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Issue 3 - Border patrol

Scotland Magazine Issue 3
July 2002


This article is 16 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Border patrol

In Scotland it is never possible to escape the past. At every turn it confronts you and although some of our more progressive politicians would happily wipe the slate clean and start again, the lessons learned by our ancestors have a funny way of coming back to haunt us.

That is why much of what takes place in everyday Scottish life has become a celebration of the past, coupled naturally with the dynamism of the present and our aspirations for the future. Scotland’s cultural life is rich, varied and reaches across oceans to the descendants of those who once made their homes here.

These thoughts were very much on my mind when talking to a friend from Calgary who asked if I knew anything about the forthcoming common ridings in the Scottish Borders. I was able to say that I had, indeed, been at one, as a spectator, I hastened to add, and that they are extremely important social events for people who live in that region. To some extent, that is why they still take place, but there is more to them than pure sentiment.

Like so much of everything else that involves pageantry and tradition, the common ridings of Roxburghshire, Selkirkshire and Dumfriesshire have survived as local folk festivals only because the succeeding generations that take part in them are so enthusiastic about them. In many ways, they have become a rite of passage for the young, a healthy distraction from television soaps and video games.

More importantly, they are fun to take part in, though Hawick has recently come under criticism for gender discrimination in that women were not traditionally encouraged to take part in the riding (since they did not in the original excursion).

Hawick Common Riding is celebrated on 7th and 8th June this year, and ladies are now allowed to partake. Like all of the other Borders ridings, Hawick is associated with the greatest military disaster Scotland has ever known. No, not the Battle of Culloden or the Massacre of Glencoe, both etched on the Scottish psyche as events of great national crisis, but Flodden.

The Battle of Flodden fought in 1513 between the army of James IV of Scotland and that of his brother-in-law Henry VIII of England was a far more shocking and devastating defeat. United under a uniformly popular leader, there was not a family in the land that did not lose sons on the battlefield. And though Henry did not press home his advantage and invade Scotland, it took a long time for Scots to recover their self-confidence.

But a start was made in 1514 when a group of the young men of Hawick defeated an English raiding party on the outskirts of the town. Since then, a young townsman has been annually invited to act as Cornet or ‘Leader’, and an official letter is delivered to his home by the Burgh Officer accompanied by the Drum & Fife Band. Over the following weeks, it becomes this young man’s duty to ride out, ith as many of his supporters as can procure horses, to visit the surrounding villages. Two weeks before the big march through the town takes place, there is a 24- mile rideout to Mosspaul and back. All the horsemen who complete this ride qualify to wear the coveted badge of the Ancient Order of Mosstroopers.

The following weekend, it is Selkirk’s turn. The tradition here is that in 1513, 80 men set forth from the town to fight the English but only one returned home, one of five brothers called Fletcher. Safely home in the Market Place, he stopped, raised a bloodstained English banner, and cast it in grief to the ground. In that gesture, the folk of Selkirk learned that all but one of their youngest and bravest had died in battle with their king on Flodden Field.

But the Scots were not always vanquished. In the town of Galashiels, one of the events re-enacted during the annual Braw Lad’s Gathering from 23rd to 29th June, is the 1337 massacre of a troop of English soldiers, surprised after picking wild plums. From this event comes the town’s slogan ‘Sour Plums.’

There is a Riding of the Marches at Annan, in Dumfriesshire on 4th July. On 26th July, to the south-west of Dumfries, 100 horsemen will ride up the hill from Langholm, circle the obelisk on top three times and travel down the steep incline back to town.

Happily the Borders between England and Scotland is a peaceful place now, and the pageantry of the ridings is enjoyed by all-comers. However, there are also lessons to be learned.

Exploring this glorious landscape of rolling hills and winding rivers, it is hard to imagine the bloody conflicts that dominate its history. By revisiting the feuds of the past, there is not only the opportunity to put on a good show, but a chance to demonstrate how futile and destructive those old enmities were.