THERE was a moment, just the other week, when it seemed as if something miraculous had happened. Suddenly the ugly bluster which has swirled around Hawick like a noxious gas for the past eight months, appeared to clear, leaving behind the vision of misogyny on the run. By now, of course, the nub of this particular problem is well known, if still incomprehensible. Over the past year scribes and television crews from all over the world have turned up in the Borders, seeking to illuminate this dark tale of Hawick's Common Riding, and on each occasion they have left more baffled than before.

Does some mysterious virus lurk in the soil here, turning men into such women-haters that pernicious bigotry is allowed to maim town revelries? Yet for those few hours, last month, a gust of compromise blew grains of sense into the matter, custodians of the annual festival and its aspirant reformers agreeing that this June horsewomen would be admitted to three of the cavalcade's preliminary rides. But no sooner was that news out than heaven clouded over again. The full Common Riding Committee not only stamped on the decision but noisily declared they had cancelled this year's festival altogether - better a town robbed of hoofbeats than one where even a token of equality is given rein. In the end, though, the Sex Discrimination Act may be the leveller. February 20 marks the initial hearing of the complaint raised against the Committee, through the Equal Opportunities Commission, by Ashley

Simpson and Mandy Graham, the principal young riders involved. And, of course, there is always the European Court of Justice.

Something in the old guard's vehemence smacks of Ku Klux Klanism, that zeal of the warrior caste which always confuses rampaging self-interest with sacrosanct tradition. ''They're just a little boys' club who've hijacked the Common Riding to justify all sorts of prejudices,'' says Norman Pender gloomily. ''What they've said in effect is: this is our ball and we're taking it back so you can't have it.'' Pender knows a lot about balls. He's a former Scottish rugby international and, for 10 years, he played for Hawick. As a result he is not what you might call a man of modest stature but a six-foot wall of muscle and bone, and - let us not be coy about this - his physique is a large chunk of why he was appointed chairman of the Lady Riders' Association last summer when not just words but fists were flying.

''Because the parents thought that there might be trouble and intimidation they asked me to protect the girls. I told them that I couldn't be responsible for the well-being of the four females seeking to ride, but I'd do my best. So, during the Common Riding last year I told the girls to stick together behind me, to shout if they got manhandled.'' Off they rode with Pender as giant scout, a formidable figure always but now like something from a heyday Western, looming in the saddle and wearing a leather stetson. Everyone had mustered at Barkdamgate for the ride's starting point at Drumlanrig Tower, and afterwards the girls told Pender that they believed they would never even have got beyond the Tower if he hadn't been looking out for them.

Perhaps no outsider can ever grasp the flame of reverence for legend which consumes a bunch of bullet-heads in Hawick. Here the Common Riding ritual dates from 1514, one year after the men of the town were slaughtered at Flodden and young braves restored Borders pride by capturing an English raiding party, seizing their flag. Today the parading of the standard and the riding of the boundaries are cherished as the direct legacy of this collants elite, and any tourist themester seeking to update the memorial can forget it.

''But as Hannibal said: to beat the enemy, you've got to be inside his mind,'' considers Pender. ''The reason the Common Riding Committee call me a traitor is because I'm not only inside their minds but inside their hearts. Intellectually and emotionally I can anticipate their every move because basically I'm one of them. I love the Common Riding as much as any Terie - someone born and raised here - but there's a small, secretive, domineering element which is failing the people and dragging this town into the gutter.''

Pender himself is not a Terie although he has lived in Hawick since the age of three when his Scottish parents returned to the Borders and worked in its woollen industry.

He is 50 now, the father of four daughters, which obviously informs his thinking on emancipation, and he insists that he wouldn't have been born in Bridlington had his mother not been trapped there in the horrendous snows of 1947. Kathleen, Pender's wife and a hairdresser in the town, says it makes her mad to think he was good enough to play rugby for Hawick, but never good enough to be a Cornet - the central figure of each Common Riding - simply because bad weather put the kibosh on his intended place of birth.

Pender's sympathy for women riders has been known for years but now, as a result of becoming an activist, he is shunned by those antagonistic to the cause. ''The other day a TV crew were filming here and just when they they'd turned the cameras off two young women passed, and one of them - I don't know her name but she was attractive, aged about 25 - turned to me and shouted in real fury: 'I hate you. I hate you from here' . . . and she pounded at her heart. The TV reporter was astonished at such anger, but, you know, the suffragettes were attacked by women who hated their right to challenge the status quo.''

However unruffled and philosophical he seems about the fiasco, there is no doubt it has limited Pender's business dealings. He lives, amid blustery moorland, at Cavers in the former steading at Kinninghall farm, which he recently converted into a family house. Neatly lined up on the gravel outside, there are half a dozen second-hand cars which he sells. Additionally he deals in property and horse-feed, describing himself as ''a bit of an entrepreneur'', but in his time Pender has worked as a pub steward and as a rep for Boots. He claims his youngest daughter lost her job in a local nursery because of his defence of women riders, and he believes that of the 2207 people who voted against them in Hawick's referendum on the issue last December, around 1200 would probably never spend a penny if they thought it would contribute to his living.

