Smiths at Gretna Green, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland
There's something exciting about crossing the border from England into Scotland. Although there are plenty of beautiful places to visit south of the border, there's no denying that Scotland has the lion's share when it comes to spectacular landscapes, beautiful wilderness, and opportunities for outdoor adventure.
We have got into the habit of staying at Gretna Green for our first night whenever we travel to Scotland. It's a great way to break a long journey, and the undeniable 'Scottishness' of the first village north of the border makes for an atmospheric and symbolic stay.
Gretna Green is a five-star Visit Scotland award-winning visitor attraction that is steeped in history.
The Famous Blacksmiths Shop lies at the heart of the village. This unique wedding venue has been helping couples tie the knot since the 1700s, when a change in English marriage laws meant anyone under the age of 21 couldn't marry without their parents' consent.
In Scottish law though, you could marry on the spot – with a simple ceremony, without permission. With Gretna Green lying just across the Scottish border, it soon became inundated with young runaway couples wanting to marry – and ever since the village has been synonymous with love and romance.
The blacksmith's cottage and workshop where these ceremonies took place remained virtually unchanged, and are now home to a fascinating museum full of romantic stories and love letters.
You can still get married here – although these days most couples choose to have family and friends present at the ceremony, rather than two random strangers who have agreed to be witnesses (as would have been the case with the illicit weddings of the 1700s).
On our latest visit to Gretna we stayed at Smiths – an upmarket four-star hotel with a Green Tourism Silver Award. The hotel is in an ideal location near the Famous Blacksmiths Shop and shopping centre.
We received a warm welcome when we arrived after a tiring drive up the M6. There are family rooms that sleep four within the main hotel, but this time we stayed in one of the luxury Bensmoor Suites.
These are actually a row of picturesque, whitewashed single-storey cottages, and are situated just across the road from the Blacksmiths Shop. There's a free, designated parking space right alongside each suite, so there was no lugging of suitcases required before we were comfortably settled in for the evening.
With two bedrooms (one king-sized and one twin) this apartment was ideal for a family. The beds were very comfortable, and the surrounding area quiet, so we all enjoyed a good night's sleep. And each bedroom had its own bathroom – both spotlessly clean – so there were no family arguments over the shower in the morning.
The whole apartment was modern and stylish, with a spacious living room complete with sofas, dining area, flat screen television, and free wifi.
There was also a well-equipped kitchen. As we had arrived quite late we were glad to be able to eat in the apartment – and all the equipment we needed to prepare a simple meal was provided.
Breakfast was amazing – served over in the main hotel building, it was one of the best hotel breakfasts we've ever had.
If you've never had a full Scottish breakfast before, then you're in for a treat at Smiths. The selection of eggs, bacon, black pudding, haggis, mushrooms, tomatoes, beans and potato scones mean you probably won't need to eat lunch! Breakfast is served buffet style, so you can take as much or little as you want – and there was plenty of choice to keep the two vegetarians in our party happy.
There was also an outstanding selection of pastries – including croissants, waffles and muffins – as well as fresh fruit, yoghurt, cereals and toast.
We particularly liked the range of juices available. Alongside the usual apple, orange and grapefruit we found elderflower and blueberry. There was also a 'Hydration Juice' made with green tea and lemon – perfect if you've been celebrating the night before – and 'Super Juice' with black carrot and pomegranate.
We had time before checking out to explore the Gretna Green shopping centre, where clothes, footwear and quality Scottish souvenirs are for sale. There's an excellent food hall where you can stock up on all sorts of Scottish goodies here – from craft beers and whisky, to Tunnock's teacakes and shortbread.
There's also a Courtship Maze – built from stone in the shape of two interlocking wedding bands, this is a fun place for kids to explore – and of course the Famous Blacksmiths Shop museum. In fact there's enough to do here to fill a couple of hours, so it's worth factoring into your itinerary before heading further north into Scotland.
As we explored Gretna Green, a bagpipe player struck up a tune in the courtyard – an evocative reminder of where we were, and a small taste of the Scottish adventures that lay ahead of us.