Riding roughshod over tradition

A bid by women to join in an old male ritual is causing ructions. Steve Boggan reports
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The Independent Online
It wasn't the usual cries of "whore" and "slag" that took Mandy Graham by surprise. It was the attack that followed.

"There were three of them and one started kicking me," she said. "And it was in broad daylight, at about 1pm." In some ways, the incident echoed the night several months earlier when her best friend, Ashley Simpson, had beer poured over her head by a group of men.

Mandy, 21, and Ashley, 22, have grown used to being abused, accustomed to cars slowing down and men - and women - calling them sluts. They have stopped going out at night, but that doesn't stop the daytime dose of disparaging remarks.

They have taken a stance that has alienated them from half the population of the old Scottish town of Hawick, a stance that has caused deep divisions among men and women, brother and sister, husband and wife. Yet all this fuss is about daring to say that they want to ride alongside men in an ancient Hawick ritual.

The women decided last April that they would like to take part in the Hawick Common-Riding, a series of rituals over six weeks in which horsemen from the town stage 16 set-piece rides to all parts of the town boundaries.

The tradition goes back to 1514 when a rabble of English soldiers was routed by the town's youths in a skirmish at Hornshole, a hangover from the earlier English victory at Flodden. The youths took the English flag and rode triumphantly home. Ever since, it has been the custom to check the town boundaries annually, with a chosen flag-bearer, the Cornet, heading a main procession on a Friday in early June.

The women's attempts to join in were greeted with anger, jeering and open hostility.

"It was quite upsetting and it can still be a bit scary, but we don't regret what we are trying to do," Mandy said. "There is absolutely no reason why women should not join in - we have only asked to take part in some of the smaller events, not the big one, but I think they feel threatened by us."

It would be easy to assume the matter was a straightforward case of sexism but many townsfolk of both sexes say it is not. There are men on the women's side and there are women on the side of the all-male Common-Riding Committee.

"It's tradition and I don't think we should mess about with tradition," said one grandmother, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals. "It has always been an event for the men, and there are women's roles too. There is the Cornet's Lass, who ties blue and yellow ribbon to the flag, and she chooses maids of honour. We women should be happy with those roles."

Such talk would make some Hawick men sick. One of those is Norman Pender, a former Scottish rugby international and chairman of the Lady Riders Association. "I don't buy the traditionalist argument because we know that women were allowed to ride until 1932, when the all-male committee voted to exclude them," he said.

"This is about sexism. These women have been treated disgracefully.

"They are fine horsewomen and grew up watching the Common-Riding every year and they grew to love it. Why shouldn't they take part in it?"

On Wednesday, the town's 16,000 population was invited to take part in an unprecedented referendum on whether women should be allowed to take part in all events, something that not even the women themselves have asked for.

The Lady Riders Association called on the townsfolk to boycott the ballot, and so claimed victory when only 2,794 turned out to vote. But the Common- Riding Committee, too, claimed victory because those who did take part voted 2,207 to 587 against the women.

"It beats me how they managed to claim victory out of that," said one member of the Common-Riding Committee. He and other members refuse to speak openly pending a Sheriff's Court hearing in the New Year on the legality of their ban.

"We aren't being sexist. A new organisation has sprung up out of this - the Supporters of Hawick, its Customs and Traditions Committee. That has 1,600 members and half of those are women.

"It is something more complicated than sexism. It is in your blood. It is about that day when the young lads of the town scored that victory over the English. And, quite simply, there were no women there."