THE townsfolk gathered in their droves and waited on the doorstep of the Lord Provost.
At 11am every October 31, they embarked on one of Edinburgh’s most important civic duties – making sure the boundaries and common land of Scotland’s Capital were protected.
The practice was so important to the city and its people that anyone who used the common land or who owned a horse and did not take part would be fined.
But that practice died out in the 18th century. Today, participation is not quite as enforced.
The 21st century Edinburgh Riding of the Marches – which takes place tomorrow – sees a band of dedicated volunteers re-enact the tradition of riding round the city boundaries, with residents gathering along the route to show their support.
The modern day route leaves from the Drum Estate in Gilmerton at 9.30am and horses ride through Moredun, Gilmerton, and Liberton as well as Craigmillar, Duddingston and Holyrood Park before going up the Royal Mile where they finish at the Mercat Cross. This year’s first officer John Baxter explains: “1579 was the first written record of the common riding in Edinburgh but it’s believed it had been going on for a lot longer than that.
“It went on until 1718 but because of the Act of Union between Scotland and England there was no need to go and check on boundaries and make sure no one was encroaching on your land. In 1946 it was revived to celebrate peace after the Second World War, but then that was it until 2009 when its was revived for the Homecoming.”
This year marks a special year for the Edinburgh Riding of the Marches as it is commemorating the 100-year anniversary since the outbreak of the First World War.
The Association is working with Poppyscotland, and there will be a minute’s silence when the riders reach the Mercat Cross, where they will be meeting the Lord Provost.
“This year is a special one because we are commemorating the outbreak of the First World War,” says John. “A million horses went to serve in the war and about 65,000 came back to the UK. In the early years they were used in cavalry charges. Of course they were totally useless against machine guns and tanks.”
But the main aim of the ride is to get Edinburgh residents out on to the streets to show support of the event – which is simultaneously one of the oldest and one of the newest common ridings in Scotland.
“We got an amazing response in Moredun last year. There were people out with banners.
“We went into the community to let people know beforehand. We thought we would have a couple of people poking their heads out the window but to see a couple of hundred people lining the street and having street parties was just awesome.
“It’s nice for us riding the horses through the city but there’s no point in doing it if there’s no one to support it.”
Tour guide John, 28, adds: “Edinburgh always looks its best when it’s nice and busy. To see that many horses going up the Royal Mile must be quite a spectacle – I never get to see it from that angle, but I bet it looks amazing.
“As long as the sun shines and the people come out, that will make it a great day.”
A week before the big day, event organisers go back to the roots of the common riding by marking out the original boundaries – including the Meadows – on foot.
“It’s essentially celebrating the people of Edinburgh and their right to land,” John explains. “We do a walk a week before the ride around the Flodden Wall and mark the ancient boundaries as they were then. We inspected the Meadows on foot as a symbolic gesture.”
This year’s Edinburgh captain – who will be riding at the forefront – is Stuart Mitchell, a police sergeant based at Drylaw.
He says: “I’m absolutely delighted to have the opportunity to lead 300 horses round the boundaries and up the Royal Mile.
“I only learned to ride in 2010 and since then I’ve taken part in 40 common rides in various towns, where a number of us represent Edinburgh. We have representation from more than 20 towns taking part on Sunday.
For more information and details of the route, visit www.edinburghridingthemarches.co.uk.