Unofficial Marriage Records, Gretna Green, and Complications

Posted by on

There are several kinds of official records of marriages (see this earlier post), but many unofficial sources can also be useful to family historians trying to learn the name of an ancestor’s spouse or the date of a marriage. Whether or not an unofficial source’s information about a marriage is precise or complete, it can provide useful clues.

Some of these unofficial records may provide information which is not recorded in official sources. For example, a 1960 Idaho State Journal article about my aunt’s wedding reports that her sister – my mother – came from Salt Lake City, Utah, for the wedding. The article also describes the bride’s wedding dress, which may be of little genealogical consequence, but nonetheless interests some of her offspring more than half a century later.

Anniversary notice in newspapers

Anniversary notice in newspapers

Here are some sources to consider:

  • Personal records of officiators or other participants or family members
  • Family Bibles
  • Newspaper announcements of engagements, weddings, and anniversaries
  • Children’s birth records or announcements
  • Census records
  • Tax records (at least as to marital status)
  • Occupational records (marital status and spouse name)
  • Death records
  • Obituaries
  • Military records
  • Pension records
  • Living relatives, within the limits of memory
  • Old wedding announcements kept in that box in the attic.

Don’t neglect the World Wide Web; some of this information is now searchable online, and more recent marriages may be noted in online newsletters or web sites of towns and churches.

Gretna Greens, Anvil Priests, and More

In many places and times, it has been common for weddings to take place in the bride’s hometown – either her birthplace or the town to which she moved as a child, and where she was raised.

Likewise, it has often been common for both the bride and the groom to marry and raise their families in or near the places where they were born. While this is not always true, their birthplaces are a sensible starting point for your search.

The birthdate of the oldest child can suggest a temporal starting point for a marriage record search. Bear in mind, however, that fertility does not require a marriage certificate. Not only is it possible for a bride to be secretly pregnant on her wedding day; it some places and times it has been common for the marriage to occur in the last few weeks of the pregnancy.

Gretna Green Blacksmith's shop

Gretna Green Blacksmith's shop

Then there’s Gretna Green. If you’ve read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, you may recall Lydia Bennet leaving a note to the effect that she was eloping to Gretna Green with George Wickham (though they actually went to London). If you’re a Downton Abbey fan, you may have noticed that Lady Sybil Crawley and the family chauffeur, Tom Branson, were on their way to Gretna Green, when one of Lady Sybil’s sisters caught them.

Gretna Green is a village just inside the southern border of Scotland, which is famous as a site for runaway weddings. Historically, the strict marriage laws in England and Wales did not apply to Scotland. Not only was it legal to marry at a younger age; the age of consent was 14 for boys and 12 for girls, as opposed to 21 in England. Moreover, Scottish law permitted “irregular marriages,” which did not require a church or public official to officiate. Almost anyone could officiate, as long as the couple made their declarations before two witnesses. Gretna Green blacksmiths became known as “anvil priests.” The most famous of these, Richard Rennison, performed over 5000 wedding ceremonies.

More generically, a Gretna Green is any place to which people resort to marry with fewer restrictions. They may be seeking to escape age requirements, waiting periods, parental consent requirements, blood tests, or the payment of a marriage bond. They may wish to marry a closer relative than their local jurisdictions allow. Or they may simply wish to marry in secret, to escape the family politics and other burdens associated with traditional weddings, or to marry in a particularly romantic place.

The obvious implication is this: If you cannot find a marriage record near where the bride, groom, or married couple lived, consider the possibility that they might have eloped to the next county, but also check for nearby Gretna Greens, located just over state or national borders. To get you started, here are FamilySearch’s list of Gretna Greens in the United States and a list at Arlene Eakle’s Genealogy Blog. (At the latter, be sure to peruse the comments, not just the post itself.)


Many of the complications one may encounter in searching for a marriage record are beyond the scope of this article. Common-law marriages may have no records at all, and even the term’s definition varies among cultures and jurisdictions. The only record naming the father of a child born out of wedlock might be a birth certificate, and even that is hit-and-miss. Polygamous marriages, legal and otherwise, pose their own complications.

Native American tribes and other formally or informally separate communities may have their own rules and practices, and separate sets of records.

Even such ordinary situations as divorce and remarriage pose some challenges, especially when some relevant records are missing, or when a child conceived during a marriage is born after the divorce, or even after the mother’s subsequent remarriage. Marriage and divorce records can help to determine which of a man’s children belongs to which wife, but, as usual, there is too much humanity mixed into this picture for it to be reliably simple.

Tags: , , , , , ,

3 Responses to “Unofficial Marriage Records, Gretna Green, and Complications”

  1. I paid for a full year with World Vital Records .I have not been able to find anything I need .You are saying records for Gretna Green? where are these records? There is no way you are letting me see any of these.The original Gretna Green is On the border of Scotland I have been there and camped at the back of the property one week before in was flooded by the river In the sixties.The only ones you are giving access to is American.I printed in my name and where I was born,According to you I don”t exist.My family tree is Irish,English,and Scottish.I have paid I year subscription and I have got nothing to show for this since August 2013

  2. Maureen, thanks for your comment. This article is about marriage records in general, not a catalog of records available at WorldVitalRecords, and there was no intent to suggest that we have records specifically from Gretna Green. That said, I am referring your query to our support department, to see if they can help you find the many non-US records we have in our searchable collection, including Scottish records. I’ll do that via e-mail and CC you.

  3. I thank you for your help David,I am a novice doing family history .As most of my brothers and sisters are deceased I cannot turn to anyone for information.I’m 73yrs old and I find some things Very frustrating at times.I was orphaned at 14yrs old and did not get to quiz my parents.A month before my father died he did tell me his mother was Scottish and father was Irish,unfortunately my eldest brother now deceased,only told me Grandfather David McDonald came from a village 7 miles north of Dublin,My gran was born in Scotland ,so I have to try my luck with her,as I have no idea which village he came from.

Leave a comment