keeper on the bridge, but fisherman, who intercepted young lovers arriving by sea and blacksmiths, who shod the horses of the eloping couples, also moonlighted as "priests". Marriage touts lined the platforms of the station, which has recently been reopened and increased trade further.

Nowadays, the wedding business is the village's main employer, with 4,200 couples marrying there last year. Business can still be competitive. Although today's Gretna marriage is likely to be closer in style to a Vegas package- wedding than the old fly-by-night romances, scores of couples still arrive daily, whether for real "until-death-do-they-part" ceremonies or for the mock weddings which are the highlight of the tourist "Gretna experience". Some of these men and women may be escaping a world which has told them they cannot be together; but most have come to Gretna for its ghosts, chasing a dream filled with the clattering hooves of horsemen carrying their lovers to the altar or the anvils. !