Kathleen, though, has forfeited only three hairdressing customers but gained at least 20 others who uphold the campaign. ''Most people are not stupid and they've worked out who really is to blame for spoiling their festival,'' says Pender. The other week the lawyer for Councillor John Rudkin, fined #500 for breaching the peace during last year's Common Riding, stated that her client had lost almost half his normal DIY turnover since the controversy flared, and he was now in the process of selling one of his two shops. It was the charmless Rudkin who spat and swore at the girl riders in the parade, a gesture which only encapsulates ongoing grounds for feminism. ''Meanwhile a butcher from Selkirk says he enjoyed his best Christmas trade ever,'' reflects Pender. ''But yes, all this has affected my income. I'm blackballed, sent to Coventry, boycotted . . . call it what you like . . . People I've

known most of my life, even some I played rugby with, sweating blood with them out on the field for years,

now they completely ignore me. It's called the blank: they see you but they don't see you because you no longer exist. Catholics call it excommunication.''

That choice of word is interesting, for there is much about the palaver of ritual in Hawick which induces fevered religiosity. The very term ''cornet'' is spoken with grave solemnity, along with the cornet's litany of acolytes: cornet's lass, ex-cornets, ex-cornets' lasses, ex-cornets' sons, ex-cornets' daughters. If cornet can be legitimately worked in to an identity, that person's name is never quite without it.

''Every cornet has to be a virgin and the same goes for his lass, which must mean there aren't too many eligible folk around just now, but during the years of office the couple mustn't live together. And some people take it so seriously that before anything else they greet news of a newborn son in the town with the words 'a future cornet', pencilling in the year when they think he might be chosen for the title.''

From his research Pender knows that the festival hasn't aye been a glorified stag party. ''Up to 1931 women riders were allowed to participate in the Common Riding, so it's utter nonsense for the all- male committee to insist they're honouring the past.'' One reason given for female exclusion is that, in that final year, a woman was thrown from her horse on the race course. She broke her leg which prompted the men, in pious concern, to rule women equestrians out of all further Ridings.

But Pender can add another twist to the tale: ''A motion was put to the committee that women following the cornet would be forbidden because they curtailed the progress of the rides and spoiled the lads' enjoyment of the picnics. That's actually in the minutes. In other words, men were inhibited by women's presence, and so 11 men met in a room somewhere in Hawick and decided by seven votes to four that women riders should be banned from the community's great occasion.'' Yet the whole idiocy of the row is pointed up by the fact that the zealots are quite happy for their wives to ride in other Borders Ridings.

Even so, Kathleen has seen grown men crying in Hawick at the prospect of women invading their ranks; talk of invasion is stupid anyway because although the Lady Riders' Association has around 350 members, far fewer than that number would probably be free to take to the saddle. However, Pender thinks the silent majority, many of whom stayed away from the referendum - out of a population of 12,000, fewer than 3000 voted - are preparing to rise up against the fundamentalists because they're so sickened by the town being made a laughing stock.

''You've got to understand that the militants are fickle in their principles. There's an ex-cornet's daughter, who, when she was eight, wrote to Jim'll Fix It because she wanted to ride at the Hawick Common Riding. And Jim did fix it for her. Yet she has since been a cornet's lass, and now she's an ex-cornet's wife, which is why she walked in the human chain protesting against the women riders. But her sister wants to ride. So, this thing is splitting families, just like a civil war.''

Many men, of course, exist in a perpetual state of enmity towards women, a condition they express, both overtly and covertly, by controlling and dominating them. But today it is rare to find such concentrated dislike dressed up as perverted civic duty. When Hawick, in an aberrant moment, elected a woman provost in 1988, the said burgher, Myra Turnbull, had to shelter ignominiously in a byre while 600 Common Riding celebrants - all male and choral with history and booze - took to the ceremonial hut barred, by some ancient decree, to women. Had she been a man, she would have been chairing what passes inside for proceedings.

''There are definitely misogynists among the committee, and I believe that dates back to the fifties when there were seven women to every man in Hawick. That made women both competitive and submissive and, as word got round, busloads of men came in from Edinburgh and Newcastle because they knew this was a great place for girlfriends. These women were receiving reasonable wages, too, from mill work, and if you were a good-looking guy in bar, they'd rush up to buy you a drink.''

As with many Hawick customs, here was the reverse of normal practice, and it seems to have forged a confused communal psyche.

''It's just like Mississippi Burning,'' Pender says. And there may be something in that, the film's plot of racism being swapped for sexist threats. Neither of us, though, can recall that movie's ending, but for grisly resolutions Pender offers one story he has heard about the daughter of an ex-cornet who was warned by her father and uncle that they'd break her legs if she so much as tried to join the rideout. Somehow, the Freikorpsmen comes to mind, that obsessive band of German officers who refused to disarm after the First World War. When people told them the fight was over, they laughed uproariously. We are the war, they shouted, not caring that they incriminated themselves with every thuggish syllable.