Susan Rae: Leith Walk and Hawick Riding

Susan Rae Leith WalkComfy in Susan Rae’s tiny sitting-room, in her flat at the top of Shrubhill, with a cup of tea, I ask her “So why did you move to Edinburgh from the Borders?” I knew she’d moved here seven years ago.

An American once told me, exasperated, “When I ask why you guys always say ‘Well, four hundred years ago – ‘”

This is of course quite untrue. Sometimes, it’s five hundred years ago.

In 1513, an English army commanded by a Spanish Queen destroyed the Scottish army, led by James IV, at Flodden Field. According to strong oral tradition, a few months later in May 1514, a group of men too young to have gone to Flodden rode out from Hawick against an English raiding party said to be under the command of Thomas Dacre, Lord Warden of the English Marches. The story goes, the young men of Hawick defeated the English raiders and captured their flag, riding back to Hawick with it in triumph.

If Susan Rae wins a seat in the 10th September by-election for Leith Walk ward, there will be six Scottish Green councillors on Edinburgh Council again: in 2012 Maggie Chapman won a seat on this ward for the Greens in the first round of voting. Chapman’s going to stand in the North East Region in 2016 and so won’t be living in Edinburgh any more: Deidre Brock, of course, became Edinburgh North and Leith’s first woman and first SNP MP in May. Two women have resigned from Edinburgh Council: the odds look good at least one of them will be replaced by a man.

Nearly three centuries after Flodden Field, James Hogg cemented this Hawick oral tradition in rhyme:

Sons of heroes slain at Flodden,
Imitating Border bowmen.
Aye defend your rights and Common.

The Common Riding of the Borders certainly pre-dates 1514, but the elaborate traditions carried out over the three days of Hawick’s Common Riding are all related to this oral history and poetic tradition.

And since 1932, the year women were banned from joining the Common Riding as followers (something any Hawick-born man who has or can hire a horse can do) it’s become very much an all-male tradition. There are a handful of roles for women – they can be the Bright-Eyed Daughters or the Cornet’s Lass – but traditionally, only men “rode out” and only a man could be elected to be the Cornet or flag-bearer who leads the riding-out. (Fiona Deacon made history when she was elected to be the Royal Burgh Standard Bearer for Selkirk Common Riding last year.)

In this Leith Walk by-election there are seven men and three women standing for two seats. Quite objectively, I would say that the independent candidate John Scott, the UKIPer Alan Melville, the Scottish Libertarian Tom Laird, and the Left Unity candidate Bruce Whitehead, really have no chance. Natalie Reid of the Scottish Socialist Party, Gordon Murdie of the Scottish Conservatives, and Mo Hussain of the Scottish LibDems, don’t stand much chance in Leith Walk, though in other wards they might.

The three parties I think are likely to really be competing for the two seats are the Scottish Greens with Susan Rae, Scottish Labour, with Marion Donaldson, and the SNP, with Lewis Ritchie. Labour have 20 seats on the council and the SNP have 18 and the two parties are in coalition, so if Labour and the SNP win the two seats, nothing changes at all. Despite the Scottish Green Party having “relatively strong equality measures”, with Maggie Chapman’s resignation, they lose half their female representation on Edinburgh Council.

What difference can a Scottish Green councillor make?

Susan Rae was born in Hawick and remembers coming to Edinburgh by train from the Borders to go shopping with her mum. She married (young, as is fairly normal in small Scottish towns): her husband was violent: she became a feminist – “politicised”, as she put it, on discovering that when she tried to tell people that her husband had a violent temper, they seemed to regard it as “acceptable” that “your husband would whack you one” or worse, felt it was her responsibility and cautioned against speaking up as people would only say she had “obviously brought it on herself”.

So she left her husband, got in touch with Women’s Aid, and Border Womens Aid was founded, for support and refuge from abuse. Susan went to study for two years at Newbattle Abbey, then at Strathlcyde & Glasgow (Film & Television) moving to Strathclyde after a year to concentrate on politics and literature.

