Header image: Langholm Cornet Ruairi Hobson carrying the flag across the River Esk at Langholm Common Riding 2022 (Image credit: Ali Ross, from the public photo album Langholm Common Riding 2022 on Facebook)
I am a proud Borderer, and around this time of year the Scottish Borders sees its regular festivities take place: the common ridings, an old tradition of riding the boundaries of the ‘common land’.
In my final Masters project at the University of Glasgow I dug deeper into this cultural tradition to readdress questions about the meaning of land ownership in an area where little research has been done to link community heritage to the issue of land and local democracy outside the Highlands and Islands.
In doing so I hoped to bridge a gap in Scottish historiography on the Borders and the South of Scotland in the Modern period, a period of time which is rich with recorded history of the land reform struggles of crofters in the Highlands and Islands, but lacking in comprehensive coverage of the Borders, with its historically strong agricultural and textiles industries.
The Borders itself is an oft-forgotten about place. It is a disparate region which faces many of the same rural problems as the Highlands, but without the romantic narrative, and as a result lacking in high-profile coverage. Owing to the area’s geological structure, it lends itself to a mixture of arable farming and sheep-rearing. Many of the Border towns which celebrate common ridings were once industrial mill and textile production centres: Hawick (home to several cashmere makers, including Pringle), Galashiels, Selkirk, Jedburgh, and further down to Langholm.
In the process of my research in Langholm, it came to the fore that cultural symbols such as the common riding were directly related to the historical use of the land. The connection between the two was revealing of the small-c conservative nature of the area, exemplified in the phrase: “a’y bin”, a common Border phrase I’ve always heard (and hated) which reinforces ideas about subservience to a higher power, and symbolises a social conservatism that indicates a contentedness with the way things are.
Land as functional: founding a community
The flat lands around Langholm make good pastures for sheep-grazing and as such the wool trade made the Muckle Toon an early centre of economic activity, with traders from Huddersfield, Halifax, and Leeds travelling to buy the town’s produce in the early 1800s. At one point there were ten mills in the town, and employment was good enough that ‘you could walk out of a job at one mill and get another one the next day or that afternoon.’ Industrial productivity is directly related to the land uses permitted by leases agreed with the land owner (the Duke of Buccleuch). As such, generous land lease agreements were important for Langholm: firstly, only a limited range of agricultural pursuits in the surrounding fields could produce sufficient income for local farmers; secondly, as a result, the town depended on abundant farming stock, as without the supply of raw materials for conversion into textile products, the town would be deprived of its workforce, who would form the soul of the community. The tweed mills in Langholm supported a number of career paths, adding to the vibrancy of the community: from the sheep farmers who supplied the wool, to the weavers, dyers, bleachers, and tailors by whom the raw material would become an item of clothing, and then also the accountants and business managers, not to mention the engineers required to run the waterworks and the looms. In this sense the agricultural basis on which the textile industry was formed in Langholm was not merely subsistence farming, as it effectively constructed the base for which community identity to be built on. The cultural capital of agriculture should not be underestimated in assessing its contribution to local communities, as in particularly rural areas such as the Scottish Borders, its lasting cultural contribution outstrips that of its economic value.
The industrial boom peaked in the early-twentieth century, when the population reached a high of 3,500 in 1901 but by 1951, there were only five tweed mills which were ‘the chief employers of labour in Langholm,’ employing 240 men and 360 women. Langholm has therefore ‘always tended to be a ‘woman’s town’,’ and this is reflected by the fact that everyone I interviewed was female. This ‘woman’s society’ played a key role in building the community, as one interviewee, who had lived in Langholm on and off since the 1960s stated,
They would include me in their conversations, their reminiscences about their time working in the mills, and they would refer to people that they had worked with, and they’d say, “of course you didnae work in the mill”, but they still included me in their stories, and that made me feel very very much part of the community.
Here we see how communal working was significant in contributing to community identity. The shared work created a space within which bonds could be built, and a comradeship formed over shared tasks. Considering this in the contemporary context of community land ownership, this has important implications for the role of the ‘community’ in community land buyouts. Indeed, prospective CRTB purchases are often ‘given meaning locally in terms of the economic (they are expected to lead to sustainable employment) and the ecological, but they also make visible a collective, historically resilient, local, ethic’ (Mackenzie, 2006: 390). Therefore, while the land has a functional application in Langholm’s cultural heritage, its primary contribution lies in its symbolic value, i.e. the role it plays in bringing the community together.
