Selkirk Common Riding - A Guide
For on that Common Riding Friday, the Royal and Ancient Burgh of Selkirk will remember, as it has done every year since the Battle of Flodden, the day 80 able bodied men aged 16 to 60 who left the town to fight for King James IV, with only one returning.
An estimated 10,000 Scots died beside their King, the last British monarch to be killed in battle, at Flodden near Coldstream on September 9, 1513, where Henry VIII’s English army, led by Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey, inflicted the heaviest defeat in Scottish history.
Before most are awake that Smiling Morn, Royal Burgh Standard Bearer Scott Rodgerson, the 28-year-old son of a Selkirk newsagent, will have added his name to the town’s ancient history, like his brother Martin two years before.
For from the moment he is roused by Selkirk’s Flute Band band at 4am, Scott represents - like every Royal Burgh Standard Bearer in Selkirk’s Common Riding before him including his grandfather George and father Brian - a man called Fletcher: the only Selkirk man, or ‘Souter’, to return alive from Flodden half a millennium ago.
The town’s hallowed legend tells of Selkirk’s families sighting Fletcher, anxious to discover what fate had befallen their sons, husbands, fathers and brothers. Casting a captured English standard around his head, and lowering its tip to the ground, Fletcher conveyed to all who gathered that everyone was slain. The legend, and grief, of Flodden has been woven into Selkirk’s ancient Common Riding traditions ever since.
At the 6:45am ‘Bussin’ before Fletcher’s statue, the Royal Burgh Flag is presented to the Royal Burgh Standard Bearer by the Provost, who wishes him and his cavalcade of 300-400 horseriders ‘safe oot, safe in’ around Selkirk’s boundaries.
The Provost charges him to return the town’s flag – symbolising its honour – ‘unsullied and untarnished’.
A Lady Busser ties, or ‘busses’, ribbons to the Royal Burgh Flag, recalling the ancient custom of a knight’s lady tying colours to his lance before battle.
After riding the ‘marches’ or boundaries of the Burgh’s common lands, (a protective custom dating back almost 1,000 years in Scotland), thousands line Selkirk’s Toll road to cheer the Royal Burgh Standard Bearer and his Attendants, charging at full gallop and dressed in bowler hats, tweeds, breeches and ribbons, safely back into town.
The climax of Selkirk Common Riding every year is The Casting of the Colours, taking place immediately after the Riding of the Marches in the town’s Market Place at 11am, where the Royal Burgh Standard Bearer and Standard Bearers from Selkirk’s six guilds cast their Flags to the old tune Up wi’ the Souters o’ Selkirk.
The role of Royal Burgh Standard Bearer is the highest honour a young man in Selkirk can receive from his town. “A Souter’s lifetime ambition passes in a minute,” one Ex-Standard Bearer observed, in wistful pride that all of Scott’s predecessors will recognise.
When finally the Standard Bearer for the Ex-Soldiers lowers his flag’s point to the ground, there follows a profound and moving silence in the crowd, only broken two minutes later by Selkirk’s Silver Band playing ‘Flowers of the Forest’, known locally as ‘The Lilting’. The Scots folk song, written by Jean Elliot circa 1756, laments the generations of Borderers lost at Flodden: ‘The Floo’ers o’ the Forest are a’ wede away’.
The theme that runs through Selkirk Common Riding is ‘returning’.
The return of the flag, and all the horses and riders in their hundreds, back into the heart of the town is always the most emotional moment – for 500 years ago, and in many wars since, many of Selkirk’s own never saw home again.
That’s why Selkirk’s cheers are loudest, when every single horserider returns charging up the Toll, and when the Royal Burgh Standard Bearer has cast the town’s Flag ‘safe oot, safe in’.