5 Things You Need to Know About The Common Ridings

Coming Ridings

Photo Credit William Gillie

The Scottish Borders’  Common Riding traditions have evolved over 900 years into one of Europe’s biggest equestrian spectacles.  11 towns in the Scottish Borders celebrate by  riding their common  boundaries by horse, known as “Riding the Marches”.    Every week from June to August, thousands of Borderers will be cheering hundreds of horse riders galloping around their towns.  It is a time when young and old gather to watch the horses and I remember well choosing which Common Ridings each year to attend.  We usually did Galashiels (our home town), Selkirk where my friends Gran lived and one other if we could manage to get up early enough to get there.  The main ride-outs  start very early, so you need to be up with the lark, if you want to catch them heading out.  Then some breakfast and back out to see them come home. After that we usually had to go home and sleep for the rest of the day, before heading out to the fair – another tradition.

1. Safe oot, safe in

The Border Common Riding began early in the 12th century as ‘Riding the Marches’, when young burgesses on horseback inspected their burgh’s common land to check neighbouring landowners had not encroached their boundary. Townsfolk needed this ‘commonty’ to graze livestock and grow harvests to survive and prosper, so any unlawful houses, walls or crops were destroyed, often by ‘the haile community’.   Riding the Marches flourished in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Stirling, Dundee, Inverness and Arbroath between the 16th and 18th centuries too, but they endured in the Borders long after they were needed. The reason why are rooted in the wars between Scotland and England, and the very badly-behaved Border reivers.


2. Flodden

While all Common Ridings share the riding round the town boundaries, the traumatic defeat at Flodden on 9 September 1513, still resonates emotionally in Selkirk and Hawick’s traditions, and in the modern Coldstream Civic Week.  An estimated 10,000 Scots and King James IV lost their lives fighting Henry VIII’s English army under the Earl of Surrey.   Sir Walter Scott wrote of Flodden in his 1808 poem Marmion

Tradition, legend, tune, and song

Shall many an age that wail prolong.

  • Coldstream Civic Week stages a spectacular, ride out to the battlefield itself, just over the Tweed and the English border at Branxton, where the ‘Coldstreamer’ lays a wreath at the Flodden Memorial.
  • Selkirk’s Royal Burgh Standard Bearer represents Fletcher, the only Selkirk man to return from Flodden alive in 1513.  Fletcher arrived weary and wounded but bearing a captured English flag which he raised aloft and then cast to the ground, before dying. The Flodden legend came to be associated with the Common Riding, with the Royal Standard Bearer (and now many others from all over the world) casting the colours at the main ceremony.
  • Hawick Common Riding recalls Flodden’s aftermath in 1514, when Hawick lay at the mercy of pillaging English soldiers.  A handful of young men (callants) defended the town by slaying an English raiding party at Hornshole, and the captured flag has led the town’s marches ever since.
Common Riding

Photo Credit Rob Gray

3. Different Traditions

The Border Common Ridings are a complex subject, having developed different traditions and meanings over a long time. The oldest festivals in Selkirk, Hawick, Lauder, and Langholm in Dumfries & Galloway, have an uninterrupted history since the original riding of the marches, but inspections of the boundary are now symbolic.  The newer ride-outs are about 100 years old – in Galashiels, Jedburgh, Melrose, Kelso, Coldstream, Duns and Peebles  are based on proud events in each town’s history.
  • Peebles Beltane Festival revives a medieval summer fair,
  • Galashiels’ Braw Lad and Lass ride to Gala’s first parish church
  • The Duns Reiver rides to Duns Law, where General Leslie’s Covenanting Army camped in 1639 to resist Charles I imposing the Church of England on Scotland.
  • Jedburgh (or Jethart) Callants’ Festival re-enacts one of the last battles between England and Scotland, the 1575 Raid of Redeswire in the Cheviot Hills, won when notoriously fierce Jed men arrived, shouting their war cry ‘Jethart’s here!’
Common Ridings

Photo Credit Maverick Photo Agency

4. King for a Day

Every spring a ‘principal’ (usually a single man with very good riding skills) is democratically elected by townsfolk, or nominated by ex-principals, to lead the year’s riding and carry the town’s flag.   The ‘principal’ has different names  in each town

  • Reiver (Duns)
  • Braw Lad (Galashiels)
  • Cornet (Hawick, Langholm, Peebles, Lauder)
  • Kelsae Laddie (Kelso)
  • Melrosian (Melrose)
  • Royal Burgh Standard Bearer (Selkirk)
  • Whipman (West Linton)
  • Jethart Callant (Jedburgh)
  • Coldstreamer (Coldstream).
The Common Ridings are all about emotion and being the Whipman, the Melrosian or the Braw Lad is the greatest honour a town can bestow on a young man.  Many describe it ‘as the best day of their lives’ or a ‘dream come true’.
Common Ridings

Photo Credit Rob Gray

So to my favourites:

  • The casting of the colours in Selkirk
  • Braw Lads Day (Galashiels) – fording the River Tweed at Abbotsford and the gallop up Scott Street (Saturday 2nd July 2016)
  • Flodden Day (Coldstream) – Branxton Hill to see the cavalcade gallop up Flodden Hill ( Thursday 4th August 2016.)
Common Riding

Photo Credit Curtis Welsh

5. 2016 Common Riding Dates

 6th – 11th June Hawick Common Riding
3rd – 11th June West Linton Whipman
13th – 17th June Selkirk Common Riding
20th – 25th June Peebles Beltane
20th – 25th June Melrose Festival
24th June – 3rd July Galashiels Braw Lads Gathering
3rd – 9th July Duns Summer Festival (and a game of handba)
17th – 23rd July Kelso Civic Week
1st – 6th August Lauder Common Riding
1st – 6th August Coldstream Civic Week


Other Common Ridings & Festivals in 2016

12th – 18th June Yetholm Stobo Stanes Ride
7th – 16th July St Ronan’s Border Games
25th – 31st July Musselburgh Festival
25th – 30th July Langholm Common Riding
16th – 24th July Eyemouth Herring Queen
10th – 15th August North Berwick Fringe by the Sea

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