How Berwick looked to history as Scots went to the polls

Berwick's annual film festival is attracting thousands to the town as it looks ahead to a changing political landscape

The singers from Hawick bring Scottish fervour to Berwick
The singers from Hawick bring Scottish fervour to Berwick

On referendum day in Berwick the sound of five fiery Scots caused a flutter in a tremulous English breast.

The singing of the Hawick men harked back to a time when territorial issues were settled not with votes but with swords, pikes and night-time raids.

“This one’s not very complimentary about the English,” said one of the five, before launching into another ballad of bitter border conflict.

“But it’s not personal,” he added.

Shrouded in a grey mist, Berwick – quiet as a country churchyard after 9pm – had appeared to be holding its breath on Thursday as the democratic process unfolded over the border, just a couple of miles up the road.

The action came courtesy of the 10th Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival, taking place this weekend and with the theme of Border Crossing to tie in with the referendum.

In the Gymnasium Gallery an audience gathered for the world premiere of The Lawes of the Marches, a film installation by artist Katie Davies whose six-month residency in Berwick was coming to an end.

The audience watching The Lawes of the Marches
The audience watching The Lawes of the Marches

Katie’s film focuses on the common ridings, the ancient Borders custom of riding the marches (boundaries) of the common land.

The artist, from Bristol, is no stranger to borders. A previous work focused on the demilitarised zone which keeps North and South Korea apart. But she said she knew nothing about the common ridings until she spoke to Ed Swales, chief marshall for Berwick.

“He told me about Berwick common riding and that was the first one I’d seen. Then I went up to Hawick, which is huge. I came to realise each of the town’s traditions is different and I thought it was important to look at the differences between them.”

The Lawes of the Marches is the name of a document dating from 1553, now held in the archives at Alnwick Castle, which lays out principles of governing the land in the time of the border reivers – the time recalled in the dramatic, colourful and utterly serious annual tradition of the common ridings.

Katie’s film shows the ritual, the costume, the loud proclamations, the flag waving and the mass horseback rides that feature in these annual markings of territory.

But it begins with two heads. The first (talking) is that of Paul Wheelhouse, MSP for South Scotland and a Berwickshire-based member of the SNP (“We must accept Scotland’s verdict, but we must also ensure London parties deliver on powers ‘vow’. Today 1 Million Scots remain in poverty,” he Tweeted yesterday).

The second head (listening) is Lord Purvis of Tweed, a Berwick-born Lib Dem peer who leads Reform Scotland’s Devo Plus cross-party group.

Katie says she had wanted to “build layers” in the film, making links between the history behind the common ridings and the debate leading up to the referendum.

Katie Davies whose film The Lawes of the Marches is showing in Berwick
Katie Davies whose film The Lawes of the Marches is showing in Berwick

Michael Aitken, who appears in Katie’s film, has been Hawick’s official song singer for the common riding since 2000. “Only the third since the war,” he said after the performance in the Gymnasium.

The common riding, he said, “celebrates our own history and the battle of 1514” (when the youth of Hawick captured an English flag”).

Of the referendum outcome, this proud Scot said: “I can’t see what difference it’s going to make.”

Scotland would still be Scotland and England would be England but the traditions would still be upheld with characteristic passion.

Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival runs until Sunday with installations at locations around the town and screenings and performances at The Maltings Theatre & Cinema attracting thousands of visitors.

Matthew Rooke, chief executive of The Maltings and a Scottish resident, said before the result was known that any outcome had a potential bearing on the business.

“Every third ticket we sell is to somebody with a Scottish postcode,” he said.

“For us as a business, although we receive public grants from England for which we are really grateful, we have to earn three times as much money through trading and attracting customers as we secure from grants.

“Given that one third of all the tickets we sell are to people in Scotland, anything which might restrict the flow of people and money over the border is a cause for concern.

“That’s the reality here and perhaps explains why the Borders itself is very much a ‘No’ area, if you’ve read the projections.”

Lynne Ellerby, an ex-teacher who runs a B&B in Berwick and has a son living in Scotland, said after the result was known: “I’m pleased for the country as a whole. I didn’t want it to break up.

“But I’m originally from Sunderland. I moved here seven years ago and I’ll never be accepted. There are a lot of incomers, people who have come when they retired.”

Berwick, she said, needed investment. “We could have a marina. People have disposable income these days and they like boats.

“Guests tell me they’ll go and have a drink overlooking the river and I say, ‘No you won’t’. There’s no bar overlooking the river.”

Estate agents’ windows in the town show a multitude of bargains, house prices slashed. Lynne, who wants to retire, said her place had been on the market for three years.

This weekend’s film festival visitors will be struck by the picturesque nature of the town but also the number of empty buildings.

If money accompanies the power whizzing from Westminster to Scotland to honour that “vow” noted by Paul Wheelhouse, residents of England’s most northern border town will look on enviously.

In an area where history is potent, Lynne said: “Berwick could be a wealthy town like it was in the Middle Ages.”


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