It’s 10 a.m. on a Friday in June, and “the Hut” in Hawick, Scotland, is heaving. Some 500 men are packed into the low wooden structure, banging tables, straining under bottles of beer and glasses of rum and milk. In comes the cornet flanked by his right- and left-hand men, all three in ties, top hats, green frocks, breeches and boots. Soon the whole company breaks out in roaring song, toasting their town and the men who have come before them to defend it against English soldiers and other armed intruders.

Hawick lies deep in the rolling hills of the Scottish Borders, one of Scotland’s 32 council areas, and this is the emotional climax of its common riding, one of Europe’s largest equestrian festivals that, once a year, brings to life a lawless time that strongly shaped the region’s shared identity. From the early 14th century, Scotland and England were almost continuously at war for 250 years, and the Borders, sandwiched in between, bore the brunt of the fighting. To make matters worse, this was also the heyday of the Border Reivers, whole clans of cattle-stealing marauders who plundered and pillaged on both sides of the frontier.

St. Leonard's Hut in Hawick
Technically St. Leonard’s Hut, "the Hut" is a tradition unique to Hawick. The actual hut was purpose-built for the common riding 100 years ago and now plays host to the pinnacle of its male bonding rituals. Yannic Rack

“You could never be very sure if someone wasn’t going to appear with a band of armed men, either in pursuit of land or simply to rob your livestock,” says Michael Brown, a historian at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

During this violent and uncertain period, a longstanding custom took on even greater importance: the riding of the marches. Lacking formal borders, communities would regularly mark the boundaries of their common land, where locals could collectively graze their livestock and cut peat. Technically, this is what Hawick’s common riding now commemorates, alongside the capture of an English flag by Hawick’s youth in 1514. More than that, though, the festival is an exultant celebration of Hawick’s community, igniting feelings of intense pride and camaraderie.

Hawick flag
In 1514, a group of boys set out in pursuit of an English raiding party camped close to Hawick, and, so the legend goes, returned triumphantly with the soldiers’ flag. The banner was adopted as the town’s own, and, carried by the cornet, became the common riding’s central emblem. Yannic Rack

Close to a dozen other Scottish Border towns have similar common riding celebrations, stretching from May into August. Hawick’s is one of the oldest and probably the most lavishly celebrated. (Ask anyone in town, and they will also tell you it’s the best.) The whole affair ends in a weeklong crescendo of parades and gala dinners, wreath-layings and church services, horse chases and races. For five weeks leading up to this, a few hundred riders join twice-weekly excursions across the surrounding hills to visit villages and symbolically mark the old borders of their commons by turning over a small patch of sod.

In fact, Hawick’s riding properly kicks off even earlier, on the common riding’s election night in early May. This year, a few hundred local residents stood outside an unassuming house on the outskirts of town, awaiting a traditional drum-and-fife band led by a white-gloved halberdier who handed a letter to Ryan Nichol, a 32-year-old roofer, to anoint him cornet and make him Hawick royalty.

Cornet Ryan Nichol
Ryan Nichol, a 32-year-old roofer, was this year's cornet. Yannic Rack

The cornet, as standard-bearer and symbolic leader of the common riding, looms large in Hawick lore, carrying an emotional weight that is hard to overstate. A plaque in the town center lists every cornet dating back to 1703. (Since then, the common riding has only been interrupted by the two world wars, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001 and the Covid-19 pandemic.) Nichol has dreamed of one day carrying the banner since he was a child, just like many of the boys now crowded around his parents’ house, eager to catch the coins the cornet tosses to them when he finally emerges.

“For the rest of his life, he becomes a local hero. Wherever he goes, he’ll be ex-cornet,” explains Catherine Elliott-Walker, a former doctor who moved here from Glasgow in the 1980s and never left. Today she’s part of the committee organizing the common riding, which costs the town close to £100,000 (about $126,000) each year.

Hawick statue of rider waving the flag
A statue of a rider triumphantly waving the flag captured in 1514 stands in town. Yannic Rack

From the house, the new cornet leads the procession as it winds back through town, past an imposing statue of a rider triumphantly waving the flag captured in 1514. When we reach the town hall, Nichol and his right- and left-hand men—his immediate two predecessors, who nominate the cornet and are by his side for most of the festivities—line up on the steps and strike up a song, with the whole crowd joining in. Struggling to make out the lyrics in local dialect, I ask Elliott-Walker what it’s about.

“This one is about Hawick,” she says, pausing for a moment. “They’re all about Hawick.”

Hawick, it turns out, has had a whole lot of songs written about it. Ian Landles, a retired Hawick history teacher and passionate chronicler of its common riding, estimates there are around 100. The oldest date back further than anybody knows, but new ones are still added to the canon even now. It’s Landles’ business to know all of them: For the past 30 years, he’s taken his seat at the hut’s piano to belt out traditional tunes accompanying the singers. “The tongue-in-cheek saying is that there is only one place with more songs written about it,” he tells me. “And that is Heaven.”

The first thing you need to know about Hawick is that it’s actually pronounced “Hoyk,” the vowels and “w” rolling off the tongue as one. The second thing, which is probably clear by now, is that the common riding comes close to a religion here, even if attendance isn’t quite what it used to be.

