General election candidates split over how sexism should be tackled at Hawick Common Riding

Hawick Common Riding’s officials are being urged to step up their recent efforts to rid the annual event of sexism.

Men and women alike waiting outside the hut at St Leonard's at 2018's Hawick Common Riding.  (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Men and women alike waiting outside the hut at St Leonard's at 2018's Hawick Common Riding. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The participation of women in some parts of the event reared its head in the current UK Government general election campaign today, December 9, with three of the four candidates for the Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk constituency calling for the pace of change to be stepped up and one speaking in favour of a compromise being agreed.

At hustings held by BBC Scotland at the Heart of Hawick, all four contenders were asked to give their opinion on moves to allow women to take part in all of the events making up the common riding, a celebration of a 1514 skirmish near the town.

Women were traditionally involved for centuries but they were barred from taking part in some common riding events in 1931 after a female rider fell off her horse and broke a leg, and that ban remained in place until last year.

Songs being sung inside the hut at St Leonard's at 2013's Hawick Common Riding. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Events such as the Friday morning ride and hut, acting father’s chase and the cornet’s chases were off limits to female riders for decades but are now billed as being open to all.

A campaign to re-admit women to such events gathered momentum in the 1990s, culminating in a partially successful legal action resulting in women being allowed to take part in some events but not others.

It was only in 2018 that women were finally granted permission to take part in all the event’s chases and rideouts.

Despite that apparent progress, Scottish Borders Council has been sent a series of complaints by women over their treatment at the festival, and it is currently withholding its traditional £9,300 annual grant for the event until those equality concerns are resolved.

John Lamont, Jenny Marr, Kirsten Campbell, Ian Davidson and Calum Kerr at BBC Scotland's general election hustings at the Heart of Hawick.

At today’s hustings, BBC political journalist Kirsten Campbell, chairing the debate, asked the panel: “When I was looking at coming down to Hawick, I had a wee Google, and some of the issues which came up fascinated me, and I was wondering where you all stand on women participating in Hawick Common Riding?

“There have been a number of complaints about division, about hostility, so where do you all stand?”

First to answer was Liberal Democrat candidate Jenny Marr. She said: “I appreciate the tradition and how important that is to people, but I think it’s important to move forward.

“I would like to see women be able to participate. I don’t think that’s going to hurt anybody else and we’re progressive here, I like to think, and would like to see it.”

Conservative John Lamont, current holder of the seat, started to answer, saying: “Women take part in a number of the common ridings and festivals across the Borders, and in Hawick there are particular ...”

However, Ms Campbell then interrupted, asking: “But they should be able to do it without having things chucked at them, shouldn’t they?”

Mr Lamont continued: “That was subject to a complaint, which I think went to Scottish Borders Council. I’m not sure if that has been resolved, I don’t want to get too much involved in that particular ...”

Trying to elicit an answer, Ms Campbell again interrupted, asking: “Generally, are you for women taking part or do you think tradition should be maintained?”

Mr Lamont replied: “I’m trying to explain. There are a number of festivals and common ridings across the Borders where women are fully participating.

“In Hawick, parts of the traditions have resulted in this difficulty.

“I hope we can work together to find some sort of solution which allows traditions to be respected while, at the same time, allowing full participation.”

Labour’s Ian Davidson, a Glasgow MP for 23 years, said: “I’m not sure whether John is in favour or not.

“Let me take this opportunity to say that Labour is in favour of women and is fully in favour of women participating in all of the events of Hawick Common Riding irrespective of tradition.

“Nae mair aye been.”

Scottish National Party contender Calum Kerr, MP for the seat from 2015 to 2017, said: “That’s the thing – the aye-been mentality in the Borders is a strength. It gives us community cohesiveness, it means in tough times we fight together, but that can’t let us hold back fundamental rights.

“Of course, I can’t believe John even ducked that. Of course women should participate fully and not be intimidated into not doing so, which is the crux of the issue here.”

Voters go to the polls this Thursday, December 12.