In the early 1700s, England faced serious social problems caused by the large number of irregular marriages taking place around the country in informal and sometimes boisterous circumstances. In 1753, Lord Hardwicke proposed a parliamentary solution. He sponsored a Marriage Act that restricted the number of places in which couples could be wed and that tightened up the regulations on the recording of marriages. A major change was the introduction of parental consent, which was required if either bride or groom were under 21. The new law was strictly enforced, and clergymen who broke the law faced 14 years’ transportation.
The Hardwicke Act did not apply to Scotland, which made the country suddenly very attractive as a wedding venue. Anyone aged 16 years or over could still get married there, even without their parents' consent. Marriages could be carried out without the need for a clergyman to officiate (a practice that continued until 1940, when the law was changed so that anyone getting married had to have the ceremony conducted by a minister of religion or a registrar).
The principle in Scots Law was that marriage was ‘constituted by mutual consent’. This usually involved a simple, written declaration of acceptance of each other as husband and wife. As this was not the case in England and Wales, a thriving marriage business sprang up just over the Border for English couples who eloped together to marry in Scotland.
Because they were the first places reached in Scotland from England for those following the main route north, Gretna Green in the west and Coldstream in the east became famous for wedding elopements in the Borders. Coldstream’s Old Marriage House still exists today, but the last wedding took place there in 1856.
Since Scotland retained its own legal system when it was united with England by the Act of Union in 1707, some differences between the laws of the two countries still remain. These make it still much easier to get married or form a civil partnership in Scotland.
Age of consent
The age at which couples can marry/form a civil partnership in Scotland still remains lower than that in England. Couples have to be 18 years in England without parental consent but in Scotland they have to be aged only 16 years or over on the day of their wedding/registration.
You may only get married/form a civil partnership in England and Wales if one of you has lived in a registration district for at least seven days immediately before giving notice. This applies to all couples, including those travelling from overseas. There is no such residential qualification required for those marrying/registering their civil partnership north of the Border. Scotland thus has the competitive edge for British couples who do not wish to be bound by these regulations or for overseas couples who want to fly in and out of Scotland just for the ceremony.
28 clear days' notice of your intention to marry/form your civil partnerhsip, to allow for legal objections, is required in Scotland. In England, you have to give a minimum 15 clear days’ notice.