“It’s still the biggest event in the town,” says Frank Scott. “It’s more important than Christmas.”

Scott is another proud born-and-bred Hawick person, as well as this year’s chairman of the committee that organizes the festival. He remembers his parents taking him and his brothers to see the horses when they were little, and being let out of school early by the visiting cornet on the eve of the common riding.

Frank Scott
Frank Scott is this year’s chairman of the committee that organizes the festival. Yannic Rack

It’s been years since Scott last joined the ride-outs himself, but there’s no shortage of eager participants. Around 170, some not yet teenagers, are part of this year’s crop of followers. As they set off for the hut on Friday morning amid a cheering crowd, the air fills with the smell of horses, their manes shorn or finely braided for the occasion. The old town is decked out in blue-and-yellow bunting, the shop windows competing for the best common riding display (quite literally—there’s an award).

Scott assures me that anyone can take part in the processions, as long as they’re dressed appropriately and can ride a horse. Though be warned: Among border towns, Hawick particularly prides itself on the quality of its horsemanship, and the town is known for its excellent jockeys (including Nichol, the cornet, who rode professionally for a decade). And while the festival is open to anyone, its strong community focus and arcane vocabulary are hardly geared toward visitors, aside from a few dozen so-called exiles who usually return home for the occasion. “I wouldn’t say we’re an event for tourists. But if anybody wants to come and join in, they’ll be made welcome,” Scott says.

It’s a whole other story when it comes to the cornet. He has to be from Hawick, stay unmarried for his entire three-year term (including his turns as right- and left-hand man) and have followed the festival as a rider for several years. He is also expected to be a spotless example for the town, putting in countless hours of official ceremonies, speeches and photo ops. “I’m sure the lads have no idea,” Scott says of the work involved. Still, it’s many boys’ lifelong dream, and so they usually rise to the occasion. “There’s a saying in Hawick: There’s never been such a thing as a bad cornet.”

Like many in town, Nichol has a direct family connection to the riding: His uncle Ian carried the banner in 1984, and his cousin Ross followed in 2012. Among the other ex-cornets present for this year’s affair is Bruce Mactaggart, a lively 90-year-old who held the position in 1954 and has barely missed a common riding since. Mactaggart, who worked in Hawick’s knitwear industry (the town sign proclaims it the “Home of Cashmere”), was himself preceded as cornet by his dad, in 1930, and his great-uncle, in 1892. He doesn’t remember what it felt like to be Hawick’s chosen son at the time, but that’s kind of beside the point: “It’s always with you,” he tells me, proudly showing off the 70-year-old cornet’s rosette pinned to his lapel.

Bruce Mactaggart
Bruce Mactaggart, 90, held the position of cornet in 1954. Yannic Rack
Bruce Mactaggart with his cornet's rosette
Mactaggart proudly showed off the 70-year-old cornet’s rosette pinned to his lapel at this year's festival. Yannic Rack

Back in the hut, things quickly turn from jovial to emotional during a toast by Paul Robson, the owner of a local funeral parlor who gave Nichol his first job and has known him since he was a child. By the time Robson starts talking about Nichol’s relationship with his family and his exceptional character (words like “hero” and “loyalty” feature prominently), tears are streaming down the cornet’s face. In his own address, his voice shaking, Nichol says he’s never felt so proud in his life.

More speeches and songs follow. By now, a lot of the men have consumed a lot of alcohol, and the atmosphere has reached a fever pitch. Before the riders retrieve their jackets and helmets from the rafters to head out and mount their horses once more, there’s another foot-stomping chorus: “The borderland, my first love and my last!”

The Borders have played host to some of the most lauded chapters of Scotland’s history. William Wallace, who waged a guerrilla war against English invaders during the Scottish Wars of Independence in the late 13th century, launched his forays across the border from Ettrick Forest, not far from Hawick. Walter Scott, the famed Romantic novelist, also had roots in the region and later popularized ballads that further cemented the Borders’ status as a cradle of Scottish lore.

Hawick, the largest town in today’s Scottish Borders council area with just over 10,000 inhabitants, is barely more than an hour’s drive southeast from Edinburgh. Yet, in the late Middle Ages, it was a world away from the capital. Even during periods when there wasn’t large-scale fighting, “war was an ever-present fact of life on both sides of the frontier,” says Brown, the historian. “It turned [this region] into a kind of militarized zone.”

Band in Hawick
The whole affair ends in a weeklong crescendo of parades and gala dinners, wreath-layings and church services, horse chases and races. Yannic Rack

The Border Reivers thrived in this atmosphere, rustling cattle and other livestock across the Borders’ steep river valleys and rough open moors, and frequently fencing their goods farther south in England. But it wasn’t a clear-cut case of English versus Scots: Many of the raiders were themselves part of prominent Border families and even associated with nobility. They sparked mixed feelings among Borderers and were both heralded and vilified for their violent exploits. In the early 1500s, the archbishop of Glasgow issued a curse against them so vivid and comprehensive it ran to more than 1,000 words.

