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The tradition of the Common Riding

Updated: May 17

The Common Ridings are a series of mass equestrian events which sweep the Borders, town by town, every Summer. They have ancient roots, harking back to the days of The Trail of Blood, when villagers needed to patrol their boundaries, to check for reivers and other aggressors. Nowadays, of course, the excursions are purely ceremonial but they are still celebrated with great gusto, with hundreds of riders and many more spectators at each event.

Every town has its own set of traditions but they usually involve the election of a young man and woman to lead the ceremonies. Old battles, peculiar foods and drinks, flags, songs and games also feature heavily.

The season always begins in June with Hawick Common Riding. This is the largest of all the festivals and it commemorates the time when some local lads captured an English flag in 1514, just a year after Flodden (and a couple of years before The Trail of Blood is set). The Cornet and his Lass lead the celebrations and the locals take part in all sort of arcane rituals, such as the taking of snuff and the eating of “curds and cream.”

Selkirk Common Riding follows soon after and also harks back to Flodden, although the mood is more sombre. Over eighty men from the town (called “Souters” as Selkirk was known for its shoemaking) went off to that disastrous battle and only one came back – a man named Fletcher. He staggered back home with an English flag and waved it about himself to indicate that all his comrades had been slaughtered. This moment is recalled in a very moving ceremony every year, by the Standard Bearer.

From this point, the common ridings come thick and fast, led by colourful figures like the Braw Lad and Lass (Galashiels), the Callant (Jedburgh) the Barri Gadgi and Barri Manushi (Yetholm) and so on.

In my hometown of Duns, the principals are known simply as the Reiver and Reiver’s Lass and I have many fond childhood memories of Reivers Week (including acting as a Sword Bearer in the Wynsome Mayde pageant that forms part of proceedings). As with several other Border towns, our common riding week also includes an ancient game of hand ball, that is great to watch (or take part in, if you're brave enough!).

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