IN Jedburgh a few days ago, I noticed a brightly coloured gypsy caravan parked by the roadside, overlooking the house where Mary Queen of Scots was said to have stayed. Beside it stood a horse and two dogs, lolling in the sun. The caravan looked a little lonely, as if it had got the date wrong, and turned up in the Borders a week early.

Today, July 18, is the traditional date of the St Boswell’s Fair, a calendar fixture for the travelling community since the 1600s. Originally a sheep fair, it gradually became better known for horses, selling them in their hundreds. The fair moved to the green on St Boswell’s in the mid 18th century, which has since become its home.

People flocked to the market from far beyond the county, some arriving on foot and hoping to depart on horseback.

When the Ettrick Shepherd, James Hogg, was invited to the Coronation of George IV, he turned down the offer because it would have meant missing the fair. Surely his sensible priorities are reason enough to return to his books?

St Boswell’s, which is ten miles north of Jedburgh, is one of the prettiest villages within easy reach of Hoolet. Its green, where the fair takes place, is said to be the largest in Scotland, and is tailor-made for cricket.

At one point, apparently, during the Victorian railway explosion, it almost became the site of a railway station. Thanks to the vocal and influential opposition by members of the Buccleuch Hunt, whose kennels were nearby, this idea was scrapped. Instead, the line was routed through Newtown, a couple of miles away, which, with the arrival of the station, was renamed Newtown St Boswells. 

READ MORE ROSEMARY: The great Scottish tourist invasion

That outcry was in 1849, and yet the other morning, as we watched a pack of hounds parade past our window, shepherded – if that’s the right word – by three men on bikes, it was as if we were still part of that older world. The dogs’ tails were high, and they moved as one, hogging the road. They were too fleet-footed to count, but Alan estimated there were about 60.

On quiet days you can hear the baying of hounds from the stables a mile away. At feeding time they sound terrifying, even though food quickly quietens them; you can only imagine how foxes feel when they know they are on their tail. I wouldn’t want to be a Hoolet cat either, when the pack comes through. If one of the dogs decided to give chase, it wouldn’t be long for this world.

Yet, as the kennel masters get the hounds in shape for the approaching hunting season, many Borderers are fully behind a sport that turns townies’ stomachs but in this region is part of its identity. The traditional pursuit with dogs, I am told, was effective at picking off the weaker or older foxes, allowing the fittest a chance of eluding the pack. Now, since they have to be shot, even a healthy young animal can fall victim without any hope of escape.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to witness the hounds going in for the kill, but then I don’t like the sight of trawlermen dragging nets of gasping fish onto their boats either. I suspect that until you have taken part in a hunt, or are connected to those who make their living from it, it’s difficult to know enough to make an informed decision.

Certainly much of what angered the hunting fraternity when anti-fox hunting legislation came in was the sense that this was a law imposed by city dwellers, who’d have trouble saddling a horse, let alone taking a fence.

What has always puzzled me is why there are strict rules governing the killing of (relatively) few foxes, on the laudable grounds of animal welfare, yet the treatment of millions of cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens that end up on our tables is often heartless.

Even a simple fact, such as that a fifth of Scottish cattle are kept indoors all year long, makes you question legislative priorities. That a creature bred to graze the fields in spring and summer is cooped up like a battery hen is shocking.

READ MORE ROSEMARY: Having friends to stay? How lovely...not

I’ve heard farmers say that one of the best sights of the year is their cows skipping and jumping as they are let out of the winter barn and see fresh green grass ahead.

One of their hardest jobs, for those whose beasts roam on hillsides, moors and estuaries, is corralling them in autumn. By that time they’re almost feral, and the sight of the trailer into which they must be crammed is about as appealing as a vet coming towards then waving a syringe.

A neighbour who has crofting friends in the Hebrides tells me that Highland cattle are gentle and easy going. I mentioned this to a friend whose career involved taking medical samples from British herds. Her eyebrows shot up, since this had not been her experience. Equally bolshie, though with less fearsome horns, were the Belted Galloways and Limousin. Yet there was a clear link, she suggested, between cattle that are well raised and tended and those – such as one particular Limousin herd, whose owner would roar at them in expletive French – who were more harshly dealt with. She has tales of recalcitrant and obstreperous bulls, and heifers who evade capture as cunningly as a trout dodging an angler’s hook.

Around here, cattle and sheep are important, but horses come first. The day after this veterinary friend described her thigh almost snapping beneath the weight of a Belted Galloway that didn’t have a reverse gear, I bumped into her arriving home. She was in jodhpurs, after a morning’s ride, and was railing against the flies. Worst of all are cleggs, those self-appointed phlebotomists that drive the animals wild with irritation.

Most of the horses around here wear gauzy hoods over their heads, and some are draped nose to tail in fly-repelling gear. Full hoods look almost as sinister on a horse as on a human, but I prefer to think of them as a nod to the middle ages, when their forebears were dressed for a pageant or joust. Seen in that light, like the travelling community assembling at St Boswells, it’s just one more link between then and now.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Herald.