Origins of the Ridings
Common Ridings can be traced back to the 13th and 14th centuries when the border lands were in constant upheaval during the long wars with England and because of the tribal custom of plunder and cattle thieving, known as reiving (the ancient word for robbing) that was commonplace amongst the major Borders families. In such lawless times, townspeople would ride their boundaries, or 'marches', to protect their common lands and prevent encroachment by neighbouring landlords. Long after they ceased to be essential, the ridings continued in commemoration of local legend, history and tradition.
The Ridings Today
Today, each Borders town celebrates its history once a year during June - August with magnificent rideouts involving hundreds of horses, ridden with a passion worthy of the reivers old.
Community spirit is symbolised by the Burgh Flag or Standard, which in a colourful ceremony is 'bussed' where ribbons are tied to the staff by the principal lass, recalling the days when a knight's lady attached her ribbon to his lance before battle. The principal men are elected annually and honoured with such titles as Standard Bearer (Selkirk), Cornet (Hawick), Callant (Jedburgh), Braw Lad (Galashiels), Reiver (Duns), Whipman (West Linton), Melrosian (Melrose), Coldstreamer (Coldstream) and Kelso Laddie. On horseback they lead their followers in the festivities. Old songs and tunes are played, banners waved and local pride expressed.
In some towns the festivities extend over anything up to two weeks, with a programme of ceremonies, rideouts, entertainment and traditional sports. In others, the action is focused over one or two days within the summer months…
West Linton Whipman Plan. Whipman is the old Scots word for carter or carrier, and the story of the Linton play began in 1803 when the Whipmen Benevolent Society, providing mutual aid to its members, held their annual meeting. The Whipman of Linton paid formal visits to local mansions and the rest of the day, one of the few holidays of the year, was devoted to sporting activities, a gathering which was styled “The Whipman Play”. Unbroken celebrations continued until 1914, to be restarted after the war, only to be curtailed again in 1939. Ten years later the festival was revived and today it lives on as a link with the past and a symbol of community spirit and unity. The Linton Whipman is installed and invested with his sash of office on the Friday evening and leads a mounted procession through the village. Saturday begins with a rideout and there follows a week long programme of activities of sports, competitions, barbecue and bonfire.
Hawick Common Riding links the traditional riding of the town‘s lands with a commemoration of the callants, young Hawick lads who in 1514 routed English plunderers, capturing their flag. Records of the Common Riding principals go back to 1703. A young man is chosen as Cornet and in the weeks before the main ceremonies he leads his mounted supporters, on a series of rideouts. Official proceedings begin on Thursday evening when in a ceremony of speech and song the Burgh Flag is bussed and entrusted to the Cornet. The next day bands, civic dignitaries and the mounted cavalcade process around the town. The Cornet with “the banner blue” leads his followers in the chase, a ride at full gallop, in memory of the victorious youths of 1514. The riding of the marches, horse racing and the dipping of the flag in the River Teviot follow. Saturday events include the laying of the wreaths at the War Memorial, horse racing and professional games. The Common Riding concludes with the Cornet returning the flag to the Provost.
Selkirk Common Riding is at least 400 years old and stems back to the time of the “Burleymen”, Burgh Law men who had the task of ensuring no one was encroaching on the town‘s common lands. In 1513, 80 men from Selkirk followed James IV into battle at Flodden. Only one, Fletcher, survived to return, weary and wounded but bearing a captured English flag which he raised aloft and then cast to the ground. The Flodden legend came to be associated with the Common Riding, with the Royal Standard Bearer as the central figure and the casting of the colours the main ceremony. Proceedings begin on the Thursday with “crying the burley” as riders are summoned to attend. The town rises early next day to follow the band and witness the bussing of the Burgh Flag. The Riding of the Marches lasts about 4½ hours and the riders return to the Market Place for the solemn casting of the colours where various trades and corporations are represented, each with their own Standard Bearer. The Burgh Flag is returned to the Provost and celebrations continue onto the next day with horse racing, gymkhana, Highland dancing and professional games.
