Disappointment as coronavirus forces cancellation of Borders festivals and common ridings for 2020

Organisers of all 10 of the central Borders’ traditional festivals and common ridings have cancelled their celebrations for 2020.

Wednesday, 25th March 2020, 3:57 pm
Jethart Callant Euan Munro gives the battle cry Jethart's Here on Friday morning.

Uncertainty has surrounded the fate of the events in recent weeks as the country contends with the coronavirus pandemic sweeping around the world, triggering first a ban on events likely to attract more than 500 people and, as of this week, gatherings of more than two.

And with Scots now being advised to avoid social contact altogether, common ridings, festivals and civic weeks have had no choice but to abandon this summer’s celebrations.

The first on the calendar, Hawick Common Riding, attracts thousands of people into its town centre each June.

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It was due to announce its cornet and acting father in just under six weeks’ time, but following a meeting of its executive committee last Tuesday, that will now have to wait.

Common riding chairman John Hogg said: “We decided that the right thing to do for safety reasons, and for the safety of folk in Hawick, was to postpone the common riding for this year.

“I visited the cornet-elect and acting father-elect to adise them. That was a very difficult conversation, but I think they knew it was coming. It was disappointing for them.

“They were approached in January and had everything just about organised.

“They are going to call every farmer and landowner involved to explain the situation.

“The majority of people that have a great interest in Hawick Common Riding spend May getting horses ready to follow to the likes of Roberton and Bonchester. Now they have got free weekends.

“All the concerts had been organised and all the clubs had their dinners arranged.

“There’s a lot of work goes on in the background.”

Included in that work over recent months was working with Scottish Borders Council to ensure the common riding meets equality standards going forward after the local authority withheld last year’s £9,300 grant to the festival.

That money was received this month, though, now that equality issues reported following last year’s event have been addressed.

“That grant has now been paid,” Mr Hogg added. “The committee has worked really hard, with a lot of conversation with Scottish Borders Council. We have had equality training and we have worked very hard to get things sorted out with the council.

“We wanted to make sure that we had everything 100% right ,and that’s what we were working on.

“It’s disappointing we cannot put it into practice this year.”

The cornet elect, his lass and the acting father and acting mother will now lead the town’s 2021 event instead.

Selkirk Common Riding Trust has taken the same decision to cancel its event, usually held one week later.

Its clerk, Johnnie Thomson, said: “The borderland, over the centuries, has prevailed through war and pestilence, and yet here in 2020 we have another battle on our hands.

“There must be no doubt that the proven grit and determination of the border spirit throughout history will not surrender easily to this latest challenge.

“Our cherished traditions – our heritage – demand that we plan with force and determination of mind to bounce back next year with even more vigour than before.”

He added that while there might be a chance later on in the year for an “extremely curtailed” event, that won’t be decided for at least three months from now.

Yetholm Festival Week, supposed to run the same week as Selkirk’s celebrations, has also been called off by its organisers.

Peebles has seen the call-off of its 2020 Beltane festival, usually held in the third week in June, but its organiserscremain hopeful the town can still celebrate in some form later in the year.

Peebles March riding and Beltane queen festival committee chairman George Blair said: “Since the resurrection of the riding of the marches in 1897, and the introduction of the Beltane queen festival in 1899, our focus has been on the enjoyment and benefit of the townsfolk of the royal burgh of Peebles.

“Similarly, for the health and wellbeing of those same townsfolk, we have made the difficult decision not to appoint principals, including the Beltane queen and court, and cancel Beltane for this year.

“We are, of course, hugely aware of the history and traditions of our town and hope that, as the year progresses and restrictions are relaxed, we can mark Beltane 2020 in some way.”

Melrosian-elect Douglas Crawford, announced in January, will have to wait for his turn in the saddle now that the Melrose’s annual celebrations, due to run from June 14 to 20, are also called off.

Melrose Festival chairman Rob Moffat said: “This is a real disappointment for the community as a whole as it is a time in the year when we can celebrate together all that is good in Melrose.

“It is particularly disappointing for the Melrosian-elect and the court, which would have been announced on May 1.

“We will try to celebrate the festival, albeit in a much smaller form, later in the summer.”

Galashiels Braw Lads’ Gathering, due to take place the last week in June, has also been abandoned.

A spokesperson for the gathering said: “In line with advice from the government, we have taken the unfortunate decision to cancel this year’s Braw Lads’ Gathering in its entirety.”

The Jethart Callant’s Festival, usually held over the first week in July, was first to call off, with convener Robert MacDonald saying that decision was made with “much regret and sadness”.

“Whilst the traditions of our town are dear to our hearts, we must act responsibly and consider the health and wellbeing of our townsfolk,” he said.

“It may be that before the end of the year, as long as the crisis has passed, we will be able to come together as a community to mark festival 2020 in some small way.

“Thank you for your understanding in this difficult time.”

Neighbouring festivities the week after, during Kelso Civic Week, won’t take place either.

Kelso Laddies’ Association chairman Tom Weatherston said: “Whilst we understand that this will be very disappointing news for so many of our supporters, we consider this to be the only sensible and responsible option to ensure the safety and welfare of the people of Kelso and further afield, and we sincerely thank you for your understanding during these unprecedented difficult times.

“We have already started planning to deliver an enjoyable and successful civic week in 2021 and hope that we can rely on your continued support.”

Innerleithen’s St Ronan’s Border Games are postponed as well.

Stewart Wilson and Keith Belleville, joint secretaries of the event, said: “Our aim each year is to enjoy the health, safety and enjoyment of our townsfolk and visitors during the festival, and the Covid-19 pandemic makes it impossible for us to guarantee those aims.

“The severity of the situation that has brought about our announcement can be quantified by the fact that the games have run every year since their inception in 1827, only ever being cancelled in the past during the Crimean and first and second world wars.”

Lauder Common Riding, the last to take place in the central Borders, usually over the second week in August, held off until until Monday before bowing to the inevitable.

Its chairman, Michael Middlemiss, said: “Scottish Borders Council advised the committee that while decisions to hold events must always be the responsibility of the individual event organisers, at this time the council’s clear advice is that we should cancel our event.

“Lauder Common Riding committee first and foremost must ensure the safety of all those participating in its events. With the unanimous backing of the committee, and in the interests of the community, we have agreed that Lauder Common Riding 2020 cannot proceed under current conditions.

“We will not elect our cornet in May. It would be unfair on that individual, given events across the Borders will also be severely curtailed.

“It may be that, as long as the crisis has passed, that we will be able to come together as a community in some way to celebrate our ancient traditions.”

“We remain fully committed to fulfilling our historical obligations of checking the burgh boundaries at an appropriate time and appropriate manner if and when circumstances permit.

“We hope that this decision will have the backing of the people of the royal and ancient burgh of Lauder.”