The Common Riding

For many centuries, Hawick, along with all the settlements along the Anglo-Scottish border (on both sides) existed in a state of near-constant danger. Aside from the devastation wrought by the all-too-frequent Anglo-Scottish wars, the permanent insecurity to ones livelihood, ones home, and the safety of ones family (predominantly with regards to the reiving years of the mid-14th to the early-17th centuries) made it an absolute necessity for border communities to autonomously practice the ‘securing’ of their town boundaries. Probably, during times of war and uneasy peace, it was necessary to ride the boundaries of the town more regularly than just once a year. However, in light of the peace brought about by the Union of the Crowns in 1603, the practice of common riding (literally, fixing the boundaries of a town’s common; ‘ride’ originally meaning ‘to fix the boundaries’, though it has since merged with the physical act of horseback riding) became an annual tradition. Towns throughout the Borders hold similar ceremonies, but historically only Hawick’s and Selkirk’s common riding traditions go back to ancient times. First recorded in 1640, Hawick’s Common Riding is probably even older, and has been ridden every year since (excepting the war years of 1914-18 and 1940-45, and 2001).

Hawick’s Common Riding tradition combines the re-enactment of riding the marches with a celebration, and commemoration, of the youth of Hawick’s historic victory over an English encampment at the Battle of Hornshole, in 1514. Each year, an unmarried man is selected by the Common Riding Committee to be ‘Cornet’, a symbolic role harking back to the roles played by the young (too young to be married) boys (and presumably girls) who led the mounted cavalcade against the English at Hornshole. The Cornet is supported in his duties by his ‘Lass’, his Right- and Left-Hand Men (the previous two years’ Cornets), and his ‘Acting Mither’ and ‘Acting Fither’. The earliest descriptions of the Common Riding are of a party armed with swords and pistols, setting off at noon to ride the boundaries of the Common. Nowadays, however, the Cornet leads his supporters on horseback on a series of (unarmed) ‘Ride-outs’ in the weeks before the main three days in early June. These are popular affairs, frequented by locals who gather at both the destination and the point of return to Hawick, cheering ‘Hurray!’, and wishing the Cornet and his riders to be ‘Safe Oot, Safe In.’

The culmination of Common Riding festivities occurs on the first weekend after the first Monday in June. They begin with the ‘Colour Bussing’ on the Thursday night (a gathering in the town hall in which the Cornet’s flag is ‘bussed’, or has blue and yellow ribbons tied to it, before being presented to the Cornet for him to carry around the town and, the next morning, to ride with it around the marches). The actual riding of the marches takes place on the Friday, and the flag is then symbolically returned on the Saturday. On each of these three days there are ‘chases’ ending at St. Leonard’s Hut. On the Friday and Saturday, the Hut is succeeded by races and festivities held on Hawick Moor (or St. Leonard’s Park), attended by much of the town’s population.

Throughout the Common Riding, many traditional songs are sung, the number of which is added to as the years go by and new local songwriters reimagine the glory days of Hawick’s reiving years. The most famous song, however, is surely ‘Teribus’, originally recorded as the ‘The Colour’ by James Hogg, in 1819 (not to be confused with James Hogg, ‘the Ettrick Shepherd’). Hogg’s version, though much poetic license was of course taken, is one of the earliest records we have of the famous 1514 episode at Hornshole. Other popular Common Riding ballads include: ‘The Banner Blue’, ‘Up Wi Auld Hawick’, ‘The Mosstrooper’s Song’, ‘The Border Queen’, and ‘Up Wi The Banner’.