Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Tweedmouth Salmon Queen

The main event to report this week is the crowning of the Tweedmouth Salmon Queen this evening. In the foreground of the picture is the boat in which the Queen and her attendants arrived, a type of boat traditionally used for salmon fishing known as a coble. For this event the boat is mounted on wheels and pulled by a van. On the stage set up in the public gardens on the river bank the new Queen waits to be crowned and her predecessor waits to give her farewell address, watched by sister royalties the Eyemouth Herring Queen and the Spittal Gala Queen, while the chair of the organising committee welcomes a formidably long list of local dignitaries. The local scout troop forms a guard of honour with flags.  A genuinely enthusiastic local crowd claps every speech and jockeys for prime photo-taking position. 

A group of bagpipers precedes the coble playing A Scottish Soldier, a song associated with the local regiment, the King's Own Scottish Borderers, who used to be based in the Barracks in Berwick. Yes, I know that Berwick is not in Scotland anymore and that Tweedmouth has never been in Scotland, but that's just the way things are round here. In fact a procession of swirling kilts and skirling pipes never really goes amiss anywhere. They performed again at the end of the official proceedings, with much pleasure to all.

The crowning of the Salmon Queen is the central event of the Tweedmouth Feast, a festival marking the feast day of St Boisil to whom the parish church is dedicated. The custom of having a festival on the feast day of the patron saint of the local church is widespread and ancient. St Boisil, also spelled Boswell, was a monk at Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders and has the distinction of having predicted a great future for the young Cuthbert, the most famous Northumbrian saint. Because salmon fishing was the main source of livelihood in Tweedmouth in times gone by the Feast developed as a celebration of the peak salmon run. The weather vane of the parish church is in the shape of  a salmon.

The custom of choosing a local girl as the Salmon Queen though dates back only to the 1950s. An exhibition on the history of the event held recently in the Guildhall made this clear. Although originally they seem to have been slightly older, the Salmon, Herring and Gala Queens are now always girls of 16 or so and a large part of the curious charm of these events comes from watching mature people with prominent positions in local society ceding precedence to a teenage girl. The great excitement this year is that the organising committee of Tweedmouth Feast has revived the practice of holding a parade of floats as part of the festivities. We look forward to seeing that on Sunday afternoon. For those readers not familiar with the concept of a float in this sense, it means a group of people in costume standing on the flat bed of a decorated lorry representing some organisation or theme, usually in a humorous fashion. They are called 'floats' because the concept dates back to the parades of decorated river barges of earlier centuries. So it would be even better if the Tweedmouth Feast could one day follow the example of our national Queen and put on a river pageant instead.

These are the two young attendants of the Queen in the back of the official coble. The excitement and sense of occasion on their faces is delightful. I really like the Salmon Queen event because it is a perfect combination of ancient custom, fairly recent custom and whatever people enjoy doing right now, without having had any false historical consistency imposed on it by the heritage industry. While waiting for the arrival of the 'principals' the crowd buys ice creams and burgers and listens to pop music over the p.a. system. After the crowning the vicar leads us in a prayer to 'God the creator of the salmon, the creator of the Tweed', and we all make a half-hearted attempt to take our hands out of our pockets and listen respectfully. Then the new Salmon Queen lays a wreath on the adjacent war memorial and a lone piper plays a lament, so the mood turns sombre for a while. But after that the 'principals' sweep away again in the coble and everyone who hasn't already been to the burger van makes a dash to the local chippie, your correspondent included. Great stuff. 

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