Melrose Festival Week was instituted in 1938 to commemorate the town‘s history, with the “Melrosian” as the central figure. A gymkhana, rideouts and fancy dress parade lead up to Thursday‘s ceremony in the picturesque setting of Melrose Abbey. The Melrosian is installed, the Festival Queen crowned and an oration given by a guest speaker. Saturday sees the chief procession to places of historic interest around the town. The final ceremony takes place at Melrose Abbey where over 800 years of history are recalled and the granting of the foundation charter by David I is re-enacted. Sports and a service of thanksgiving conclude the week‘s festivities.
Peebles Beltane Week; with Queen Victoria‘s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 the burgh revived the old ceremony of riding the marches, linking it with the Beltane Fair, which traced its origins to a charter granted by James VI in 1621. Beltane signifies the fire of Bell or Baal and originated from the pagan Celtic festival in honour of the power which in early summer gave light, warmth and growth. Fires were lit and games held. Following an inaugural service on the Sunday a week of events follows with children‘s events, music and a fancy dress parade just some of the highlights. Wednesday evening sees the installation of the Cornet followed by the Riding of the Marches and a ceremony at Neidpath Castle. The mounted procession leaves for the River Tweed and following a series of horse races the evening ends with the dancing of the Cornet‘s Reel. Festival Day on Saturday, after an early morning rideout, begins with the proclamation of the historic Beltane Fair and the crowning of the Beltane Queen, followed by a grand procession around the town. Sports and Highland dancing are held in the afternoon and the festival ends with Beating of Retreat.
Galashiels Braw Lads Gathering was established in 1930 to celebrate the town‘s history. Preliminary events precede the main ceremonies on the Saturday which begin with the Braw Lad receiving the Burgh Flag and leading his mounted supporters to the Raid Stane. Here in 1337 Gala lads killed English raiders in a field of wild plums. The stream ran red with blood and “soor plooms” became the Burgh emblem. The ride continues with crossing the Tweed to Abbotsford and returns to the Old Town cross where the creation of Galashiels as a Burgh of Barony in 1599 is recalled. The ceremony of sod and stone (sasine) is enacted and red and white roses mingled on a base of thistles to commemorate the marriage of James IV of Scotland and Margaret Tudor, descendant of the Royal Houses of York and Lancaster. The rideout concludes with an Act of Homage at the War Memorial. Sports and gymkhana bring the week‘s festivities to a close, with the final act being the laying of flowers at the War Memorial by the Braw Lass.
June – July
Jedburgh Callants Festival was inaugurated in 1947 and lasts two weeks with ceremonial rides to places of historic interest. The most important one is to Redeswire, close by Carter Bar, the site of a battle in 1575 when the timely arrival of the Jedburgh contingent with their cry “Jethart‘s here” turned an apparent defeat of the men from Liddesdale into a rout of the English. An oration is delivered there by a guest speaker. The Callant, the young man leading the festival proceedings, takes custody of the Jethart Flag and on Festival Day leads the mounted cavalcade to Ferniehurst Castle, halts for a ceremony at the Capon Tree, survivor of the ancient Jed Forest, and returns to the town for the final ceremony at the War Memorial. Saturday commences with the firing of a cannon and a race around the town, followed by the Jedburgh Border Games, which date from 1853.
Duns Summer Festival was instituted in 1949 to commemorate the town‘s history and traditions in a week of sports, concerts, rideouts and parades. On Monday night the Burgh Flag is handed to the Reiver for safekeeping and the next evening he leads his mounted followers to the summit of Duns Law for a short service and oration by a guest speaker. Here in 1639 General Leslie‘s covenanting army encamped to oppose Charles I who was preparing to cross the River Tweed and enforce a form of religion which the Scots found unacceptable. Wednesday is children‘s day with the crowning of “the Wynsome Mayde o‘ Dunse” in the Public Park. Friday sees the traditional game of “handba‘‘, played between the married men and bachelors of the town. The final ceremonies the next day include the Riding of the Parish Bounds, athletics, fancy dress parade the return of the Burgh Flag to the Provost.
