The Debatable Land #22: Hail Smiling Morn
It is my home town's Big Day on Friday: this is why it, and other occasions like it, still matter.
A special edition of The Debatable Land this week to celebrate the fact this is Selkirk Common Riding week; an annual celebration stretching back to the middle ages and all the more special this year for resuming the traditions after two years of covid-caused interruptions.
Place and the Permanent Things
It is early summer, the time of year when the roses bloom again, and in the small hours of the first Friday after the second Monday in June, Selkirk begins to stir. A flute band marches through this small, but ancient, Royal Burgh heralding, as dawn breaks, the start of the latest iteration of Selkirk’s “day of days”. For this is the day of the Common Riding, Selkirk’s annual celebration of itself.
The flute band will awaken the town’s Standard Bearer, the young man - single and of good repute - charged with leading the 400-strong mounted cavalcade inspecting the boundaries of the town’s common land. He will carry the town’s flag as he does so and is charged with returning it as he accepted it, “unsullied and untarnished”.
Later, he will “cast” the burgh standard in the ancient market square, waving it around his head as Selkirk’s silver band play the town song, “The Souters of Selkirk”. It will seem as though all Selkirk is present at this moment as the town remembers - with solemn pride and dignity - its past.
The focus this year, as every year, will be on the battle of Flodden when, as legend has it, eighty men left Selkirk to fight for King James and only one returned. This man, named Fletcher, carried with him a tattered English banner which he, it is said, “cast” and lowered to the ground in poignant suffering, symbolising the disaster that had befallen Selkirk and, for that matter, all Scotland.
It is a noble moment in which the present pays tribute to the past. No outside observer can fail to be struck by its dignity. Emotions, and pride, run high. Souters, as Selkirk folk are known, have returned from all corners of the globe just to be here, once again, for this annual rite of passage. There is a kind of magic in the air at these moments.
What’s true of Selkirk is true of all the other Border towns too. Each has its own “big day”, each has a Common Riding or a Civic Week or other festival that is a declaration of communal identity and pride. Though there are other such events in other places, there is nothing quite like the Borderlands in summer.
The Borders are sometimes described as Scotland’s “hidden gem”, but the beauty and distinctiveness of the counties of Roxburgh, Berwick, Selkirk and Peebles has never been a secret. It has lain in plain sight for anyone to see, if only they take the trouble to open their eyes. There is more than landscape to admire, here, however. There is, above all, a pride in place, a declaration of identity that is, it sometimes seems, increasingly rare in an often homogenous modern world.
But then the Borders have often felt a place apart. Few other parts of Scotland, let alone Britain, possess such a keen sense of self. Collectively, as June gives way to July and July to August, these festivals become something greater than the sum of their individual parts. Each town’s reaffirmation of its identity is but a part of an annual pageant that binds the whole Borderland together.
As anyone with any experience of the rugby field knows full well, there has long been a keenly-felt rivalry between the major Border towns but that rivalry exists within an agreed understanding that more unites these places than divides them. Every town is different - and zealously protective of its difference - but the annual Ridings affirm a truth that’s long been evident: the Borders are a special place. From Hawick in the first week of June to Coldstream in August, via Selkirk, Galashiels, Melrose, Peebles, Jedburgh, Duns, Kelso, Langholm and Lauder there is something mighty here.
Some of these ridings and festivals are ancient, stretching back five centuries and more. Others are more modern but, whatever their roots and antiquity, they have something in common. They are annual gatherings of remembrance and celebration; affirmations that though these may be small places there is nothing small about coming from Kelso or Galashiels, Lauder or Langholm.
The past is ever-present. Hawick’s Common Riding, like Selkirk’s, is inseparably bound to Flodden and the day, in 1514, when a group of Hawick men saw off an English raiding party at the battle of Hornshole. At Coldstream, riders cross the Tweed and make their way to Flooded itself where a moving ceremony of remembrance is held. Jedburgh’s festival, likewise commemorates one of the last Anglo-Scottish skirmishes, fought at the Battle of Redeswire in 1575. The zenith of Jedburgh’s festival comes as the young Callant stands tall in his stirrups to roar the town’s ancient battle cry “Jethart’s Here”. It is a spine-shivering moment in which past and present merge.
