When someone talks about Gretna Green, one of the first things to spring to mind are stories of eloping couples, racing their disapproving relatives to the Scottish border so they could marry without their parents’ consent. It’s an image of daredevil chases and forbidden romance – one capitalised on by mentions of Gretna Green in stories and poetry. I’d grown up loving the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and from a young age I’d known Gretna Green as a place of mystery and fulfilled dreams, where Lydia’s romantic fantasy leads her to believe she’ll end up when she elopes so dramatically with Mr Wickham.
In my real life, I knew Gretna Green as a town just off the motorway a few miles north, with an outlet village and a cut-price M&S.
So how to reconcile these two places?
One of the things I love about poetry is its capacity to reconcile apparently disparate ideas. Through metaphor, through imagery, or simply through juxtaposition, we can take two thoughts or objects and hold them up to the same light. The same is true in theatre, which traditionally takes scenes featuring a number of characters and portrays them for us, with each character having their own agenda. We, as reader and audience, get to decide which side to take, and which angle to look from.
In this way, writing a sequence of poems to form the basis of a theatre piece makes a lot of sense. Both art forms are, in their own ways, multifaceted. And the deeper I looked into Gretna Green and its surroundings, the more faces it seemed to wear, and the more layers of its identity came to light.
It’s impossible to capture the entirety of a place in a poem, just as it’s impossible to capture an entire person in a play. In the poems that make up Gretna, I’ve tried to create a sort of impressionist painting: up close, it’s a series of images and stories – but stand back far enough and they become an overall impression of the place. A place of outlet malls and a motorway rushing by. And, yes, a goal for runaway couples. But also a coastal town, and an area flooded by evacuees from Glasgow and Edinburgh during the Second World War. In the First World War, a vast and complex munitions factory, providing work and higher wages to women who stepped into roles that were traditionally kept for me. And of course, particularly in the present climate, it’s impossible not to see Gretna Green as a border town, its identity so tied up with its position on the very edge of Scotland.
Spending time at the Blacksmith’s Shop Museum in Gretna Green, and at the Devil’s Porridge museum in nearby Eastriggs, it quickly became apparent how much of Gretna Green’s history is tied up with this geographical placing: for the eloping couples, it was a sanctuary just over the border, beyond the reach of England’s more stringent marriage laws; for the shoppers, it’s conveniently located just off the motorway; for the evacuees, it represented rural safety away from the cities; for the munitionettes, the mountains formed natural protection for the factories; and for the haaf net fishermen-and-women who lived of the sea and the land, it sat right on the bountiful Solway Firth.
Viewed in terms of its geographical location, and the opportunities that offers, it suddenly becomes much easier to reconcile the various facets of Gretna Green. Lydia’s goal in her elopement with Wickham, and the outlet mall of my childhood, suddenly become one and the same: they are both results of where Gretna Green sits within the land. Gretna Green’s social and geographical faces become one and the same. Like all of us, Gretna Green is a product of the landscape it calls home.
Katie Hale is a Cumbrian poet and one of our Marchland Arms artists, to find out more about her work head to her website here https://halekatie.com.
Théâtre Volière have commissioned Katie to write a suite of poems about Gretna Green from a woman’s perspective. The actors of The Marchland Arms Company will present a staged version of her work alongside Scottish Music specialist and fiddler Lori Watson. It will form part of our Northern Marches session.