The first documentation of Musselburgh’s ancient ceremony can be found in the Town Council Minutes on the 16th of October 1682. Earlier written records of the event held by the council were destroyed in a fire at the Town House in 1544.
It is thought that the ceremony could date further back to the granting of Musselburgh’s first charter in 1124 from David I. The marches or common ridings are believed to have started as a religious pilgrimage following a route of crosses. The reformation and continuous conflicts between the Scottish and English borders changed the nature of the religious processions to civic ceremonies. The church which could no longer offer its protection to the townsfolk, common land and property led to opportunist barons and lords posing a threat to the boundaries with their small but intimidating armies. Thieving neighbouring landowners also took advantage of lost and overgrown markers by adjusting boundaries.
In response every twenty one years the local lord would appoint a townsperson to ride out to reinforce the rights of the townsfolk and inspect the boundaries or ‘Marches’. The appointed Turf Cutter protected by the town champion would be followed by an entourage of squires, town officers, magistrates, councillors, burgesses, seven trades, townsfolk and piper. Marking out the boundary stones by announcing their claim the Turf Cutter would ride out and cut a piece of turf from the ground. This action was an important ritual of the ancient ceremony of Sassine. At twelve locations along the route the turf was cast over his shoulder and at each marker he cried out “It’s A ‘Oor Ain!”. This custom has barely changed since 1682.
Early records describe the procession of 1732 in which a dispute took place between the weavers and tailors over the order of precedence in the parade. The weavers won the argument but were subsequently beaten by the butchers who took sides with the tailors.
The First World War saw a break in tradition with the 1914 event being cancelled. In 1919 a ‘Peace Riding’ celebrated the victorious end of the war and remembrance of the fallen. From 1919 the procession became its current weeklong event. In 1935 the celebration took place alongside the Silver Jubilee of George V. The ceremony was said to be the “greatest Riding of the Marches ever”. The success of the 1935 riding saw the creation of The Honest Toun’s Association.
In 1956 a special ceremony took place in which the Queen Mother presented the Turf Cutter with a ceremonial spade and witnessed the digging of the turf. The local government re-organisation threatened the future of the event when the Musselburgh Town council was replaced by East Lothian District council in 1975. This was not to be as the importance of the event was clear to all principles and burgh Councillors who has witnessed previous events and experienced the benefits to the community and its historical importance. From this welcome decision this wonderful display of Musselburgh’s ancient heritage remains today.