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

Julie Wilmot

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.View all posts by Julie Wilmot