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
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.
3. Different Traditions
- 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!’
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).
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.)
5. 2016 Common Riding Dates