On Ascension Sunday -- six weeks after Easter or on the first full moon after the vernal equinox --communities in England "beat the bounds." The practice dates back two thousand years, before the advent of surveying. Locals form a procession around the church, manorial and civil boundaries to reacquaint residents with the major rocks, walls, trees and hedges that serve as landmarks. In the old days, landmarks were struck with a willow stick stripped of its bark. Sometimes a young boy was held upside down and his head tapped against the marker stone.
The later custom dates back to pagan times when the body of a sacrificed child was buried in the foundation of a new structure. In addition, Romans used to sacrifice a goat to the god Pan, smear blood on the foreheads of young boys, then whip them around the boundaries.
"Beating the bounds" was particularly important during the Middle Ages. It reinforced property ownership at a time when documentation was difficult and most people could not read. Participation of the Church in this ceremony—the most powerful political entity of the time—lent official credence. The practice developed into a rogation, a religious procession in which fields were blessed and God’s mercy was invoked. It also served to banish the evil spirits thought to inhabit boundary markers.
Common Ridings/Riding the Marches
The Scottish version of beating the bounds is done on horseback in late June. It’s a secular rather than religious ceremony. A young man called the “Cornet” (named after the junior cavalry member who carried the standard into battle) heads the cavalcade carrying the burgh’s flag. He is accompanied by the Right and Left-Handed Men. The Right-Handed Man is the Cornet from the previous year, while the Left-Handed Man is Cornet from the year before that. The ride ends in a “cornet’s gallop” back to town with the Right and Left-Handed Men in hot pursuit of the banner carrier.
Like their English counterparts, the Scots carried branches with which to strike the landmarks. In this case, they were birch rather than willow and called “birks.” If any landmark needed repair, it was attended to. A landmark status report was made to the Crown.
The oldest surviving ride is said to date from 1140 in the Royal Burgh of Lanark. Called Lanimer (Landmark) Day, it has evolved into a week-long celebration that includes horse and foot races, a festival and choosing of a queen. In the old days, first time riders were dunked in the river Mouss which bisects the parish and into which one of the “march stones” was place. The dunking was done to impress upon the newcomer the seriousness of the task.