End in sight for men-only events at Hawick Common Riding

2017 Hawick Cornet Ali George flying the flag for tradition at last year's common riding.
2017 Hawick Cornet Ali George flying the flag for tradition at last year's common riding.

This year’s Hawick Common Riding is set to be one of the most controversial and uncertain in its 315-year history.

As revealed in last week’s Southern, it appears that the last vestiges of the event’s traditional male domination are coming to an end.

Womenfolk waiting outside the hut at St Leonard's Racecourse in 2016, little suspecting that within two years they, and others of their gender, could be allowed inside.

Womenfolk waiting outside the hut at St Leonard's Racecourse in 2016, little suspecting that within two years they, and others of their gender, could be allowed inside.

The town’s common riding committee issued an unprecedented statement last Wednesday night outlining its stated commitment to equal rights.

That followed decades of criticism over inequalities between the sexes during the common riding, held annually to commemorate the victory of Hawick youths over a marauding English force in 1514.

The statement makes clear that women will not be stopped from riding at any mounted events, including the preliminary rideouts, chases and at the main common riding day on the Friday.

Even more radically, it appears that women are to be allowed access to St Leonard’s Hut and other venues previously off limits to them, although, on the other hand, they are apparently being requested not to exercise that right out of respect for tradition.

One of 2015's men-only hut sessions.

One of 2015's men-only hut sessions.

However, behind the strong words there appears to be an element of trepidation as to what this year’s event will bring, with common riding chiefs forced to issue the statement only after a post on a social media site suggested women were gearing up to take part in the last few male-only events this summer.

One source close to the committee said: “It’s a wait-and-see situation.

“How many, if any, women will want to take part in the traditionally male-only events? What will the reaction be? There is an element of uncertainty and trepidation.”

Town provost Watson McAteer expressed his support for the committee’s stance, saying: “While not present at the common riding meeting last week due to being on holiday, I am supportive of the statement the committee has made, making it clear that all are welcome to participate in the common riding.

Another of 2015's all-male hut get-togethers.

Another of 2015's all-male hut get-togethers.

“I sincerely hope this clarifies the position and that Hawick’s fantastic and historic festival is enjoyed by all who take part.”

Also supportive is his predecessor as provost, fellow councillor Stuart Marshall, and he added: “Law and legislation clearly decided on this many years ago, and I would ask that people abide by the statement made by the common riding committee. Nobody is above the law,”

A committee spokesman said the decision to issue the statement had been made “due to recent comments and speculation on social media”.

The statement says the committee accepts that women have a right to attend all the week’s events and will comply with the relevant equal opportunities legislation, though its stops short of admitting having been arguably in breach of those laws for over 40 years.

Controversy has dogged the traditionally male-dominated event for many years.

As far back as 1996, two women took legal action claiming that the men-only parts of the common riding were in breach of the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. That dispute eventually led to a compromise allowing women to take part in more of the event’s 13 rideouts and other such events.

In its statement, the committee says: “The committee appreciate and would like to thank the Hawick public and those of our neighbouring towns who respect the heritage, customs and traditions of Hawick Common Riding, allowing the chases and the common riding Friday, as well as the hut and the election night smoker to be all male events.

“We are a town steeped in history and rich in pageantry, so it is important we preserve what we have for our future generations.

“The committee are aware that a few women are now wishing to have full access to all common riding functions and are also aware that, under equal opportunities legislation, they have the right to do so.

“The common riding committee will not break the law.

“All those taking part must be aware that there are codes of conduct and protocols for these events, and these must be respected.

“As a committee, we are aware we live in a time of equal rights for women, and can appreciate this, although we also need to remember our historic traditions so that they can be passed on to the next generation.”