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Issue 101 - Under the Banners of Auld Reekie

Scotland Magazine Issue 101
November 2018


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Under the Banners of Auld Reekie

On 16 September, I was at the Mercat Cross in Parliament Square on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile to witness the annual Riding of the Marches. It was a lively and colourful event, featuring around 300 horseback riders with musical accompaniment from three local pipe bands.

The re-enactment dates back on record to 1579, although the tradition is believed to have first originated in 1143, when King David I granted Edinburgh its common land. As with the other Ridings that take place throughout the Scottish Border towns of Galashiels, Hawick, Selkirk, Lauder, Langholm, Jedburgh and West Linton, it was all to do with securing boundaries and the safety of citizens.

To this end, the Edinburgh procession was led by a Captain and a Lass, the former entrusted by the Lord Provost to carry the City of Edinburgh banner and inspect the Marches of the Capital. On the Royal Mile, the Lord Provost, resplendent in his civic robes, was himself accompanied by the City Guard in their red uniforms, and the dignified City’s High Constables wearing their trademark black tail coats and top hats.

Central to the parade was the Procession of Banners representing the Incorporated Trades of Edinburgh, which I wrote about in Scotland Magazine #96. Exactly 14 banner-bearers, one for each of the incorporated trades of the city, were lined up behind the Banner Marshall, who was none other than my old friend Henry Steuart Fothringham. Henry has recently collaborated with Charles Kinder Bradbury to produce a magnificent and lavishly illustrated book: The Incorporated Trades of Edinburgh (Braykc Publishing).

The ceremony of Riding of the Marches was traditionally a feature of civic life in Edinburgh until 1718, with a gap of 282 years before it was held again in 1946 as a celebration of peace to mark the end of WWII. In 2009, it was revived on an annual basis by the Edinburgh March Riding Association.

Although the majority of spectators were most likely unaware of the significance, the rituals embodied by the Deacons of the Incorporated Trades in such pageants are a striking reminder of how the rights to trade have been at the capital’s core for over 900 years. Underlying the professional cliques of law, medicine and academia, it was always Edinburgh’s tradesmen and craftsmen who fuelled the local economy.

Their collective banner is known as the ‘Blue Blanket’ and has the apocryphal provenance of being brought back from Jerusalem following the First Crusade. However, a more plausible version of this story is that it was a gift from James III in 1482. According to Charles and Henry, it would have been in gratitude for the efforts of the provost, baillies, councillors, deacon of trades, and citizens for achieving the King’s release from Edinburgh Castle, where he had been held captive. Either way, it remains a potent symbol of independence.

In 1513, the Blue Blanket was carried as the battle flag of the Edinburgh Trades at the Battle of Flodden, where a large number of craftsmen (notably Hammermen and Goldsmiths) died defending it and their King. The blanket’s tattered remains were brought back to Edinburgh the next day by Randolph Murray, Captain of the Guard, and handed over with the dreadful tidings of the defeat of the Scottish army and death of King James.

On view in the European Room of Edinburgh’s City Chambers is a splendid painting of the scene by the artist William Hole, although Murray is perhaps rather too romantically depicted. Today, the Blue Blanket and its 2012 ceremonial replacement are closely guarded in the Incorporation of Trades of Edinburgh headquarters and museum, known as Ashfield, in Melville Street. Rooted in their history, such institutions as the Incorporation of Trades of Edinburgh and London's Livery Companies have come to represent a significant contemporary importance that is beyond criticism: notably, the raising and distribution of significant sums of money to worthy charities. To this end, they should all be encouraged, applauded and cherished.


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