Then in 1996, two best friends, Mandy Graham and Ashley Simpson, decided they wanted to break the sixty-four year tradition and join one of the cavalcades that form part of the month-long festival of the Common Riding. They notified the committee that they intended to join – all any Hawick-born young man would need to do – and showed up on the day only to be the target of abuse: “sluts”, “scum” and “lesbians”. In the months following, they were verbally harassed and physically attacked. Sixty-four years of tradition had become “It’s aye been”. From the Herald’s report in 1996:

Hawick’s a proud town, known for three things: its Common-Riding, its rugby and its knitwear. The rugby is going well, just a week before Black Saturday Hawick won the Tennents Scottish Cup, but there’s trouble at the mills. Thirty years ago the textile industry employed over half the working population. Now it’s under a quarter. At around 5%, unemployment is still modest, but the omens are bad: empty shops disfigure the High Street, along with all those charity outlets. A trading estate just out of town stands all-but empty. The old, prosperous Hawick, the old certainties, are starting to slip. And now women want to alter the Common-Riding.

What does this have to do with Susan Rae?

She spoke up for the women riders: both as an individual, and as the spokesperson for the Scottish Borders Council on this issue. “None of the male Officers of the Council wanted their careers tainted. Quite a lot of them supported keeping the women out!”

“It’s about holding back the tide. It’s about panic and fear. Their industry’s in decline, the economic state of the town is in decline, and they don’t want to have to face their own failure. It’s a violent reaction to having any authority challenged. They’re feeling threatened, and when they’re feeling threatened they get nasty.”

The bitter struggle that followed the first attempt in 1996 was to last years: street fights and shock resignations are alike attributed to the strong local feelings about women participating in the all-male activities of the Common Riding.

Hawick Flood October 2005In 2005, Hawick was badly flooded. Susan Rae got a donation from Pringle of Scotland to produce a book of poems to be sold to raise money for the Hawick Flood Fund. When she tried to send the money to the Fund, she was stonewalled, told the Fund had closed: it seemed they wanted no donation from the woman who stood up in clear opposition to what the Herald’s report in 1996 called “a club for Hawick’s inner circle”. (The twelve hundred pounds raised by the sale of the booklet is still sitting in a savings account, waiting for Hawick’s inner circle to accept help from Susan Rae.)

One poem, “Spinster of Many Parishes”, closes with the verse:

Spinsterhood’s a frontier state;
Fragile, brave, terrific.
If I must consort with parishes,
I hope they’ll be prolific.

In 2008, Susan moved to Edinburgh. She would then have counted herself Labour, but says she feels the party left her. (She was critical, in a tired kind of way after a day’s work and an evening’s canvassing, of the “ludicrous” attacks launched on Jeremy Corbyn in the last few days, and Labour’s purge of members and supporters.) She was involved in campaigning for independence, and with organising the Anti-Poverty Conferences. She took part in the first anti-austerity stall in Edinburgh, seven years ago.

“I loved it when Willie Black ambushed Iain Duncan Smith in the George Hotel.” (“You are creating a new poll tax and we are going to see the end of you back to England, where you belong, you rat bag.”)

I asked her what she loved about Leith, and she said “the shutter art project” – the artworks painted on the metal shutters of shopfronts along Leith Walk – and the Drill Hall – “I really love that place”. The skies from her windows, she says, always changing. The witches of Shrubhill – “they executed 14 witches, one warlock, five Covenanters, and the last person to be executed under the blasphemy laws died here, a 19-year-old theology student from Edinburgh University”, she tells me, adding thoughtfully “bless him”. “I feel at home here because of all the witches!” She says she likes the mix in Leith – “it’s a microcosm of what’s happening, an international community”. She loves the colours of Leith, and all the old churches “my favourite’s the old Norwegian church, the one that’s now Leith School of Art“. She doesn’t think much of the plans to build huge new student accommodation where the old Social Work offices were, just below Shrubhill: she says they were four storeys high when she first saw the plans, and now they’re six storeys high.

The overflowing dough binI asked about the overflowing bins. They’re a detestable nuisance to everyone on Leith Walk. What, really, can a councillor do about overflowing bins?

The obvious answer is, Susan Rae said, the bins either not being filled properly, or they’re too small, and they’re not being emptied often enough. And the city gulls are becoming a problem: she suggested, perhaps not altogether seriously, a city falconer to deal with the gull problem.

But: dealing with the causes of overflowing bins isn’t easy or simple. If the bins are too small and need to be replaced with larger ones, where should they be sited? If the problem is bins not being emptied often enough, how to budget for more frequent visits from the bin lorry?

