From Gretna to Skye, weddings march on in Scotland

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Windswept beaches, grand castles and some high-profile celebrity knot-tying are drawing record numbers of foreign couples to say their vows in Scotland.

Windswept beaches, grand castles and some high-profile celebrity knot-tying are drawing record numbers of foreign couples to say their vows in Scotland.

The tartan wedding trend is now such an important earner of dollars and euros north of the border that Scotland has been excluded from Government legislation designed to crack down on bogus marriages.

Under the new law, a bride or bridegroom from outside the European Union will have to be interviewed at a special regis- tration centre which will check on their immigration status before they can be married in England or Wales. Disputed cases will be passed to the Home Office.

Des Browne, the Immigration Minister, has explained that will not apply in Scotland: "It has a growing and lucrative marriage tourism industry in which couples travel to Scotland to get married in scenic surroundings, with no intention to remain in the UK thereafter.

"The Government does not wish to jeopardise this industry and so we will not require persons to attend the centres in person, as is the case elsewhere in the UK."

But the special treatment caused anger last night with an immigrants' welfare group denouncing it as "ludicrous". Last year there were 30,757 marriages in Scotland, 9,795 of which involved at least one partner from outside the country. The majority of "outsiders" are English couples heading for Gretna Green, the border town and traditional destination for eloping teenagers, where nearly one in six Scottish weddings now takes place.

But increasing numbers of couples from around the globe are also choosing to head down the aisle in the Highlands and Islands, with 527 American brides and 486 American grooms marrying in Scotland last year.

It is also a popular wedding location for the Dutch, Australians, Germans, Canadians and Scandinavians, although marrying couples have also headed to the glens from more unlikely locations such as Estonia and Botswana, with more than 100 nationalities marrying in Scotland last year.

Scotland is now marketed worldwide as a "great place to tie the knot", listing its unspoilt scenery, distinctive culture and dramatic history as the perfect backdrop to a dream wedding. Japan has been singled out as a potential "growth market" over the next year. More than 500 locations have been registered for civil ceremonies, ranging from luxury hotels to a youth hostel and from Celtic football club to a number of golf courses.

Madonna and the film director Guy Ritchie chose the exclusive Skibo Castle, a private sporting estate in Sutherland, for their ceremony, where the guests included Sting and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Shortly afterwards, the Hollywood star, Ashley Judd, married the racing driver, Dario Franchitti, at the same venue; the actress, Jennifer Ehle, secretly wed the US writer, Michael Ryan, on the Isle of Skye and Oscar-winning actress, Jennifer Connelly, married her fiancé, Paul Bettany, in East Lothian.

And last month, Kiefer Sutherland, the star of hit television series 24, put on full highland dress to watch his stepdaughter marry at the City Chambers in Edinburgh.

The Home Office has pledged to end the exemption if evidence emerges of sham marriages taking place in Scotland. But Tauhid Pasha, Legal and Policy Director for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: "We agree Scotland's a very beautiful and hospitable country for celebrating a wedding.

"But the Immigration Minister's special treatment for Scotland on the basis of its marriage tourism industry is ludicrous. These rules already risk jeopardising people's human rights without this extra dram of unfairness."