ANOTHER quiet week in Hoolet. There’s nothing remarkable about that at the moment, but the lack of activity feels particularly odd right now. At this time of year, the Borders are normally in the midst of the annual common ridings, a series of week-long galas as each of the towns holds its own horseback inspections of the boundaries, and enjoys a flurry of bibulous dinners and balls.

This Friday should have seen the start of Jedburgh’s festivities, whose ride-outs are among the liveliest on the circuit. Hawick, however, can boast that its celebrations have been voted by the Rough Guide as one of the best parties in the world.

When I lived in Musselburgh, we would wait for the glorious spectacle of a small army of riders passing under our windows as they returned from their circuit. For all its many attractions, Musselburgh is not in the Borders, yet like a handful of other places beyond the Scottish marches, it marks this historic ritual with pageant and panache.

Several of my husband’s family have been involved over the years, as the town’s Honest Lass or Lad. His memories of the revelries are still fresh. One involves young men from Hawick in his father’s back garden, in the small hours, repeatedly thwacking each other’s foreheads with the back of a spoon, to see who could cope best with the pain. Another favourite ploy was to flick someone’s cigarette out of their mouth with a horsewhip.

Whether it’s Peebles’s Cornet and Selkirk’s Standard Bearer, Jedburgh’s Callant, Duns’s Reiver and Kelso’s Kelsae Lad – and their female counterparts – the expectations of the office holders are the same: the ability to ride a horse, speak in public and stay upright during a punishing summer-long schedule. To hold these onerous and prestigious positions, Alan’s relatives took riding lessons. How else could they lead the charge across the Esk without losing face? As they well knew, the throng on the riverbank was waiting – desperately hoping – that one of them would topple in.

Several tradesfolk who have worked on our house have, within minutes of meeting, revealed this badge of honour, even if it’s decades since they wore it. This time last year the painter decorator arrived every morning with tales from the previous night’s activities during Jedburgh’s Gala week. He was a member of the Jedburgh Pipe Band. Avoiding alcohol until the grand finale at the weekend, his only worry was not how his liver would cope, but if any horses would kick out when the band was within reach.

The common ridings, which date back to the middle ages, are one of the most distinctive features of the area. Wimbledon’s absence this July is much lamented, but around here it barely registers. Not since the Second World War have the common ridings been cancelled. For Borderers, a summer without the sound of thundering hooves on tarmac is like a winter without Jingle Bells.

Everything grinds to a halt on Gala day, as the office bearers lead the impeccably uniformed riders out to patrol the marches, before returning and casting the colours. The sight of their steeds ridden full-tilt up small-town high streets is thrilling, a reminder of the days when danger was all around and armed men essential for safety. At Selkirk, about 300 horses and ponies gallop up the narrow street, within touching distance of the crowds. Descendants of Selkirk families return from all corners of the globe to take part in proceedings. Grizzled locals have been seen with tears rolling down their cheeks at the piping of The Flowers of the Forest.

You don’t need to be elderly for that tune to tug the heartstrings, especially in these parts where so many lost their lives at Flodden. The Selkirk Gala commemorates the return from the battle of a young soldier called Fletcher, bearing a captured English flag. He was the sole survivor of 80 townsmen. To hear folk talk, it is remembered as vividly as 9/11. Hawick commemorates instead the day in 1514 when, after a skirmish with the English, local youths relieved them of their flag.

The torrential downpours lately reminded me of a friend in Hoolet, who has attended almost as many ride-outs as rugby internationals. Working for the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch, he was the only reporter at the Galashiels Braw Lads Day one year in the late 1950s, and thus able to get what he calls a “world exclusive”.

Most newspapers didn’t bother sending a journalist, since events tended to be fairly predictable. His job that day was simply to write captions for the photographer’s pictures. The night before, he recalled, it had rained heavily, “and the Tweed was rising steadily and dramatically”. On the Saturday morning when he got into position on the banks of the river, where the cavalcade would cross at Abbotsford, officials were growing concerned. The river was too deep and fast for 100 horses to ford. It was decided that only the Braw Lad and Lass, and their four attendants would be allowed to do so.

The riders arrived, and as the principals started to cross, he could see their horses being dragged downstream by the current. As they made towards the far bank, the Selkirk Standard Bearer arrived. He refused to listen to the marshalls. “Anywhere the Braw Lad can ride the Selkirk Standard Bearer can go,” he said, and whipping on his mount, plunged into the river.

The other riders made it safely across, but he was going too fast to control his horse in such conditions. My friend, who was standing right beside him when he entered the river, saw his head and hat disappear, and an arm come up, and then he was lost. The horse managed somehow to scramble back onto the bank.

Officials refused to believe that he had been swept away, and told people that after getting a soaking he had gone home to change. It was evening before they acknowledged he was missing. Meanwhile, my friend sought out an old waterman and asked him, if the lad had indeed drowned, where he would wash up. Four days later, the body was discovered a quarter of a mile downstream, exactly in the spot that had been predicted. Thereafter, supervision at the riverside during the ride-outs was heightened.

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