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Scottish Borders History
Common Ridings and Festivals


The annual Common Ridings and Festivals held in each town are survivals of the old practice of riding the town’s boundaries to preserve burgh rights and to prevent encroachment by neighbouring landlords. Long after they ceased to be essential, they continued in commemoration of local legend, history and tradition.

Community spirit is symbolised by the Burgh Flag or Standard, which in a colourful ceremony is "bussed" - that is 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 principals are elected annually and honoured with such titles as Standard Bearer, Cornet, Callant, Braw Lad, Reiver. On horseback they lead their followers in the festivities. Old songs and tunes are played, banners waved and local pride expressed.

COLDSTREAM CIVIC WEEK was inaugurated in1952 and begins on a Sunday with the investiture 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.

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.

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 a crossing the Tweed to Abbotsford and a return 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. In 1503 the lands of Ettrick Forest, of which Galashiels was a part, were granted to Margaret. 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.

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. Those who complete the long rough ride to Mosspaul and back are made members of the Ancient Order of Mosstroopers.

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 youth of 1514. The traditional refreshment of curds and cream is taken. The riding of the marches, horse racing and the dipping of the flag in the River Teviot follow.

Saturday events include the laying the wreaths at the War Memorial, horse racing and professional games. The Common Riding concludes with the Cornet returning the flag to the Provost.

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.

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 Comon 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 Fag 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.

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 takes place with children’s sports, disco, Beltane concert 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 where the Cornet is given a welcome by the Warden of Neidpath. 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 in the High Street. Festival Day on the 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.

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 bussing of the flags follow. Various trades and corporations are represented, each with their own standard bearer, who join the Royal Burgh Standard Bearer the next day. The town rises early to follow the band and witness the bussing of the Burgh Flag. The Riding of the Marches, which involves fording the River Ettrick, lasts about four and a half hours and the riders return to the Market Place for the solemn casting of the colours. The Burgh Flag is returned to the Provost and celebrations continue onto the next day with horse racing, gymkhana, Highland dancing and professional games.

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.

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. Legend says that St Ronan, patron saint of Innerleithen, favoured the mineral waters in the well above the town. He 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 to familiarise the youth of the town with the tradition of St Ronan.

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 flung on the bonfire, as St Ronan demonstrates that he has successfully "cleiked the deil".

OTHER EVENTS

BLANKET PREACHING. This is an open air service on the last Sunday in July beside St Mary’s Kirk of the Lowes in the Yarrow Valley. It is believed to have taken place since the times when the covenanting preachers were fighting to establish Presbyterianism and to combat the religious oppression of Charles I. The preachers were barred from holding a service in a church, so gathered together on the hillside, under the shelter of blankets.

ST BOSWELLS FAIR. On St Boisil’s Day, July 18, the country’s gypsies gathered on the village green to buy and sell their horses and other wares. Although it is no longer an important horse fair, the event still takes place as a meeting for hundreds of travelling people from all over Scotland and the North of England.

JEDBURGH HAND BA’. Candlemas Handba’ is played in February and is reputed to date from before the Reformation. Legend tells that after a fight against the English at Ferniehurst Castle, the victorious Scots played with the cut off heads of the slain enemies. The two teams comprise the "uppies" and the "downies", according to whether their members are born above or below the Mercat Cross. The game is played through the streets of the town with leather balls decorated with coloured streamers. There is no limit on numbers and no referee as the teams struggle for possession of the ball.

MASONS’ WALK, MELROSE. The Lodge of Melrose St John is reputed to be the oldest lodge in Scotland with links going back to the early masons who worked at Melrose Abbey. To celebrate the festival of Holy St John the Evangelist on December 27, the masons make a torchlight procession thrice around the Market Cross and on to the Abbey. After the playing by a solitary piper of "The Flowers of the Forest", members sing "Scots Wha’ Hae", near the burial place of Robert the Bruce’s heart and an address is given. Records of the procession go back 239 years.

Produced by Scottish Borders Tourist Board, Shepherd’s Mill, Whinfield Road, Selkirk TD7 5DT.
Tel (01750) 20555. Fax (01750) 21886. E-mail: sbtb@scot-borders.co.uk


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