Open Country with Erica Hume Niven

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AT around 5.30am I wondered up the hill to the war memorial in Selkirk. As I passed the court, the Last Post was playing. A group of maybe 50 people stood in small groups listening to the Reverend Margaret Steele; umbrellas and jackets protecting them against the rain.

The man I stood beside looked down at me, smiled and shifted his umbrella so I also benefitted from its shelter. He was a stranger to me – thank you.

A time to reflect, a time for prayer and then we dispersed. Some people went straight up to the town on the A7, others followed the squirl of the pipe band as they headed towards the Green, but I choose a narrow close. I passed a pile of sick, I assumed from the night before.

I was unsure where to stand or what to do. I moved from one coury spot to another, eventually stopping outside a newsagents where I spoke to a local woman who was delighted to give this common riding novice an itinerary of the morning’s proceedings. Outside the County Hotel the first drum was sounded and a song was sung.

Unfamiliar to me, I returned to studying the timetable that my friend Mark had printed out for me. I noted that the horses would gather in the Back Row. There was a sight I would find interesting. As I walked into this street the smell of the beasts sent me back to childhood; for a while my sister and went to the riding school in Busby.

The riders sat tall and straight, patiently waiting the sign to advance. I could see more horses coming down the hill. How many were there, I don’t know. More horses were gathering on the High Street, some wee people on wee ponies were present. I hoped they would be well looked after.

Some horses began to grow agitated. They would step backwards and shake their heads – back hooves clipping hard on the tarmac, front hooves scraping the ground. When I stood at the Mungo Park monument to wait for my friend, the horses were slowly starting to move forward, but then there was an ear-piercing scream and a clattering noise ensued.

A woman had been thrown. As I approached a man was holding the reins of her horse, but the animal was still agitated and was trying to kick him, a dangerous situation. Another person was angry. The main concern was the woman lying on her side. The ambulance was called, a policeman and a woman she knew had arrived so I left the scene after speaking to her and holding her hand.

Mark arrived and we followed the horses down the Green, along South Bridge Street, then along the riverside and finally down to the ford. The horses crossed the river in a steady stream. Some hesitated, water splashed around their legs. A line of scuba divers stood downstream of the crossing equipped with life lines in case of an accident.

After a break from the incessant rain and a snack we were ready to face the weather again. From Shawburn Toll up to my house on Ettrick Terrace, the pavements filled up slowly but surely and the excitement began to build; the precipitation never dampened the anticipation.

The Standard Bearer came galloping up the road with his flag to cheers that rippled up the line of onlookers. He was followed by groups of galloping horses and individual riders, many lifting their left arms and cheering with the crowd. I was not expecting this spectacle. Rainwater flew off the horses and their riders as hooves rattled on the road – the animals’ shapes reflected on the wet surface.

The final movement of people was up to the Market Place.

Behind people and umbrellas I managed to find a small window to watch the casting of the colours.

The Standard Bearer and those representing the ancient guilds and crafts of Selkirk move the flags around – the motion is evocative, with slow strong movements, the cloth furls and unfurls.