Melrose festival hits climax in village visits

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“THE experience of a lifetime” was how Melrosian, Ruaridh Nairn, 19, summed up the Melrose Festival of 2011.

He was speaking in the grounds of Melrose Abbey, which plays such an integral and picturesque part in the festival – this year marking its 75th anniversary – just after the main events ended.

Ruaridh spoke of his great pride at having filled the role of Melrosian: “It’s been an unbelieveable week – really amazing,” the Stirling University student told TheSouthern.

“This week has been an unreal experience and I think my personal highlight had to be the ride up Melrose High Street, leading the cavalcade to the cheers and support from so many people.

“The sheer volume of support I have had has left me with a warm, tingly feeling. It’s difficult to put into words, but it has been something incredibly special and an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.”

He went on: “Festivals like this one and the common ridings have a vital role to play in our communities. They are a strong part of our shared Borders history and it is fantastic that we can all come together and celebrate these as a community.

“And I would say to anyone who gets the chance to take part in either Melrose Festival or any other Borders festival and common ridings to grab it with both hands. You won’t regret it. It will be an incredible experience.”

For Left-Hand Man, Clark Eaton-Turner, Melrosian in 2009, it was a bitter-sweet moment, as the end of Saturday’s ceremonials signalled the end of his two years as a supporter of the Melrosian.

“It has been a tremendous day – a tremendous week,” he said. “It has been an amazing year, in fact. I think the thing I will remember most is the number of people I have met – I’ve made lots of friends and had a truly great time.”

Festival joint chairman and president George Bunyan was also delighted: “Everything went really superbly. We had excellent support all through the week from the 204 people who took part in the rideout on Monday night night and the 544 who got on their bicycles for Wednesday night’s community bike ride, to the ceremonies on Saturday,” said Mr Bunyan.

“In Ruaridh, we had a first-class Melrosian, two good lads supporting him and in Queen Kirsty and her Court as nice a bunch of kids as we’ve ever had.

“All in all, I don’t think anything could have gone much better.”

First port of call for the official party on Saturday was Newstead. On the spot where the masons who built the nearby abbey founded the masonic lodge of Melrose – claimed to be the oldest in the land – office-bearers of the lodge greeted the principals.

It was then a short walk to the site of the former Roman fort of Trimontium, where in 80AD, the legions of Agricola established a Roman foothold to command the river crossing of their road, Dere Street.

The Melrosian and the official party were greeted by a figure in the authentic garb of a Roman soldier. This role has now been ably performed for the past 28 years by Malcolm Crawford.

From there it was on to Gattonside and a welcome from the village, once the setting for the orchards tended by the monks from the neaby abbey and where cherries were offered to the official party.

At Abbotsford, the Melrosian and his supporters were presented with the traditional yellow roses, while the Festival Queen received a gift. Dr Sandra McNeil, learning and engagement officer for the Abbotsford Trust, accompanied by trustee, Tony Taylor, made the presentations.

“It is wonderful to see so many young people participating in their community,” Dr McNeil said. “It is also fantastic to see the strength of identity felt here in the Borders and see young people playing such a prominent role.”

The last port of call before returning to the abbey was Darnick Tower, where owner, Mrs Theresa Wilson, was marking 50 years of her home being involved with the festival.

The Melrosian received a gift of honey, while guests accepted refreshments symbolising the mead of long ago.

Ex-Melrosian (2000) Greig Anderson, in the role of the abbey’s lord abbot, was offered a gift of wax ‘to lighten your convent at Melrose’.

Among the guests at Darnick was Rob Hastie, who has been a resident of Perth in Western Australia in 1968. The Melrosian in 1961, he had received the traditional gift to mark his golden jubilee at the abbey on Thursday.

“I’ve had a great time this week,” Mr Hastie said. “It’s been great this week catching up with all the other principals of 50 years ago. My personal highlight so far was at the abbey on Thursday. Such a beautiful setting and its so great to be back.”

It was then back to the abbey for the final ceremonies, including the laying of a wreath of red roses by the Festival Queen on the site of the burial of King Robert Bruce’s heart – one of the most moving parts of any of the Borders festivals and common ridings.