Eyemouth Herring Queen Festival, instituted in 1939, followed on from an earlier holiday and celebration known as the Fishermen‘s Picnic. The Queen and her maids of honour are chosen from High School pupils and the skipper of each fishing boat nominates a girl to be a member of the Queen‘s court. Their costumes and emblems symbolise the sea and fishing community. On the Saturday the Queen arrives in Eyemouth Harbour on a traditional voyage by sea from St Abbs, escorted by a flag bedecked fishing fleet. A colourful crowning ceremony is performed and the procession tours the town, halting at the War Memorial and the Memorial to the 129 Eyemouth men, lost in the 1881 fishing disaster. A varied week‘s programme of sports competitions and entertainment follows and the Festival is brought to a close with the Fishermen‘s Service at the Parish Church.
St Ronan‘s Games, Innerleithen; St Ronan is traditionally depicted with his crook attacking Satan - in Scots “cleiking the Deil”. In 1827 the St Ronan‘s Border Club was founded and led to the organisation of the annual St Ronan‘s Border Games. Their scope widened over the years and in 1901 the Cleikum Ceremony was introduced. Social events throughout the week lead to the main ceremonies on the Friday evening. The town‘s Standard Bearer is installed and the Burgh Flag bussed. In the Cleikum Ceremony “St Ronan”, represented by the boy dux of the school, is invested with his symbol of office, the cleikum crozier. His “monks” each receive a staff. The principals then process around the town. Doves are released as a symbol of peace and the evening ends with a torchlight procession and masonic ceremonies. Saturday sees the children‘s flower parade and the St Ronan‘s Border Games, when the Burgh Standard and an effigy of the devil are carried in procession. At night the principals and followers ascend Caerlee Hill. After a fireworks display, an effigy of the devil is thrown on the bonfire, as St Ronan demonstrates that he has successfully “cleiked the deil”.
Kelso Civic Week was inaugurated in 1937 and includes a raft race, sports, gymkhana, concerts and rideouts to neighbouring villages. On Wednesday the Kelso Laddie is installed and the Standard bussed, the ceremony in the Market Square concluding with the Kelso Laddie‘s Reel. Two days later the Laddie is installed as Kelso Whipman commemorating the Old Whipman‘s Society of Ploughmen, once active in the town. He leads his mounted followers to a ceremony at the Trysting Tree, the traditional meeting place of the whipmen. The chief ride to Yetholm takes place on Saturday and the festival concludes with a fancy dress parade, presentation of cups and the return of the Kelso Standard to the Provost.
Lauder Common Riding was one of the original Border Common Ridings and there is a reference to a ceremony in Town Council minutes of 1686. It was in abeyance for about 80 years, being revived to mark the coronation of George V in 1910. Sports, parades, dances and concerts precede the main events on the Saturday when the Cornet receives the Burgh Flag at the Tollbooth. He leads the mounted cavalcade to the Watering Stane and onto the Burgess Cairn, the only boundary stone still in existence. The proceedings conclude with a ceremony at the War Memorial and the return of the flag, with games and horse events in the afternoon.
Coldstream Civic Week was inaugurated in 1952 and begins on a Sunday with the introduction of the Coldstreamer, the principal figure in the celebrations, and the bussing of the Burgh Flag. A week‘s activities follow with rideouts, gymkhana, sports and parades. The highlight of the week on the Thursday is the ride to the Flodden Memorial to commemorate the dead of 1513. Wreaths are laid, a short service held and an oration delivered by a guest speaker. Friday evening sees a torchlight procession and firework display. The Civic Week ends on the Saturday with horse racing, fancy dress parade, the return of the Burgh flag and Beating Retreat.