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History of the Common Riding

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In 1759, the three owners of the Ten Merk Lands of Langholm were parties in an action in the Court of Session in Edinburgh for the delimitation of certain areas of ground in and around the town. The boundaries were duly defined, but in the award it was laid down by the Court that the Burgesses of Langholm had certain legal rights and privileges, and that part of the Ten Merk Lands, particularly the Common Moss and the Kilngreen, had belonged inalienably to the community.

As a result of this award, it became an obligation of the Burgesses that the boundaries of the communal possessions should be clearly defined, and accordingly beacons and cairns were erected and pits were dug to indicate where the communal lands began and ended, and a man was appointed to go out each year to repair the boundary marks and to report any encroachments.

The first man to perform this duty was “Bauldy” (Archibald) Beattie, the Town Drummer, who walked the Marches for upwards of half a century. He died in 1823, aged 90 years, and is buried in Langholm Churchyard, where a tombstone suitably inscribed was erected to his memory by the Common Riding Committee of 1829.

The inscription relates how “Bauldy” kept up the ancient custom of proclaiming the Langholm Fair at the Mercat Cross after going round the Common granted to the town and pointing out to the inhabitants thereof the various boundaries of those rights which descended from their ancestors to posterity.

According to the records it was in the year 1816 that the Riding of the Common began. The first person to ride on horseback over the Marches was Archie Thomson, landlord of the Commercial Inn. In the previous year, Thomson, like “Bauldy”, his predecessor, went over the boundaries on foot alone; but on the present occasion he was accompanied by other townsmen – John Irving, of Langholm Mill; and Frank Beattie, landlord of the Crown Inn, being probably the most prominent. These local enthusiasts, sometimes referred to as “the Fathers of the Common Riding”, were responsible for introducing horse racing, which took place the same year on the Kilngreen, Langholm’s ancient commonty. Horse racing was continued here until the year 1834, when the races and sports were transferred to the Castleholm.

With the introduction of horsemen, there followed in 1817, the selection of a leader or Cornet who would act as Master of Ceremonies during the proceedings and activities of Common Riding Day. W. Pasley, a manufacturer in the town, had the honour of becoming Langholm’s first Cornet. Until 1843 the Cornet was chosen entirely from residents in the Old Town of Langholm, this being quite natural seeing that in a strictly legal sense the Common and all the privileges and rights conferred by the Award of the Court of Session belonged to them alone. However, in 1843 a departure was made from this practice by the choice of a resident in the New Town of Langholm when Robert Anderson, a blacksmith, was elected, being the first “Meikleholmer”, or resident in the New Town, to attain that honour.

Since 1890, in response to public demand, the selection of a Cornet and a Committee of Management had been decided at a public meeting of the inhabitants of the town. If there is more than one candidate for the Cornetship the selection is made by ballot. In 2014 the Committee of Management was superseded by Trustees & Members when Langholm Common Riding became a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation.

In 1919 it was decided that the Common Riding be always held on the last Friday in July.

What must be one of the most unique customs of any Common Riding is claimed by Langholm. The colours of the ribbons for the rosettes worn by the Cornet, Ex-Cornets, Members, and other officials, and the colours used in decorating the browbands of the horses of the Cornet and his Right and Left-Hand Men, are taken from the racing colours of the owner of the winning horse in the Derby. Like many other customs, large and small, connected with the festival, a definite date cannot be put down for the origination of this practice. It is known, however, that it was in vogue in the 1880s, and there is some indication that it may have been started in the early part of that decade. Various attempts have been made to have “permanent” colours, but these were unfavourably received by the townspeople, and no doubt the outcome of the great classic at Epsom will be eagerly looked forward to for many years to come.

Undoubtedly the most interesting feature of the Common Riding is the Crying of the Fair. Langholm Fair, once one of the most important in the country, and Langholm Common Riding have no necessary or historical connection beyond the fact that the Common Riding was held on the day following the Summer or Lamb Fair. The Crying of the Fair falls into three parts.

The first part calls upon the townspeople to go out in defence of their rights; the Fair itself is the ancient proclamation, and the conclusion expresses the satisfaction which comes from a duty faithfully performed.

In 1845 the first Hound Trail in connection with the Common Riding was run. This takes place at 6.30 a.m. and is a race between specially bred and trained foxhounds over a ten mile circuit in the Ewes valley. The “Langholm Classic”, as the Common Riding Trail is termed in trailing circles on the Borders, is still looked upon as the “blue riband” of the sport.

In 1939, the Castleholm, where the Common Riding races and games had been held for over a century, was requisitioned by the Military as the site of a permanent camp, and from then until 1957 the venue was transferred to Milntown. On the derequisition of the Castleholm it was found to be quite unsuitable for a return thereto of the annual festival, but it was the expressed wish of the Langholm people to revert back to “auld style”, which was readily approved by His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch, and the ground was put in order, and after a lapse of 19 years the Common Riding returned in 1958 to its old home.

Langholm Fair and Langholm Common Riding have no necessary or historical connection beyond the fact that the Common Riding was held the day following the Summer Fair.

The following are the names of those who have officiated as Langholm Fair Criers:-

  • Jamie Ferguson – first recorded Fair Crier. He was appointed Bailie for the Laird o’ Railton, and lived within the Common-right of Langholm near to Middlemoss.
  • Archibald Beattie (Bauldy Beattie).
  • Peter Graham (Pete Wheep).
  • David Hounam
  • John Irving, who cried the Fair for 25 years.
  • Andrew Johnstone
  • Robert Nisbet
  • John Wilson
  • Christopher Elliot (1909-1931)
  • John Elliot (1932-1972)
  • John Govenlock Elliot (1973–2002) and his son…
    John Rae Elliot the present Fair Crier, who on the eventful day is hoisted on to the broad back of a horse and here proclaims in guid auld style, the Langholm Fair to the great concourse of eager expectant townsfolk assembled in the ancient Market Place.

One of the features of Langholm Common Riding is the quaint emblems which are carried in the procession:-

First there is the BARLEY BANNOCK and the salted herring fastened by a large nail – a “twal-penny nail”- to a wooden platter and flourished aloft on a pole. The bannock symbolises certain of the privileges of the Baron under the obligation of thirlage, while the fish may be symbolic of the Baron’s right to the fisheries in the Esk or merely of the necessity of having some “kitchen” or relish to go with the decidedly dry fare of the bannock.

Next emblem is the SPADE, the very epitome of the Common Riding, used as it is for cutting sods at different points of the Common and for clearing out the pits which originally marked the boundaries on the Common Moss up Whita Hill.

Third emblem is a gigantic Scottish THISTLE, a most picturesque accompaniment. The origin and purpose of the introduction of the thistle is very obscure. Being the national emblem of Scotland, it may have been adopted as such, or possibly on account of its “jags” as a warning to anyone who contemplated interfering with the Fair.

The fourth emblem is the floral CROWN. It has no historical significance, and may have been adopted as a symbol of loyalty to the sovereign.

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