Common Ridings / Riding of the Marches

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Common Ridings, Scottish Borders
Common Ridings, Scottish Borders

Several towns of the Scottish Borders (and other areas in the south of Scotland) have festivals related to the historical tradition of ridng a town or Burgh's boundaries. Todays festivals attract many visitors, but most of the lesser ones only started in the 1930s and later and are not actually 'Common Ridings'. The Common, often gifted to the burgh by the King of Scots, had to be ridden on a regular basis to ensure that no neighbouring barons had breached the boundaries. These were not, like today, stone walls or fences, or even hedges, but a simple pile of stones built into a cairn to mark out the furthest points of the burgh lands or Common. Hence from Riding the Common or Marches came "Common Riding".

A photograph of Hawick Common Riding still exists from the 1930s which shows the Hawick Cornet and the "visiting principals" on the Thursday night. These are the Selkirk Standard Bearer, the Lauder Cornet and the Langholm Cornet. The oldest of these at Selkirk goes back at least to the eleventh or twelfth century and was probably even older as there is evidence that even the Romans had to inspect the boundaries of their lodge territories from marauders from both north and south. Selkirk is unique in another way too as the Royal and Ancient Burgh still owns a large part of its Common Lands so that the March Riders with the Royal Burgh Standard Bearer at their helm do not have to ask permission to ride the lands . . . they aready own them so they never ride on anyone else's territory while riding the burgh marches.

Although there is some connection to the Battle of Flodden at Hawick where a skirmish involving English soldiers was repulsed by young "callants" the year after the Battle of 1513, the Common Ridings themselves, the genuine ones, date far further back. At Selkirk the connection has been added to the ceremonies and after the Standard Bearer and the Burleymen (burgh law men) have ridden the marches the young man of the year assumes the role as successor to "Fletcher" the one "Flo'oer o' the Forest" who returned to Ettrick Forest of which Selkirk is capital, after the disaster. He carried a captured English banner and was so weak when he staggered into the town centre that he could not speak but simply cast the flag around his head in a circular motion to show that everyone else who had ridden off with King James IV had been slain. That is rememberd today as "The Castng of the Colours" and is done to music with the various Craft Standard Bearers following their leader in turn to carry out the ceremony before the fallen of every war since 1513 are remembered with the beautiful lament "The Liltin'", a four-line version of "The Flo'ers o' the Forest".

All of this takes place on the first Friday after the second Monday each June. Much later, towards the end of July, the pageant and the remembrance moves to Langholm where "The Muckle Toun" rides its marches and has a full day of horse chases follwed by professional athletics games. On the first Saturday of August the Common Riding season comes to an end in the Royal Burgh of Lauder where riders are again mounted at an early hour for a ride to "the watering stane" across Lauder Common and where the memorial of the past ends with a flag dipping ceremony at the top of the little town set on the A68 south of Edinburgh and the most norther burgh in the Scottish Borders.

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