How Gretna Green put the class back in quickie elopements with romantic brand imagery
One morning last year, I was organising the studio for a shoot, when the phone rang.
It was Pete Mowforth, CEO of INDEZ, a digital design agency specialising in ecommerce websites and founder of the Ecommerce Institute.
Pete’s one of those dudes who don’t come along that often. With a PhD in Artificial Intelligence, it’s hard to tell whether his fascination with psychology outranks his enthusiasm for user experience. Doubtless they feed each other.
I’ve photographed for Pete’s clients for five years, shooting products for Scott-Group, LilyBlanche, TartanTwist, Toolstop, Demijohn and Jamieson Brothers. I also teach ecommerce product photography to the Ecommerce Institute.
So, when Pete called, I grabbed my diary and got ready to pencil in a shoot.
But this time Pete was calling with a much bigger proposition.
You might have heard of Gretna Green
A small village in the Scottish Borders, its main claim to fame lies in it being the nearest Scottish settlement to England.
Gretna Green was a sleepy rural hamlet until 1754 when the House of Lords ruled that English couples had to be 21 to marry without their parent’s consent. Today the average age that people in the UK get married is around 35. Such legislation would probably be met with resounding indifference. But back in the mid-18th century shacking up with your main squeeze was frowned upon. Getting hitched was a much bigger deal. And as we know, legislation can’t stop love.
It didn’t take long for smitten young couples to work out that Scottish law allowed them to marry on the spot with a handfasting ceremony requiring only two witnesses. They also noted that Gretna Green was only two miles over the border, making it the perfect destination for some sneaky nuptials.
Thousands of desperate young couple eloped to Gretna Green, rocking up at the local Blacksmith’s shop to get wed over the anvil.
Fast forward 265 years to a photographer’s studio in Glasgow
INDEZ manage the Gretna Green destination website. Pete asks me if I’d be interested in producing a photoshoot to bring their story to life as part of a rebrand and website redesign.
The Gretna Green empire consists of three hotels, wedding packages, a café, a tartan themed gift emporium and an ecommerce website offering everything but tea and scones. It’s a family owned business run by siblings Susan Clark and Alasdair Houston.
5,000 people get married at Gretna Green every year.
Today, it’s not desperate young couples fleeing irate fathers getting cuffed at the anvil. But diverse couples, of all ages, genders, and ethnicities.
The one thing they all have in common is their desire to elope. It’s about a state of mind. They’ve all heard about Gretna Green’s romantic history and it resonated with them. They come to add their love story to the Gretna Green tradition.
And Gretna’s not just a wedding magnet. In 2018, 812,000 people visited the Blacksmith’s shop, making it one of Scotland’s top visitor destinations.
Young rebellious love
So, we’re talking dream job here. An incredible back story, and a rebranding project giving creative free rein.
The first thing we did was jump in the car and drive like the clappers down to Gretna Green to meet the chairman Alasdair Houston and their Board. We presented our credentials and convinced them that we were the team for the job.
We talked about concepts for the shoot and the attitude they wanted to evoke. Together we settled on the phrase young rebellious love as our touchstone for the mood we wanted to evoke.
Gretna Green is a special place because of its history. Our brief was to create imagery that would make the heritage and the romance front and centre in the brand.
When we Google searched images two themes emerged. Wedding photos natch. And also historical illustrations of beleaguered couples galloping hell for leather towards Gretna Green. Terrified young brides wringing their hands and staring through stagecoach window as a cloud of dust heralded their pursuers. Anxious couples begging the blacksmith to marry them faster. It was a gold mine of inspiration.
Gretna Green through the decades
I pitched a shoot that would tell the story of Gretna Green through the years. We would begin with the iconic Gretna Green story, and re-enact the couple fleeing over the border in their carriage. Then we would leap 200 years forward in time to the 1950’s, with a young couple riding their moped up from London. Then hit the 1960’s for a romantic rampage in a Jag. By the 1970’s our lovers are hitchhiking North from a festival. In the 1990’s, we see them running through the heather from Hadrain’s wall in a muddy wedding dress.
Mood boards showed our young rebellious lovers in action, exploring styling, hair, and make-up, and bringing the story for the shoot to life for the Gretna Green team to approve.
Because I was producing, we asked photographer Mark Mainz (he’s also my husband, so I won’t go on about how talented he is, but he is) to do the shoot. I worked with model agencies to find the right faces for the campaign and negotiate their fees. And I booked genius fashion stylist Ian Tod and the fabulous unflappable Ainsley Currie to wrangle hair and make-up. When I produce a shot, I work closely with the creative team to brief them, communicate your vision, and ensure they deliver.
Three days time travelling
This was an epic shoot to produce. We had five locations, and five distinct time periods to recreate in three days. My prop list alone required me to source a horse and carriage (not easy), a Mini Cooper, a vintage 60s Jaguar, and a moped.
We stayed in one of the Gretna Green hotels and shot two set ups a day. The hotel staff got used to seeing the crew traipsing through reception in different get ups, and they’d come out to see what decade we were recreating next. We started with the more naturalistic shoots, and layered the hair and make-up, becoming more and more elaborate until we got to the high gothic of the 18th century set up, which was our closing piece de resistance.
Although the 18th century scene looks like it was shot on a misty moor, it was actually photographed in the hotel car park. The carriage only had one horse, and we shot it and shot it until we captured the right expression on the models faces. Halfway through, Alasdair had a brainstorm and rushed off to get antique pistols, so that the couple could shoot their (imaginary) pursuers.
As always, I had to overcome unexpected hurdles. Who knew that getting insurance for an 18-year old to drive a vintage Jag would be such a big ask? The other big challenge was inspiring our young talent to come up with the goods. We needed them to be noticeably young to fit the Gretna Green mythology. But models carry the shoot. They must be actors as well as professional camera hounds. And youthful talent sometimes lacks the experience to create the right mood. In the end our duo delivered brilliantly, but it took gentle coaching and coaxing to ensure that they embodies the excited anticipation that we needed.
Situations like these is where having a producer pays off. When it’s showtime, it’s my responsibility to ensure that the shoot runs on time and on budget, and that you get fantastic images. And I will do anything to make that happen.
“An eye-opening experience”
Alasdair Houston from Gretna Green was an integral part of the whole experience, rolling up his sleeves to help, and saying that it was an “eye-opening great experience”. I love it when my clients get stuck in and we make a beautiful thing happen together.
The imagery has been used in print collateral, on the website and in the destination. They help tell the story of Gretna Green to visitors to the destination, evoking the spirit of young rebellious love that burns strong down the years.