The actual year of the beginning of the Marches is not known although what we do know is that common lands existed when David I (1128-1153) granted to Linlithgow, Lanark, Edinburgh and Stirling the title of "Burges Meus". The Burgh received its franchise from King Robert II on 23rd October 1389. A charter by King James VI dated 24th May 1593 and a further act and ratification by Parliament of 20th May 1661 notified the various rights and lands "whereof the said Burgh has been in possession, according to their yearly perambulation of the same in times bygone"
The perambulation referred to would be the riding around the burgh boundaries or Marches by the relevant authorities to ensure that those living outside the designated areas had not encroached on the designated Burgh lands. In June 2013 Linlithgow’s easternmost and westernmost boundaries were designated with March Stones
– perhaps replacing similar markers which had disappeared.
The Burgh Charter also conveyed to the burgesses and Community, the Port and Haven of Blackness, with customs, toll dues and court rights. The holding of a court on Castle Hill on Marches Day and the appointment of a Baron Bailie continues this old custom. The first recorded reference to a Riding is in the minute of the Council dated 19th October 1541, (the date of appointment of the first Provost of the Burgh and the year before the birth of Mary Queen of Scots) when the common lands were ordered to be visited on Pasche Tuesday yearly.
It is reasonable to assume that the Marches had been ridden before this on varying dates, and that this merely set a fixed date for the event. The council also visited other Burghs to ride their Marches; Lanark Burgh records show that in 1586 John Bruce was paid 3/- for going to Linlithgow to see if the Provost would come to the Lanark Riding. This long connection persists to this day with Linlithgow`s Provost participating annually in the Lanimer Day festivities at Lanark and their Lord Cornet riding in the Linlithgow Marches. The Marches are now held annually on the first Tuesday after the second Thursday in June. This retains an old reference to Holy Thursday and was fixed by the Council in 1767. The second Thursday was fixed as the date of the Whitsunday Fair. Before this the Whitsunday Fair was a moveable date depending upon the date of Easter Sunday.
Up to the year 1834, it was the custom for the Provost and Magistrates to ride at the rear of the procession on Marches Day but Mr Adam Dawson, the then Provost, reversed this. He was also the first to introduce carriages into the Marches Procession. Before the carriages, it had been noticed by the Magistrates that "Reckless horseman prowled the street from dawn to dusk on Marches Day, sometimes injuring themselves and passers-by," all of which the Magistrates said was "involuntary. The Magistrates also deplored the mean practice of purloining bottles from the public dinners for later consumption.
The horses for the Marches were often hired at the fair at the "Horsemarket Head" which is at the West Port between Philip Avenue and the entrance to Longcroft. Some of the accounts in the book "Simon Moneypenny," a local tale of the Marches published in 1877 by William Hutton, give an idea of Marches Ridings in the days of the horse.
The form of the day was not much different then from the ceremonies which take place today. 'The Provost would breakfast with his guests in the Star and Garter, whilst the Dyers would breakfast at their deacon's house in accordance with the old tradition. After breakfast they would go to the palace grounds to have a photograph taken and fraternise before returning to the High Street where the court was fenced.
The procession would then be formed up in the order laid down by the Council minute of 18th April, 1687 and afterwards strictly adhered to ; the Hammermen, Tailors, Baxters, Cordiners, Weavers, Wrights, Coopers and Fleshers. The office of Deacon Convenor, or Lord Deacon, was held exclusively by the Deacon of the Hammermen for many years but later by the other deacons in rotation. Today this honour is retained by the Deacon of the Dyers. The trade deacons also took turns of carrying the Burgh Standard. The town had two pinzels or flags; the Craft Pinzel and the Merchant Pinzel and it was the privilege of the Incorporation of Weavers to carry these to and from the Council House. The Burgh Treasurer carried one of these flags for many years.