Susan Rae’s recent blog on participatory budgeting is about putting local people in charge of how their budget is spent. Refuse collection in Edinburgh is already operating within a tight budget, understaffed, with refuse collectors raising health-and-safety issues with their work. Increasing their workload without increasing their staff or their budget or dealing with their health and safety concerns would be to invite further problems – perhaps even disaster.

So what can an individual councillor do, I asked again – about overflowing bins, about any of the issues that constituents are concerned about?

“The main thing a councillor can do is be a voice for people. Even if you can’t stop or change things, you can make clear to people that someone’s listening and speaking up. People are really disilusioned with politics.”

Over the issue of women taking part in the Hawick Common Riding, Susan Rae faced death threats, rape threats, threats of violence. That didn’t shut her up. It’s hard to see what would.

“I get infuriated when anything’s badly organised. Can you imagine what I’d be like in the council chamber?”


Filed under Elections, Historic Scotland, Politics, Scottish Politics, Women

4 responses to “Susan Rae: Leith Walk and Hawick Riding

  1. Ken

    Katherine was titular commander of all English forces in Henry’s absence, but there was no way that she would have been put in harm’s way by taking part in a battle. Actually, she was in Buckingham when Flodden Field took place and the field commander was Howard.

    Looking ahead to next month’s byelection, I will probably vote SNP and Labour, since we have two vacancies to fill. Both parties take the council seriously, and Labour have already done one full canvass of the ward, but I haven’t seen anyone else knocking on doors.

    The Greens are a waste of space. I had a problem with my housing benefit a couple of years ago so wrote to the then Green councillor about it, but never even got a reply. The next time I moved house I asked the SNP to look into the housing benefit delay and it got sorted out PDQ. Last week the Labour fella was quick off the mark getting a load of mattresses hauled away from outside my house.

    • Katherine was titular commander of all English forces in Henry’s absence, but there was no way that she would have been put in harm’s way by taking part in a battle.

      Hence the distinction I made in the blog post: Katherine commanded the English army, James VI led the Scottish army.

      The Greens are a waste of space. I had a problem with my housing benefit a couple of years ago so wrote to the then Green councillor about it, but never even got a reply.

      Yeah, I’ve heard (and my experience is, in other connections) that Maggie Chapman is really bad at answering e-mails. Chas Booth, the Green councillor for Leith ward (mine) is really good at answering emails and responding promptly to any local difficulties, as is the SNP guy (Adam McVey) whereas the Labour councillor isn’t particularly.

      This doesn’t mean all Labour councillors are a waste of space, of course. It just means that McVey and Booth are a lot quicker off the mark responding to emails.

  2. Ken

    The problem is that if you choose who to punt for based on their record, then answering e-mails is pretty much something that all councillors should do as a matter of course if they want votes. That Diedre Brock was abroad on holiday when I wrote to her about the housing benefit, but she took time out to make sure that the penpushers knew of her displeasure. That I like!

    Besides, councillors seem to have a secretary in Edinburgh who handles their day to day matters. Certainly when I wrote about the mattress problem the mail was passed on to the secretary who then got in touch with whatever department it was that had to come and haul the load away. If the Greens can’t even be bothered doing that then they can forget it.

    All that aside, given that turnout is likely to be around 15%, the Greenies could win one seat as that party’s vote seems to be more about striking a pose than anything else.

    • The problem is that if you choose who to punt for based on their record, then answering e-mails is pretty much something that all councillors should do as a matter of course if they want votes.

      I agree. But, that should be decided on each councillor’s record,. not on party.

      You see, when I wrote to my Green councillor about a problem I was having with uncollected rubbish outside my house, he got back to me within 24 hours and I got a phonecall from the relevant department within 48 hours: and the stuff got taken away the same day I got the phonecall.

      But I didn’t hear back from the Labour councillor at all. So, by your standards “If Labour can’t even be bothered doing that, then they can forget it”.

      So, why do you plan to vote Labour, given that I can tell you about a Labour councillor who didn’t reply and a Green councillor who did? Since you’re planning to vote based on individual resp0nses from councillors which you assume to be representative of their entire party?

      All that aside, given that turnout is likely to be around 15%, the Greenies could win one seat as that party’s vote seems to be more about striking a pose than anything else.

      Oh, sorry, thanks for clarifying: you’re not voting Green not because of anything an individual councillor did, but because you just don’t like the Scottish Green party, you don’t know much about them, and you’re rationalising that. You could have been clearer about that from the start.

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