There are oddities, too. Hawick’s day begins with a scrummage to take snuff from a ram’s horn; in Langholm a salted herring is nailed to a barley bannock. These curiosities might seem quaint and even unfathomable to outsiders but they remain vital parts of the pageant to those that know them best.
These are the greatest days in the lives of the chosen men - and, in some places, women - tasked with acting as their town’s representative. Their duties do not end with their own festival; they will represent their native towns at all the other gatherings throughout the summer too. These are banner days for the chosen few lucky enough to be given these honours; days that will live with them for as long as they still draw breath. Fifty years hence this year’s crop of Callants, Laddies, Cornets and Standard Bearers will still be swapping their memories and stories of the summer of 2022.
These festivals are not flashy, for the Border towns are not flashy places. Though outsiders are always made welcome - and more than welcome - these are not events put on to please a crowd of visitors. They have a greater integrity than that. They are an argument for the small places - none of the Border towns, not even Galashiels and Hawick can count as metropolises - and the important and permanence of place. They maintain the golden threads that stretch back through the ages to a time when the world was a younger place. These festivals are the guardians and custodians of memory and without memory, what does identity matter?
Sometimes it can be hard to express quite what it all means to those most intimately involved. As one former Hawick Cornet put it, the entire experience is “Better felt than telt”. Some of these young men have waited years to earn their place on their town’s roll of honour. Many a Border lass has found her marriage delayed by years until such point as her prospective husband has served his time as Cornet, Callant or Standard Bearer.
As the great ruined abbeys of Melrose, Dryburgh, Jedburgh and Kelso can attest - to say nothing of the proliferation of castles, keeps and peel towers still scattered across the Borderland - this is a place with a violent past. In the long centuries of Anglo-Scottish warfare, the Borders were the routes by which the warring Kings of Scotland and England ventured into each other’s territory.
That helped breed a race quick to anger and slow to forget. Until their suppression at the fag end of the sixteenth century, the Border Reivers existed as tribal chieftains, forever feuding with one another and across the border. The great families - Scott, Armstrong, Elliot, Nixon, Hume, Kerr and all the rest - were a law unto themselves. Indeed, the Anglo-Scottish law was governed by its own code that resisted the interference of kings in London and Edinburgh alike. It was a wild and violent society dominated by mafia-like families, many of whom could put a thousand men into the saddle at a moment’s notice.
All these centuries later it is easy to be in thrall to the wild romance of those ancient times. Not least because they spawned the great border ballads and poems collected by Sir Walter Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. But if the Border is peaceful now we still owe something to those forbears for they helped forge the modern Borders which remain, in many subtle respects, a place apart from the rest of Scotland.
Few, if any, places have such a powerful, coherent and consistent sense of regional identity. That is something to be cherished and preserved. Each summer that identity, from Langholm to Coldstream and from Peebles to Duns, is reaffirmed. Every Common Riding is unique yet, in this important respect, each is just the same as last year’s festivities. These are the permanent things; the ties that bind a people together, that insist upon the specialness of a particular small patch of Scotland. They are the things that make a difference, the things that matter most.
And if you listen carefully you will still hear the hoofbeats of history commanding us to remember and celebrate who we are and whence we have come.
The Long Riders
Here is a 1999 Border TV documentary on the Selkirk Common Riding. A lovely, moving, piece of work. Many of the same things could have been said in 1899 and the hope must be they will still be being said in 2099.
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Musselburgh is not in the Borders, I realise, but it does have a great song.
For Musselburgh was a Burgh, When Edinburgh was nane, And Musselburgh will be a Burgh, When Edinburgh's gane.