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25 October 1999

At Y2K, remember the old ways

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

Riveted to the central span of the Forth Rail Bridge is what looks like the liquid-crystal display of a digital watch. To low-flying aircraft, seagulls, passing suicides and those looking out of their car windows crossing the neighbouring Forth Road Bridge, this contraption recently advertised “75 days to go”. Not an estimate of how long a wait the passengers on platform two at North Queensferry station will have, or notice of the imminent collapse of the Victorian bridge, this was a countdown to Y2K, the millennium.

Intended to create a sense of Advent-style anticipation, if not the stirring of something approaching enthusiasm, the countdown clock actually succeeds in doing something quite different. Naturally thrawn or even cussed, many Scots are disinclined to allow their feelings and thoughts to be prompted or manipulated by a set of electronic numbers, TV adverts for the Millennium Dome or indeed any amount of civic or governmental hype. The present generation of fortysomethings have a strong sense of the importance of the turn of the year because they can remember a time, before mass television wreaked one of many cultural changes in the 1960s, when hogmanay was a far more important festival in Scotland than Christmas. If 25 December fell on a weekday in the 1950s and early 1960s, adults went to work as usual, and while Christmas stockings were hung on the mantelpiece, there were no presents to speak of, no turkey dinners and definitely no Morecambe and Wise. English readers may say that this little-understood piece of cultural history explains much about the Scottish fortysomethings currently in the Westminster cabinet. But that would be to miss the point by some distance.

Because the week after Christmas, all of that abstemiousness gave way entirely. Hogmanay was then and remains very important to Scots. At the Bells, people wished each other meaningful wishes, drank many healths and toasts and had annual licence to overdo things, party with abandon and permit otherwise sobersided adults to amaze a generation of children with their antics.

So the way to think about the millennium is not to attempt to consider the historical enormity of the change in the date. As the world’s midnight chimes in 67 days’ time, think personal. Focus on yourself, your family, your friends and your community. That way it really will mean something.

Old places with long and vigorous traditions understand these matters well. In high contrast with the dark nights of midwinter celebrations, on the second Friday after the first Monday in June, when the days are longest, the Scottish Border town of Selkirk holds its Common Riding. At 5am the town is awake and on the streets, dressed in its best, with rosettes and favours fluttering on the breasts of everyone. Crowds of two or three thousand meet and link arms, Auld Lang Syne-style, to march at certain times to certain places to sing particular songs. At approximately 6.30am the Selkirk Standard Bearer receives the burgh flag and, with three or four hundred mounted followers, he rides around the 11,000 acres of Common Land in a ceremonial check that the bounds are intact and in good order. He is cheered and encouraged every stride of the way.

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And then, flags flying, the riders return to the Market Square at 11am to perform the last act in this ancient drama. On a dias above the huge crowd, the Standard Bearer and others cast their colours. To what sounds like a slow waltz tune, they enact a unique ritual as they wave their flags around and behind them and then over their heads. It is very beautiful. At the end of the ceremony the last Standard Bearer dips his banner until the tip touches the ground. The music stops and the crowd is silent. In that moment the people of Selkirk remember their dead, not only those who fell in world wars but also the men of the town who lost their lives fighting for Scotland at the disastrous battle at Flodden in 1513. Many people weep openly – for all that experience in one place, distilled into a silence on a June morning in the Market Place. The Selkirk Common Riding is very old; the men and women of the town have ridden out each summer to defend their land since, literally, a time out of mind – perhaps for six or seven centuries, maybe even a millennium. For that reason it is a tradition of immense power.

Selkirk is a good example for Britain at the millennium. Ignore clocks on bridges, EuroDisney-meets-the-Science-Museum at Greenwich, Millennium Forests and Footpaths. When midnight rings on 31 December, consider what this change will mean to you and yours. Remember those who are not with you. And then think about those, including yourself, for whom this is only a start. There are 67 days to go and a million more beyond.

Alistair Moffat

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