Back in Kirkwall we made a beeline to the ferry office and booked our passage to Hoy. That settled, we loaded the Kirkwall app and set off to continue the guided walking tour we’d started weeks before but never finished. By this time we’ve seen most of the important sites. The tour ended at the cathedral and as we approached the street was uncharacteristically lined with people, with more coming.
We asked a man with a couple of cameras around his neck what was brewing. “They’re bringing some horses through; I’m not really sure.”
It was obvious by his accent that he wasn’t a local but we staked out a spot on the wall in front of the cathedral fence to wait. We saw the local dignitaries in their finery, and tens of crowd control volunteers positioned along the street. Obviously something important was about to happen.
Soon the Kirkwall City Pipe Band assembled in front of the cathedral and spectators surged up the steps to watch. Jack held our prime spots on the wall while I muscled through the crowd to the band.
When the band finished, the safety volunteers patrolled the wall where we were sitting and instructed us all to go up the steps and behind the fence. We were expecting a parade and wondered why we should move so far away from the action. “You’ll want to be behind the fence,” they urged with a knowing look.
We found a spot behind the fence just in time to hear the mayor (we think) begin a very long welcome address with a bit of history of the pageant we were about to witness. We understood very little of it, of course, but with the help of our spectator neighbors and Professor Google we got the 411.
This is the Riding of the Marches, also called Common Riding. It’s a Scottish tradition dating from the 13th to 15th centuries when there were frequent raids on the towns along the Anglo-Scottish border. To protect the clan from reivers, the local lord appointed a townsperson to ride the borders, or marches.
Nowadays, many towns stage an annual ceremonial Riding of the Marches to celebrate their history. The most well known takes place in Edinburgh, but we could tell Kirkwall loves their tradition too. I think everyone in town came out for the festivities.
At the appointed time the lead riders arrived and lined up facing the dignitaries.
It was soon clear why we needed to move back. Some of the horses took issue with the length of the ceremony and we were glad we weren’t sitting eye to eye with an impatient 500kg beast eager to toss his rider and move on.
After much speechifying and presenting of the flag to the lead rider the procession began.
They would ride to the harbour, then follow a route that will take them along the border of Kirkwall, returning to the center of town in about two hours. We were home by then at one of our favorite waterfront parkups when Jack spied the horses approaching from the direction of the cruise ship dock.
We ran out to catch a few photos but the drizzle and early evening chill sent us right back home again for a quiet night and a warm dinner.