First week in June
The Common Ridings of the Scottish Border towns of Hawick, Selkirk, Jedburgh and Lauder are one of Britain’s best-kept secrets. The focus of each event is a dawn horseback patrol of the fields that mark each town’s boundaries an equestrian extravaganza that combines the thrills of Pamplona’s Fiesta de San Fermin with the concentrated drinking of Munich’s Oktoberfest. Selkirk may boast the largest number of riders and Lauder might be the oldest event, but Hawick is always the first and best attended – of the Common Ridings. The rides themselves and what they stand for are absolutely central to life in the Borders: as well as evoking the fierce independence of the region, they display the great sense of camaraderie amongst Border towns, each of which sends a number of representative riders and a small army of thirsty “Foot Soldiers” to their neighbours’ events.
The Common Ridings are centuries-old costumed re-enactments of the horseback patrol of town boundaries that were undertaken more than four hundred years ago by towns on the Scottish-English border to give the Scots early warning of attacks from their expansionist neighbours; indeed, the large statue of a young man on horseback (known simply as “The Horse”) that stands in the centre of Hawick High Street was built to commemorate one such skirmish. In his hand the young man brandishes the captured flag of a band of vanquished English soldiers, who had been beaten back at nearby Hornshole in 1514 by a brave group of local lads, known as “Callants”. It’s this flag – or at least a replica of it – that is solemnly handed over to the Cornet at the start of the Common Ridings on the Thursday evening, and returned on Saturday afternoon to mark the closure of the festival.
The origins of Common Ridings can be traced back to the thirteenth century, when they were a simple life-or-death necessity to retain claims on pastureland. By 1537, when Hawick received its town charter granting ownership of the surrounding commons, the Ridings were more of a large-scale civic chore, for which non-participants could be fined. The patriotic and more debauched aspects of the event began a lot later.
Thereafter, the event became less about your right to do what you like to your land and more about your right to do what you like to your liver – to the extent that in 1856 the council voted to ban the event “because of bad behaviour and drunkenness”. Needless to say, the townsfolk simply ignored this edict and carried on regardless. The event was soon officially recognized again, and 150 years or so later has morphed into a spectacular amalgamation of horse-riding, boozing and civic ceremonies, of which every Teri, as the inhabitants of Hawick are known, is rightly proud. The Ridings have traditionally been a male-only preserve, but following a successful High Court appeal in 1997 that split town opinion, women are now welcome to participate in the morning rides.
Each of the Border towns has developed its own distinct Common Ridings traditions, but every event follows roughly the same formula as the one in Hawick (pronounced Hoik). The first evening, Thursday, witnesses the ceremony of “colour-bussing”, a huge reception at the town hall during which the town provost hands over the flag to the chief rider, or Cornet, with the words “safe oot, safe in” and the best lady, a representative from the town’s young, female population, ties a ribbon in the town’s colours to the flag. Entrance is by ticket only, so if you can’t get in, join the huge crowd that assembles around The Horse statue on the High Street to watch the Cornet climb up to “buss”, or decorate, the statue.
The morning rides
After the colour-bussing, attention then turns to the pubs.
The standard closing time during the Common Ridings is 3am, and no sooner have most people stumbled out onto Hawick High Street than they’re back again – the pubs open at 6am to allow plenty of time for the riders, plus virtually the entire town population, to get themselves suitably fortified or Friday’s morning ride around town, which involves a group of local young men plus anyone who is mad enough to join them. Don’t worry about not waking up in time for the early start – the rides get going at around 7.30am – as a colourful and incredibly noisy drum and fife band marches around the streets at dawn to shake people from their sleep. You might feel a little underdressed as most of the riders are exquisitely attired in a formal costume of cream jodhpurs, black riding boots, tweed jackets and white silk neckerchiefs, but you don’t have to be wearing traditional Common Ridings garb to try the traditional Common Ridings morning drink of “Curds and Cream” (rum and milk). It doesn’t taste half as bad as it sounds – more like a kind of alcoholic milkshake – and slips down remarkably well with breakfast. Each rider will knock back between four and ten rum and milks before mounting their horses and galloping at breakneck speed around the ancient lanes and narrow streets of the town. You have to be able to ride quite well to take part in this, as the pace can be thunderous, so most people just go along to spectate; the sight of nearly two hundred horses galloping at full pelt is amazing, and, as the horses race off, the crowds follow on behind, more to see who’ll be the first rider to fall off than out of any particular sense of duty. Accidents can, and very often do, happen – not surprising given the amount of rum that has been consumed- but the only recorded fatality occurred back in 1876. The morning riders are mainly Hawick locals, but representatives from other national, and occasionally international, riding clubs often attend, too.
The final destination of the riders is the local racetrack, a two-mile, half-hour walk north of town, where a series of horse races are held throughout day. The jockeys here are all professionals who forgo the temptations of alcohol – at least, until the races are over – unlike their amateur counterparts and the Foot Soldiers (the name given to anyone who walks up from the town) who throng the colossal beer tents that are erected alongside the course; indeed, the focus is just as much on the action in the beer tents as on the track.