The Riding of the Bounds

On Wednesday this week it will be May 1st and in Berwick that can mean only one thing – the annual Riding of the Bounds. &nbsp

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Riders and horses set off on patrol!

Now in its 404th year, this colourful event is a familiar sight to many people in Berwick.  But what are its origins, why do we “ride the Bounds” and what are the “Bounds” anyway?  While some boundary ridings occur in other places in England (Lichfield and Richmond) it is a custom that belongs chiefly to the Scottish Borders.  Many towns, notably Hawick have there own Common Ridings which all have their own traditions and origins.

The “Bounds” refer to the Bounds of the Liberties of Berwick-upon-Tweed, the land between the border and the River Tweed.  The first description of the Bounds is in a charter created by Robert Bruce after he took the town in 1318 but this land extended only a little north of where the mediaeval walls stood (the Bell Tower area). 

Map showing the route from and back to Berwick around the Liberties of Berwick.  For practical reasons, the route has to digress from the border a little in places.

Today’s border between England and Scotland was defined in a truce ratified on May 1st, 1438.  This truce lasted only seven years but was abided to intermittently later during periods of more peaceful co-existence between the two nations.  (The fact the truce was ratified on May 1st and that this is the date of the Riding of the Bounds is probably coincidental.)

In 1542, it was stated that the Bounds were “to be perambulated so often as to keep them well known”.  This would have been carried out by the town’s garrison.

In 1603 the Union of the Crowns saw King James VI of Scotland become James I of England. In 1604, he granted a Royal Charter to the Guild of Freemen in which many of their rights and privileges that still exist were laid down.  A common misconception is that the Riding of the Bounds originates with this Charter.  In fact there is no mention of such a thing within it.  

Prior to the Charter, most of the land within the Bounds was common land, free for all to use – Freemen and non-Freemen alike – for grazing animals and gathering hay (hence Liberties).   

The Charter granted this land to the Freemen but the practice of common pasturing and haymaking continued.  This gave rise to annual land disputes.  Before the enclosure of fields, this was a common problem and these disputes were heard at what was known as the “Court Leet”.  This practice still takes place in the village of Laxton, Nottinghamshire, where enclosure never occurred. 

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Laxton Court Leet in session.

In 1605 it was decided to divide the Liberties into defined meadows and “stints”.  The burgesses were ordered to pay 6d (2½p) for every acre of land they owned to pay for creating a boundary ditch between England and Scotland.  However, this did not take place until 1608.  

In 1609, the first “modern” Riding of The Bounds took place to check the integrity of these land divisions and ditch.  In the first year the Riding was undertaken twice, but since, it has taken place on 1st May.  

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The horses assemble in Berwick Barracks.

The day begins at about 9.30am when the riders and horses assemble at the Barracks and prizes for the best dressed horse etc are given out.  They then process down Marygate to the Town Hall where they are greeted by the Mayor and Civic Party.  The Chief Marshall then asks permission of the Mayor for them to ride and inspect the Bounds.  Permission is (hopefully!) given and the riders set off.

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The Chief Marshall addresses the Mayor.

At lunchtime there is a break at Gainslaw Hill Farm and equestrian games are played on the nearby Haugh at Canty’s Bridge.  Many of today’s customs took place in the early days:  the games are said to commemorate the crossing of the border by Margaret Tudor on her way to be married to James IV of Scotland in 1502. 

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Races on the Haugh!

The riders return to town about 3.30pm, where they report to the Mayor that all is well (hopefully!) and after the horses are tended to, a well earned meal is enjoyed by all in the Guild Hall.

The ceremony has taken place every year except between 1726 to 1729, when it was cancelled due to lack of funds.

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The Riding of the Bounds hasn’t always been as popular as today!

Why not take part in this tradition?  Or, if you can, get out and cheer the riders and horses on in the morning, come out and see the games and then greet them back.  I’ll be stewarding during the day so I hope to see you there.

Details of the day are available here.

Berwick Riders Association website for more information.

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