Irregular border marriages in Scotland

Scottish border map
Courtesy of

Not long ago, I was searching for a record of an 1830s marriage between two prominent Scottish families. I was certain I would have an easy time locating this particular record, having identified the parish and county in which the couple were married, so I began my search. Yet while I searched several sources, including Given Name Index to Marriages in Old Parochial Registers to 1855,[1] and Scotland Marriages, 1561-1910, I found no record of the marriage. I attempted the search again using every variation of the surname I could think of, but struck out. I then turned to published genealogies regarding the two families, but found no mention of this particular couple’s marriage.

I turned to ScotlandsPeople, which holds a digitized collection of Old Parish Register Banns and Marriages. I read through the information about the collection, where the following paragraph caught my eye:

Bear in mind that ‘irregular’ marriages, by exchange of promises before witnesses, by betrothal and consummation, or by cohabitation and repute, were forms of marriage recognized by Scots Law, yet may have taken place without any official record of the event.[2]

I found this extremely odd, perhaps because I am married, and stood in line at a town clerk’s office in Maine for over an hour to get my marriage license. Driven by curiosity, I decided to search for more information about irregular border marriages. The National Records of Scotland states that:

Marriage by declaration in front of two witnesses was legal in Scotland but in 1753 a law banned such irregular marriages in England. This led to couples crossing the Border to marry at places like Gretna Green, Coldstream, and Lamberton Toll. The marriages were carried out by “priests” who also provided witnesses.

Some – but not all – of the priests performing these marriages recorded them. I located a volume in our collection, Claverhouse: Irregular Border Marriages,[3] which contains irregular marriage registers recorded by _____ Lang, Robert Elliot, John Linton, George McQueen, John Murray, and John Douglas; the Gretna registers; the Gretna Hall marriage records; and Lamberton Toll marriage registers. I searched for a record listing this particular couple but did not find one.

The irregular border marriage practice presents an interesting road-block for genealogical researchers. The best marriage records can provide us with birth information for the bride and/or groom, including birth locations and names of their parents. In this particular instance, the couple moved from Scotland to Quebec and appeared in other records, which helped verify their relationship and lineages. However, irregular border marriages could prove a difficult nut to crack – especially for those interested in lineage societies, which often require proof of birth, marriage, and death.


[1] Given Name Index to Marriages in Old Parochial Registers to 1855 (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1990), available on microfiche at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, Massachusetts. CS477.A1 G582

[2] ScotlandsPeople, OPR Banns & Marriages,

[3] Meliora C. Smith, Claverhouse: Irregular Border Marriages (Edinburgh: The Moray Press, 1934), available at NEHGS. CS478.G74 S65 1934

About Julie Wilmot

Julie, a native of Errol, New Hampshire, holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology with a concentration in Native American Studies from the University of Maine, Orono, and a Master of Arts degree in History and Culture from Union Institute and University. She has worked at the Northeast Archives of Folklore and Oral History in Orono, Maine, and was a presenter at the New England Historical Association Spring 2014 Conference in Springfield, Massachusetts. Her research interests include French-Canadian migration to Northern New England, and international cases.

18 thoughts on “Irregular border marriages in Scotland

  1. I think any genealogist or historian would find the irregular marriages odd whatever his/her martial status. European societies developed stringent and explicit protocols for marriage and all pre-20th century violations of marriage laws were dealt with severely. The Scottish loophole became known to many of us who are not British through popular literature and movies. Star-crossed couples in English novels and films often eloped to Scotland to be married, puzzling American readers. I believe this was recently
    used in “Downton Abbey” when the earl’s daughter wanted to marry the chauffeur (but were persuaded to return and wed with her parents’ grudging consent).

  2. Juliet, Scottish border marriages most often were undertaken by the English, but marriages not celebrated in the established Presbyterian Church of Scotland were common, particularly in the 19th century and especially in the cities. One of the most under-appreciated features of Scottish research is the high level of religious non-conformity. The history of non-established Presbyterian denominations alone is extremely complex, and the bulk of their records are not digitized.

    1. Oh I really have my work cut out for me! Been trying for months to trace back my Scottish Presbytertian roots, and if I succeed I would be worthy of a PhD of sorts. A myriad of twists and turns and false starts in my search.

  3. I know this is hardly a historical resource, but . . .Diana Gabaldon, author of the wildly popular historical romance (and time travel) “Outlander” series, introduces yet another form of Scots marriage in the 18th c. This is “handfasting,” in which the couple themselves pledge to each other, and consummate the marriage, in a situation where they have no way of marrying in a more formal manner. The marriage is valid for one year, during which the couple can decide whether they wish to continue to be married, and during which others can come up with objections to their marriage. At the end of the year, they must dissolve the marriage, or formalize it. The community, which in this case is a North Carolina community of Scots highlanders fleeing the disaster of the loss at Culloden, and for many of them, years in a British prison. The handfasted couple are from the 20th c, but have lived long enough with the Scots community to be aware of the custom. Her stepfather, who’s gotten from Scotland to NC in the usual way, recognizes the custom, though he hopes the couple will fail. A year later, obstacles overcome, however, they marry in front of a priest and many witnesses.