Occasionally, actual war would still rear its head. During the Battle of Flodden in 1513, the English defeated an invading Scots army, killing their king and thousands of soldiers. “Flodden was a disaster for the whole borderland,” says Landles. “Very few Hawick men marched away.”

The following year, rumors of an English raiding party camped close to town reached Hawick. A large group of boys set out in pursuit and, so the legend goes, returned triumphantly with the soldiers’ flag, as the statue in town depicts. Whether they actually fought and killed the intruders, or merely stole their standard, is lost to history. Nevertheless, the banner was adopted as the town’s own, and, carried by the cornet, became the common riding’s central emblem—particularly once the actual tradition of marking the town’s boundaries fell out of necessity in the late 18th century.

The common riding’s dual purpose is now aptly summed up by the chorus to “Teribus ye teri odin,” a hymn to the town and its history that serves as Hawick’s semi-official anthem:

“Teribus ye teri odin

Sons of heroes slain at Flodden

Imitating Border bowmen

Aye defend your rights and common.”

The first line is where locals get their nickname (a person from Hawick is a Teri, pronounced “teary”), even if nobody knows what it actually means. It might be an Anglo-Saxon battle cry invoking the Norse gods Thor and Odin, or a corrupted Celtic phrase meaning “land of victory, land of defense.” The Scottish National Dictionary even suggests it may simply consist of meaningless syllables representing the sound of a drum-and-bagpipe march, although that theory has few fans in Hawick.

Though united in reverence for their shared history, the border towns all pay homage in their own ways. During their common riding, the people of Selkirk re-enact when a single rider returned from Flodden to announce that the town’s remaining fighters had all been slain. In Langholm, a salted herring and a barley cake are ceremoniously nailed to a wooden board and paraded around town. Hawick’s own unique traditions include the Snuffin’, in which the riding’s official song singer carries a horn filled with snuff tobacco across a square pursued by a gaggle of locals, who try to wrestle it from him in what resembles a rugby scrum.

And then there’s “the Hut,” technically St. Leonard’s Hut, another tradition unique to Hawick. The actual hut was purpose-built for the common riding 100 years ago and now plays host to the pinnacle of its male bonding rituals. It loomed large for Nichol long before he had a shot at becoming cornet himself. “Even as a kid, it’s the hut you imagine yourself in,” he tells me after the ceremony, still slightly overwhelmed.

The common ridings have come under fire in the past because many of the events are exclusively reserved for men. Women still only ride in the more casual processions on the final day of Hawick’s celebrations, although the town has generally relaxed its gender segregation (and I do spot a handful of women at one of the hut’s tables).

Hawick racecourse
After the celebrations in the hut, a good chunk of town gathers for a fair featuring horse races. Yannic Rack

Landles, whose personal favorite event is the Thursday Morning Chase, when the flag is brought out for the first time, admits the whole concept of the common riding can be hard to grasp if not experienced firsthand. “We have a phrase in Hawick: It’s better felt than telt,” he says. “You really need to be there and to see it.”

The common riding exerts a strong pull even on those Teries who have left long ago. Douglas Scott, Frank’s younger brother, moved away some 40 years ago and now lives in Vancouver, Canada, where he’s an astrophysicist at the University of British Columbia. Still, he comes back almost every year.

“When I was younger, I kind of fell out of interest with the common riding because it just seemed to be about drinking,” he tells me, standing on St. Leonard’s Racecourse, idyllically situated on a moor that forms part of Hawick’s remaining common land just south of town. This is where, after the celebrations in the hut, a good chunk of town gathers for a fair featuring horse races and more general revelry. Half a dozen bookies have set up shop beside the track. In the distance, we can just make out the hills straddling the border with England.

In his 20s, Scott realized the common riding was really just a way to express his love for the community and its traditions. He became so interested in local history that he’s spent much of his spare time since then painstakingly putting together A Hawick Word Book, a more than 4,000-page dictionary and encyclopedia of Hawick.

The word book includes about three dozen entries related to the cornet alone, from the Cornet’s Band (which only plays during the common riding) to the Cornet’s Lass (usually the girlfriend, with a whole host of duties of her own) and the Cornet’s Up (a traditional toast that concludes common riding dinners with the words “Hawick forever”).

But Scott, at least, is from Hawick. He shares an anecdote that illustrates how perfectly unconnected people can be snagged in the riding’s orbit, too: One year, a lawyer from Colorado came to town looking to trace his Scottish family roots. He didn’t find any relations in Hawick but, as a keen horseman, became enamored with the festival.

“He’s now been to something like 20 common ridings. He has no connection to Hawick!” Scott tells me, slightly incredulous. “It’s just an example of how it pulls people in. There’s something actually special here.”

After the races are run, and more beer has been drunk, the cornet and his followers once again retrieve the flag to gallop out of the racecourse and over the hill, past a cheering crowd and back to town, where there will be more singing and a dinner and dance and, tomorrow morning, more rituals and re-enactments to conclude the common riding. Then it won’t be long before the other towns put on their own festivities. By then, thoughts in Hawick will have already turned toward next year.

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