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Issue 12 - The Borders – bordering on the magnificent

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 12
January 2004


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The Borders – bordering on the magnificent

Many looking north from Edinburgh and Glasgow miss out on the areas bordering England. What a shame, says Steve Newman

Most people think of Scotland as the mountains and lochs of the Highlands but the Borders have a magic and fascination all of their own.

This is partially due to the fierce conflicts that raged over the area for over 500 years as England and Scottish armies and clans shed blood at the slightest excuse.

The battles of those days where mounted raiders clashed in the river valleys and on the hill tops are remembered from May to September when virtually every town has some form of common riding that can include cavalcades of more than 250 riders following the standard of the burgh or town over a traditional route.

The town of Melrose, for example, where you’ll find Robert the Bruce’s heart buried in the abbey, has one of the largest ‘ride outs’.

Like some of the larger Border towns Melrose’s festivities last for a week with various events and rides going on.

The chief rider in each town has his own title and in Melrose he’s called ‘The Melrosian”

I sat on the banks of the River Tweed and watched this year’s Melrosian Jamie Murray lead 178 riders across the river with the water splashing up to legs of riders whose ages varied from as young as six to as old as 75.

“Awesome” reflected the 22 year old after being in the van of the riders.

“ To be Melrosian is a true pinnacle.” Jamie told the gathering at his installation “ I will never forget this.”

Melrose is not the oldest of the common ridings - that honour goes to Berwick-upon-Tweed - but it is one of the most revealing in terms of the community spirit.

These border communities each have their border ballads and songs that have been handed down through history and the common ridings of each community reflect their own sorties.

Nowhere is this better seen than at Jedburgh. Here its abbey and castle with its mediaeval streets of coloured houses looking down with hauteur on modern day visitors dominate the ancient town.

You can visit Mary Queen of Scots house, and that of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s is just up the hill. In Jedburgh the chief rider is called the ‘Jethart Callant’ and the Jedburgh rides commemorates a day of action on July 7, 1575.

This area of the borders is known as Redeswire and it s importance was in the Truce Days when wardens from both sides of the border met together to dispense justice in equal measure on Scot and English.

It all went horribly wrong on this day, however, and it didn’t take much for swords to be drawn and the truce turn into a battle that required the Provost and men of Jedburgh to save the day for Scotland to the rally cry of “ Jethart’s here.”

Covering about 1800 square miles, the Borders stretches from the rolling hills and moorland in the west, through gentler valleys to the rich agricultural plains of the east, and on to the rocky Berwickshire coastline with its secluded coves and picturesque fishing villages.

Through the centre, tracing a silvery course from the hills to the sea runs the River Tweed.

The river water did and still does contribute to a world-renowned industry of woollen mills.

Because the Borders is a region famed for its textiles many visitors browse and buy beautiful tweeds and tartans and the highest quality knitwear from its mills and shops.

However, fed by its many tributaries the Tweed is famous for also providing some of the best fishing in Scotland.

Indeed one of the finest salmon fishing beats in the world is at Kelso where the world famous Junction Pool can be found.

Here the Tweed is joined by the Teviot and the salmon rest in the deep river waters before heading up stream.

Kelso, too, has its Common Riding week but here the chief rider is known as the Kelso Laddie. The town has its own ballad sung in the border tongue that includes the verse:

There’s a fine auld toon in the borderland By the sides o’ the banks o’ the Tweed Where the salmon leap on the silver strand And the game and cattle feed.

Standing in the town square with the pipe band playing I noticed the Kelso Laddie talking to an older man who wore the rosette of an ex Laddie and a silver badge that denoted 25 years ago he too carried the standard into the square.

“That’s his bairn yerna” said a woman from the area as she gently elbowed me in the ribs to catch my attention, having instantly recognising me as an “outsider”.

Indeed it was father George Halliday and son Mark carrying on the tradition as numerous others will continue to do.

If you visit the Borders you’ll discover friendly towns and charming villages, while the castles, abbeys, stately homes and museums illustrate the exciting and often bloody history of the area.

It’s that history which is commemorated in the Common Ridings and there is one more than any other that is both sad and moving, and at the same time beautiful.

The town of Coldstream is the birthplace of the Coldstream Guards and each year culminates its common ridings with a ride out to the site of the battle of Flodden.

On 9 September 1513 one of the most disastrous and unnecessary battles was fought between England and Scotland.

English losses were heavy but the dead Scots numbered between 5,000 and 10,000.

It is said that ‘the slaughter struck every farm and household throughout lowland Scotland’.

There was an unusually high number of aristocracy who had come down into combat that day and among the slain were dozens of lords and lairds, at least 10 earls, some abbots, an archbishop and of course the body of the King James IV himself.

The Chief ride is called the Coldstreamer and it his duty to lay a wreath on the battle memorial to the dead of both nations and bring back a sod of earth form the battlefield into the town.

More than 250 riders set off from the town but only the Coldstreamer and his attendants walk up the hill to the memorial, traditionally escorted by a piper and the two youngest guardsman of the regiment. The service is both simple and moving with the last post being sounded and a two-minute silence being observed.

To me it is a symbol of a coming together of two nations. But then just about everywhere you look in this beautiful region you find much to wonder and marvel at.

The secrets of the Scottish Borders are not well known and that is what has kept this quiet corner of Britain so unspoiled and such a marvellous place to visit.

The Scottish Borders are one of the most isolated areas in the UK in terms of public transport. There is no railway line that crosses them and it is necessary to journey there by car or bus or hire a car when you arrive at one of the train stations or airports. having aid that they are relatively small and you can drive across them in a couple of hours.

The three handiest railway stations are Carlisle, Edinburgh or Berwick-upon-Tweed and you can also fly into Edinburgh which is no more than an hours drive from the Borders heartland. In fact many people commute by car to the city form Melrose, Peebles and Selkirk.

The Scottish Borders Tourist Board and The Dumfries and Galloway Tourist Board produce an excellent booklet called Festivals Guide 2004 which lists the major festivals and the destinations of each days ride outs.