FOR 13 miles south-west of Hawick, the A7 carves a slender grey ribbon through southern Teviotdale to the secluded Mosspaul Inn, running parallel to the English border that writhes some 12 miles to the south-east.
As a Hawick native (or “Teri”) exiled in London, I know the road well. But for once I’d be deserting the Tarmac to head cross-country on horseback to Mosspaul and back in one of several “ride-outs” that form the backbone of Hawick’s annual Common Riding, the first in the season’s string of such festivals across the Borders that mark the mounted defence of these verdant valleys during wilder times.
As with many Common Ridings, Hawick’s is inextricably linked to 1513’s martial blunder at Flodden that saw James IV’s army cut down by an underweight English force. Hawick’s massive sacrifice comprised most of its men aged 16 to 60. But civic pride was healed a year later when the apparently defenceless town’s remaining youths routed an English raiding party at nearby Hornshole. This act of bravery and defiance is fêted annually by the Common Riding through song, ritual and ride-out, the most challenging of which is said to be the Mosspaul route.
Six months ago I didn’t know gaskin from girth, but Hornshole’s quincentenary provided the motivation to learn. Alongside an outright lack of experience, barriers to success included back problems that forced me to assume a thigh-burning half-squat “light-seat” position to protect my spine above walking pace, and that the bulk of my weekly lessons consisted of Womble-dodging on Wimbledon Common, not leaping burns and galloping windswept uplands.
The eve of the ride-out was marked by a dinner, open to those who’d already won their bronze Mosstrooper’s badge by completing the ride-out and first-timers alike.
Welcome encouragement came from electrician Ross Gibson, 24, this year’s “Cornet” – the man with the lead role during the Common Riding: “When you ride back into town tomorrow night, you’ll feel like you’ve won the World Cup and an Olympic gold medal in one,” he says.
The next day, some 200 riders – including 2013 Grand National winner and Galashiels ex-Braw Lad Ryan Mania – mustered behind the High Street. I’d been allocated an unfamiliar horse: a tall, handsome grey mare called Xena – a “kicker”, no less. Just before we trailed out of Hawick under a damp noon sky, a lady rider only just clung on as her horse reared up ahead of me. Hip flasks were shared to calm nerves.
After the long trot out of town everyone safely cantered the infamously lumpy Pilmuir field – known for emptying even seasoned saddles – but I soon took an at least partially deserved ear-bashing from another rider after Xena lashed at his horse. Despite keeping my hands “soft”, she was also fighting the reins, dragging me forwards – especially precarious as she kept picking up speed downhill. No doubt a more experienced horseman would have managed her better, but fellow riders constantly offered invaluable wisdom: “Keep your heels down… Steady through the vennel… Park her in behind us down this hill.”
As we filed through a gateway, I rapped my shin off a post, then after a long trot through thick, steaming forest and loping canters over ditch-rippled pastures, my legs began to turn to jelly from the constant light-seat. After three hours’ riding, Mosspaul was close, but as we formed up behind the pipe band for the final yards, I’d resigned myself to the disappointment of bowing out.
But a sit-down and sustenance did wonders, so it was back up Meg’s Hill to head for home. What was jelly became stone as cramp struck, but again, the trickiest parts were the steep descents. At the foot of one, a still, folded figure on the ground warned of their dangers, and cries of “loose horse” became more frequent. There were moments to take in the scene, though. Moments to appreciate the beauty of these rolling hills, and the hardship it must have meant to simultaneously cultivate and defend them.
When Hawick’s margins appeared, spirits rose, aided by homeowners dishing out cups of booze. As the drums and brass of the Saxhorn Band led us into town, cheering crowds lined the street. It was a moment I’ll never forget. If you ride, you should do this. And Teri or not, you’ll be made welcome.
• The closing ceremony of Hawick Common Riding takes place today, http://www.hawickcommonriding.com