THE most fundamental official duty of any Hawick Cornet is, having ridden the town’s marches and checked that its boundaries are intact, to return the burgh flag – the precious and symbolic Banner Blue – “unsullied and unstained”.
And, according to Honorary Provost Ron Smith, for 22-year-old Ross Nichol to achieve that feat with such aplomb, given the horrendous weather conditions of heavy rain and buffeting winds which attended, but failed to mar, Friday’s Common Riding, was “miraculous in itself”.
And that the young printer did so with a smile on his face and a palpable pride in his bearing was all the more remarkable.
“Friday was a bit difficult weatherwise, but to be honest, nothing was going to spoil my big weekend and, with all of Hawick behind me, it was an forgettable experience,” said a delighted Ross after handing back the flag, in the condition it had been handed to him at Thursday’s Colour Bussing, to Provost Smith on a fleetingly sunny Saturday afternoon.
Aboard his trusty steed Roy, Cornet Nichol had led out a cavalcade of 317 male riders under threatening skies on Friday morning, lining up behind the town bands in the spectaular High Street procession which is a cherished forerunner to the actual Common Riding.
Enthusiastic crowds, many with nasal passages refreshed from the early morning Snuffin ceremony, had earlier mustered in Tower Knowe to watch and listen as official songsinger Michael Aitken led the principals, fully breakfasted and resplendent, in a roistering rendering of The Old Song with its explicity commitment that the common will be ridden and guarded.
As the procession moved along, the first spots of rain began to fall and, by the time the riders had rattled up the Nip Knowes in the main chase, with Acting Father Iain Huggan in the vanguard of the married supporters and the flag-bearing Ross at the head of the singletons, this had become a steady drizzle.
It remained thus as Iain, in his role as acting senior magistrate, carried the flag to the Hut at St Leonard’s for the curds and cream repast and the precipitation had intensified by the time the riders, many fortified with the uniquely Hawick beverage of rum and milk, emerged for an enthusiastic rendering of Teribus outside the farmhouse.
And so to the riding of the marches with the leg to the Ca’-Knowe, for the traditional Cutting of the Sod ceremony, completed in the torrential, windy conditions which prevailed for most of the afternoon.
Acting Father Iain Huggan is, by any standards, an accomplished horseman, having won the Tradesman’s Handicap in 1999, but even he admitted it was “tough going” when he rode with the flag after the sod cutting to the gazebo-covered racecourse at the Moor.
“I just held on to the flag for all I was worth into the teeth of a gale and with the rain coming down in stair-rods. It was as tricky and arduous as I can ever recall, but the feeling at the end of it was utter exhilaration,” said Iain.
It was a sentiment shared by Cornet Nichol on the homeword ride, which included the dipping of the flag in the Cobble Pool at the River Teviot and culminated with the song-singing and the proclamation at Millpath that the marches had, indeed, been ridden.
“By this time, I’d quite forgotten about the weather,” said Ross, whose father, Ian, had been Cornet in 1984.
“I’d been so well supported by everyone, especially Iain and my Right and Left Hand Men Michael Davidson and Greg Easton, not to mention my family and the cheering crowds, that the rain was an irrelevance. I was fulfilling a childhood ambition which was much more magical than I could ever have imagined, even although I’ve ridden for the past 10 consecutive years. If I was asked to sum it all up in one word it would be ‘tremendous’.”
Since his appointment six weeks earlier, Ross had led ride-outs to Bonchester Bridge, Cogsmill, Roberton, Lilliesleaf, Philhope Bridge, Priesthaugh, Mosspaul (twice) and Denholm and had visited schools and old-folks homes in the run-up to Thursday where his Lass Gillian Smith gracefully bussed his colours in a packed Town Hall.
The keynote address at that stunning event was given by chief guest Douglas Scott, a proud Teri who is a professor of astrophysics at the University of British Columbia in Vancounver.
On Sunday, Professor Scott reflected on his weekend.
“I always enjoy the Common Riding but didn’t know I would enjoy it even more as chief guest,” he told us. “The warmth of the people of Hawick is truly unique. I must have been stopped to speak to half the town over the weekend.
“This was an extraordinary weekend and will surely go down as yet another successful Common Riding. Someone told me it rained on Friday, but it’s clear that most of us didn’t notice.”
After Ross had taken possession of the flag at the Colour Bussing, he was cheered by dense crowds on his walk, on a cold but dry evening, to the 1514 Memorial at The Horse where he mounted a ladder and bussed the flag of the famous equestrian statue with the blue and gold ribbons.
“The feeling of pride when you lead the cheers after performing this task is unbelievable,” said Ross. “It is a very moving moment.”
It was an eventful weekend for Left-Hand Man Greg Easton who, having won one of the ceremonial races at the Moor on Friday, was unshipped by his horse at the Cobble Pool and dumped into the Teviot.
“My horse reared up and I was more embarrased than anything else...I was wet through anyway and had the added bonus, apart from not being injured, of later finding two salmon in my pocket,” joked Greg.
He managed to complete the ride back to Millpath, but his mount was “a bit stiff” and he was given another horse for Saturday’s ceremonies, a highlight of which was, as ever, the wreath laying at the War Memorial in Wilton Lodge Park.
Back at the Town Hall, Provost Smith, in his second year in the honorary role, paid fulsome tribute to the principals.
“There is no doubt the rain was a problem later on Friday, particularly at the Moor with people huddled under their gazebos, but, as ever in Hawick, the show goes on,” he told TheSouthern. “The way Ross and the other principals carried out their duties was truly astonishing. They were all a credit to themselves, their families and the town while, in Douglas Scott, we had an exceptional chief guest.
“The Common Riding does not just happen by accident and I want to pay tribute to the huge team of committed volunteers – they know who they are – who make it all happen as if by clockwork. They were sorely tested at the weekend, but emerged, as usual, with flying colours.”
Among guests at Friday’s Provost’s Breakfast were golden and silver jubilee Cornets Brian Paterson and Elliot Turnbull respectively, along with Patrick Derham, headmaster of Rugby School which has now offered scholarships to five Hawick High students in an innovative partnership arrangement.
A highlight of that event was an emotional rendering by Iain Scott, brother of chief guest Douglas and a member of the folk rock group Scocha, of the rarely performed Auld Hawick Where I Was Born, written by this correspondent’s maternal great grandfather George Davidson.
Aa’ll sing ’e yet anither sang
O’ Hawick among the hills,
O’ bonnie Teviot’s winding stream
And a’ its dancing rills,
Aa’ll sing o’ bonnie Wilton Lodge
And o’ the Wallace Thorn,
And the dearest spot on earth to me –
Auld Hawick where I was born.