The ‘Bounds’ refers to the Bounds of the Liberties of Berwick-upon-Tweed, the land between the border and the River Tweed. The first description of the Bounds is in a charter created by Robert Bruce after he took the town in 1318 but this land extended only a little north of where the medieval walls stood (the Bell Tower area). Today’s border between England and Scotland was defined in a truce in 1438. However, it was not legally binding and in 1542, it was stated that the Bounds were “to be perambulated so often as to keep them well known.” This would have been carried out by the town’s garrison.
In 1603 the Union of the Crowns saw King James VI of Scotland become James I of England. In 1604, he granted a Royal Charter to the Guild of Freemen in which many of their rights and privileges that still exist today were laid down. Prior to this Charter, most of the land within the Bounds was common land, free for all to use – Freemen and non-Freemen alike – for grazing animals and gathering hay (hence Liberties). The Charter granted this land to the Freemen but the practice of common pasturing and haymaking continued. This gave rise to annual land disputes and in 1605 it was decided to divide the land into defined meadows. However, this did not take place until 1608 and the burgesses were ordered to pay 6d (21/2p) for every acre of land they owned to pay for creating a boundary ditch between England and Scotland. In 1609, the “Riding of the Bounds” to check the integrity of these land divisions and ditch took place. In the first year the Riding was completed twice, but since, it has taken place on 1st May.
Many of the customs still observed took place in the early days; the decorating of the horses with ribbons, a race at Canty’s Bridge (said to commemorate the crossing of the Border by Margaret Tudor on her way to be married to James IV of Scotland in 1502) and a meal afterwards for the participants. The ceremony has taken place every year with few exceptions such as between 1726 to 1729, when it was cancelled due to lack of funds, the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak and most recently in 2020 when the ride was cancelled due to the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic. This affected the entire common riding season and their were no ridings held at all that year.
In 2017 discussions about dwindling numbers of riders, spectators and helpers (to ensure the smooth and more importantly safe running of the ride out) Berwick Riders Association with full support of the Freeman it was decided to break with tradition and hold the ride on the Saturday of the May bank holiday. This means that the date will vary slightly every year.
Although this caused some controversy within Berwick, the majority of locals were fully supportive of the change. This change has proved to be very successful over the last few years.