Community identity: ‘Banal Localism’
The 3rd, 4th and 5th Duke of Buccleuch’s ownership of the land during this period of economic productivity has much to answer for in terms of the licences granted to farmers to cultivate the land and rear animals for something more than subsistence farming. One interviewee observed, ‘Langholm has been surrounded, or dominated by Buccleuch Estates forever really […] A lot of things in Langholm were determined by what Buccleuch allowed them to do’. Indeed, much can be gleaned about the 3rd Duke of Buccleuch’s ideology of land ownership from observations about ‘New Langholm’, a small village of 100 houses built in 1778, half a mile up and over the river from the main town. Its structure (image below) shows it to be built by way of a plan with several smaller streets feeding into one main road, which leads to ‘Buccleuch Square’.
Langholm, Ordnance Survey (OS), 1859.
This design reflects the ‘improving’ philosophy instilled by the Scottish Enlightenment also evident in Edinburgh’s New Town. The construction of the village relates directly to maximising productivity, and extraction, as Gwen Kennedy Neville writes,
The people who emigrated into the towns to work in the woollen mills were housed in special tenement housing in areas along the rivers near the mills or down lower expanses of hillside adjoining the town’s ‘high street.’ These newer areas of town are given special names to signify that they were started as ‘new towns’ for workers coming in from the countryside.Kennedy Neville (1979: 101)
As such, a cotton manufactory was established in the village around the same time as its founding, supporting employment for 80 to 100 people. Rent followed a unique formula, whereby tenants paid a small amount for their house, which would give them between two and four acres of land, depending on whether it was one or two storeys. Owing to improvements such as this, the relationship between the Dukes and their tenants is frequently described in positive terms: ‘the Duke affords every facility for improvements and for the comfort of his tenantry’ (Sinclair, 1794: 587). This theme persists across the centuries, as one letter to the Eskdale and Liddesdale Advertiser in 1884 reads upon the 5th Duke’s death,
The late Duke’s relations with Langholm were of the most cordial character, […] Anything that was asked by the inhabitants generally was readily granted, and it was rarely that any reasonable request was refused to individuals. His Grace was one of the most considerate employers who ever lived.Anon, ‘Death of the Duke of Buccleuch’, Eskdale and Liddesdale Advertiser, 23rd April 1884.
Indeed, the ‘presence’ of the Montagu-Douglas-Scotts persists in tangible terms which might be described as something akin to fealty. Drawing on Michael Billig’s concept of ‘banal nationalism,’ in this case, the daily reproduction of local, rather than national, symbols serves to underpin the community’s relationship to the Duke in terms of pride and gratitude. These symbols are subtle but persistent across the physical geography, with the present-day Buccleuch Centre, built on the site of the former Buccleuch Square in New Langholm, surrounded by streets named ‘Henry’, ‘Montagu’, ‘George’, ‘Charles’, ‘Walter’, and ‘John’, all in reference to the Duke or members of the Montagu-Douglas-Scott family.
The idea of an ‘absentee landlord’ often found in the case of CRTB purchases in the Highlands and Islands (Eigg, for example) suggests something of a resentment between the community and the landlord. This, however, is not the case in Langholm, where the offices of the Buccleuch Estates are, where employment as grouse keepers and shepherds supported the local economy during the dying days of the textiles industry, and where this ‘banal localism’ reinforces a more positive conceptualisation of the tenant-landlord relationship. What makes Langholm unique, therefore, is that the community’s relationship with the land is largely characterised by positive relations with the landlord. Langholm’s New Town is symbolic of the dual role land plays in the community’s heritage. On the one hand, it represents its functional value, housing workers which supported its agricultural and textile industries. On the other hand, it provides a space in which a tangible collective memory can be constructed and reproduced, i.e. a gratitude towards the landlord Buccleuch.