    I’d assume that handfasting wouldn’t make it into historical records, except perhaps if and when the couple regularized it. Have you run across this form of marriage?

  4. I believe Colorado to this day recognizes marriages in which people are married by mutual consent, or in an informal or non-standard ceremony. The couple can obtain a license, and simply needs to sign and return the document if they want their relationship registered. In Oregon of my youth, everyone knew couples who’d lived together so long they were considered married under the law. I’m still not sure if one of my aunt’s and her last husband were ever formally married.

    The year-long “trial marriage” concept seems to be deeply embedded on parts of American culture,and I’ve known a number of couples who did that. Some stayed together, some didn’t. Interestingly, those who stayed together have very strong marriages, and most of those who split stayed friends. Some of them ended up married anyway.

    Also, I first heard the term “Gretna Green” after my beau and I eloped to Idaho from Oregon because he was still a year too young to legally marry in Oregon. At the time, legal age in Oregon for females was 18, men 21. In Idaho, the legal age for both was 18. We were both 20. When we got home (to parents who knew perfectly well what we were up to), my mother made a reference to us having run off “to a Gretna Green” to get married. I had no idea what she was talking about until I began doing genealogical research on relatives in Tennessee & Kentucky, and heard the term applied to certain places that were marriage magnets. Still later before I found out it originated in Scotland, from friends who live near the English/Scotland border.

      1. Gretna Green is right on the border between England and Scotland- is this perhaps where you visited?

        1. Yes, and I did not remember it was so close to the Scottish border. Actually, just passing through after walking along ole Hadrian’ wall, and then headed to the NE of England to Lindisfarne/Holy Island trying to time our trip for low tide so we could get onto the Island.

          1. That is the original Gretna Green, quite famous for “clandestine marriages”. The name has since come to be applied to other such places in the English speaking world. The original Gretna Green is still a destination for couples looking for a unique experience and for tourists. Early on, people were married in a blacksmith’s shop, with an anvil as an alter, and, it is said, an exceedingly simple 2 minute ceremony. The anvil has since been picked up by other places as a symbol of non-standard marriages and “quickie” marriages.

  5. Very interesting. I have a question about a curious marriage record from 1794 in Scotland. It was recorded that the couple married “clandestinely.” I have never seen that kind of entry before. I can imagine that perhaps they didn’t have approval either from the parents or the authorities, but I’m wondering if there may have been some explanation for the use of this term. Thanks to anyone who has insights!

  6. Thanks for an interesting post. I was also interested to see that you are from Errol, NH, because I have Maine relatives from the Stoneham-Bethel area whose marriage was not recorded there. Instead, they were married across the border in Errol! I always assumed that NH laws were more lax (e.g. lower age restrictions without parental consent) but I have never investigated. Now I’ll have to!

  7. Just curious what the surnames in your case are, because I am also researching some Scots who went to Quebec in that time frame.

  8. I’m so glad you wrote this article. It may come in useful later for the reasons you Intended that is genealogical research However I’m really pleased because I watch a lot of British drama and never understood the reference in pride and prejudice to the young couple who Elopes to Gretna Green Thanks

  9. Very interesting post. It just adds another factor that researching genealogists must consider. I’m glad that ScotlandsPeople includes the explanatory statement about the irregular marriages. Through all my reading–both historic novels and nonfiction–I’ve encountered these marriages and the recognition thereof. It seems Scotland and its culture were once again ahead of the world and its thinking. This (Scotland) was one of the homes of the “age of enlightenment” that was dawning in the 18th century, and it’s recognition of the marriages described here that reflects its tolerance for futuristic ideas. Why not cohabitate, declare marriages, mutual consent, hand fast? It makes a road block for genealogists and finding the marriage records, but each era has its bit of progress that must be worked around.
    Any Scottish country dancers out there who are ready for “A Trip to Gretna Green”?

  10. Elkton, MD was the “Marriage Capital of the East Coast” in the 1920s and 1930s – i.e. Gretna Green. Maryland had no waiting period at that time and Elkton is just over the Delaware state line, the first county seat in Maryland. 8-10 trains a day would stop and couples would go to the Wedding Chapels on Main St to get married.

  11. Just checking back in to see all the comments. What about Las Vegas and its wedding chapels? I presume they were popular for two reasons. First because divorce was/is easy in Nevada, second because there was no waiting period for weddings. I have family members who married in Las Vegas solely because of the lack of waiting period. It meant a quick trip over a weekend to get married, back to work on Monday.

    I was unable to locate an 1873 marriage a family tree created by a relative said had occurred in Chicago. I tried all the tricks the Rootsweb Cook County elist provided in an effort to help/ Finally someone suggested a county on the east side of Lake Michigan in Indiana. This county didn’t require a waiting period, so couples from Chicago up through Milwaukee would go there to marry. I forget now which county it was, but I still didn’t find my great grandparents there–or anywhere else. It is possible that they just lived together–I wouldn’t use the Scottish term handfasting, as they were Norwegian immigrants.

    Interesting thread!


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