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The Mother Town

Civic Ritual, Symbol, and Experience in the Borders of Scotland

Gwen Kennedy Neville

Publication Date - May 1994

ISBN: 9780195090321

176 pages

Retail Price to Students: $66.00


Horses with riders trailed by foot processionals, silver bands and pipe bands, furling medieval banners, lavish costumes, and singers and actors--the "Common Riding" is an elaborate, little-studied ritual phenomenon of the border towns of Scotland. In this vividly written and insightful analysis, Gwen Kennedy Neville uses this civic ceremony as a window for glimpsing the process of ritual, symbol, and experience in the development of the concept of "the town" in Western culture.

Based on extensive fieldwork in the town of Selkirk, The Mother Town looks at the Common Riding in detail, uncovering pre-Reformation symbolism and pageantry--often medieval and Catholic--in a region that has been Protestant for over four hundred years. Neville shows how the ceremony is a model of the way civic ritual serves to construct a system of towns which gives rise to the modern world. Further, she contends that these civic rituals create a ceremonial setting in which the contradictions between tradition and modernity can be temporarily resolved and where past and present live side by side.

Neville offers a provocative and illuminating study of how the ritual of Common Riding makes a dramatic statement about local strife, communal independence, and Protestantism in the towns of the Scottish Borders.

About the Author(s)

Gwen Kennedy Neville is Elizabeth Root Paden Professor of Sociology at Southwestern University.


"No one brings anthropology 'home' quite like Neville. The Mother Town is full of insight and provocative thoughts about the deeper structures of community and individual in the West."--Jon Anderson, Catholic University of America

"Thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating reading that will prove to be an important contribution to the symbolism of cultural identity in civic ritual."--Pamela R. Frese, College of Wooster

"Grounded in meticulous fieldwork, Dr. Neville's compelling study of the Common Riding ceremony both deciphers and engages in what she calls 'skirmishes for meanings.' These skirmishes make visible the complex processes that construct the cultural scripts for individuals as they are incorporated in a town with its integral medieval-modern socioeconomic structures. Of equal interest to literary critics as to anthropologists, Dr. Neville's elegant presentation opens a wealth of theoretical vistas without ever losing sight of the concrete particularities of the central ritual and the historical continuities and discontinuities it embodies."--Lore Metzger, Emory University, Emeritus

"Dr. Neville writes clearly and vividly. Her descriptions are immediate and colorful and her interpretations incisive yet compassionate. She says important things about aging, going away and coming home, towns, classes, community, history, and Scotland as part of a European pattern."--James Peacock, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

"Through the ritual detail of the Common Riding of the Border Towns of Scotland, Dr. Neville explores the emergence of the individual citizen from the corporate medieval world, and the mediating role of the Mother Town in this transition in Western European Protestant culture. Moving between various levels of discourse (an 'ethnological collage'), Dr. Neville alternates beautifully written 'thick description' with clear and penetrating social analysis. The book points out that the 'town' is a social product of a certain historical, cultural, and economic moment. What I especially like about this book is that it deals with a ritual form from English-speaking Europe. It, thus, serves a mediating role for the dominant American culture that assumes that only Others have a rich ritual life."--Carrie B. Douglass, Mary Baldwin College