Land as symbolic: ‘invented tradition’
The reproduction of symbols is a common theme in the Scottish Borders and extends the role of land beyond its mere functionality in the construction of community identity. In Langholm, this identity is celebrated on the last Friday of July each year, as the town comes together for the Common Riding. Described by interviewees as ‘bigger than Christmas,’ the tradition is found in almost all Border towns in Scotland. One interviewee joked, ‘[the Common Riding] is the sole purpose of a Langholm[ite’s] life. […] Its very central to the life of the town.’ The Common Riding dates back a long time in the history of the town, but the strength of its importance has not died. While the celebration transcends a fortnight in July, the main event is the marking of the boundaries of common land, where the Cornet – a local man elected to represent the town by carrying the flag on excursions to other Border festivals – is accompanied by a cavalcade of horse riders to ride up the moor and perform a ceremony on the common moss granted by charter to the people of Langholm by Lord Nithsdale in 1628. In this, however, is a great irony, for indeed the title ‘common moss’ itself is a symbol, ‘the Common never belonged to the town in the sense of the townspeople being the propriet[ors] of the land included within its bounds or having power to ten or sell it as a piece of heritable property’ (Eskdale and Liddesdale Advertiser, 1891).
It is useful here to draw on Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s concept of ‘invented tradition.’ According to Hobsbawm, this is a set of practices, ‘which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past’ (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983: 1) He observes that, in the case of nationalism, invented tradition is usually established by a ruling elite, and usually to imply continuity with a suitable version of history. Indeed, this continuity is important when set against issues of economic decline, as seen in the textiles industry in Langholm after the Second World War, and into the 1980s, so much that the population declined by 1,200 to 2,311 in 2001. All three interviewees described the closure of local businesses as an important change, two of whom explicitly referred to ‘the expansion of neoliberal capitalism’ as playing a key role in the decline of the traditional industries which supported business in the town.
With the changing fortunes of the town’s industrial life and the eventual decline of the textiles industry, the Common Riding represents stability. Applying Hobsbawm’s theory, the notion of ‘invented traditions’ such as the Common Riding connects the people of Langholm to the land and supports continuity in the identity of the community. As one interviewee noted,
it brings everybody together, […] doing what your father, your grandfather, your great grandfather and your great great grandfather did before you in the same streets, up the same hill, dare I say it, riding the same horses.
In terms of preserving social relations, the ceremony is seen as ‘a way of the town defining itself against the large estate.’ The strengthening of the community identity through traditions such as this, supersedes notions of class and constructs a familial identity in the community, owing to the shared landscape, traditions, and challenges presented by its rural location. This can be linked to the relative conservatism of the Border people, ‘relations between the workers and management are good; in some cases a close personal contact has existed since childhood’ (Houston, 1962). In many ways, these close personal relations mirror the structures of clanship found in the Highlands. As Tom Devine notes, ‘the blood ties between the ruling families and the ordinary clansmen were largely mythical but the assumption of consanguinity […] gave an emotional bond which helped to cement social cohesion within clanship’ (1994: 8). Indeed, the symbolic consanguinity played out through a common connection to the land forms a similar structure. The lack of industrial agitation during periods when others were agitating against their oppressors, indicates this symbolic consanguinity seeped into the industrial relations of the town, preventing conflict between managing and working classes.
The shared traditions performed through the Common Riding reinforce the bonds of symbolic consanguinity, implying both continuity with the past (community spirit lives on), and solidarity in the present (sharing in common success, and pulling together in times of hardship). Therefore, the loss of shared tasks which built industrial solidarity between millworkers and contributed to the vibrancy of the town is cushioned by the continual performance of shared traditions that link its present to its past. The land, thus, acts as a focal point, around which community can come together. Against this context, a cultural repetition is deeply ingrained in the community’s mindset, and while the buyout focused on the future through the creation of a nature reserve for the Tarras Valley, the conservation of the environment as a function of the land, was secondary to its cultural importance.
Texts referenced in this article:
- A. Fiona D. Mackenzie, ‘A working land: crofting communities, place and the politics of the possible in post-Land Reform Scotland’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 31 (2006).
- Gwen Kennedy Neville, ‘Community form and ceremonial life in three regions of Scotland’, American Ethnologist, 6 (1979).
- Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism (United Kingdom: SAGE Publications, 1995).
- E. J. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
- George F. B. Houston, The County of Dumfries. Glasgow, 1962. Print. Third Statistical Account of Scotland 12.
- Sir John Sinclair. The Statistical Account of Scotland, Langholm, Dumfries, Vol. 13, Edinburgh: William Creech, 1794.