Romancing the Stone: Curling’s Scottish Heritage

On Thin Ice - Team GB at Sochi Olympic Games 2014

On Thin Ice – Team GB at Sochi Olympic Games 2014

Who could have thought that a sport whose humble beginnings can be traced back five centuries to a frozen Scottish lake, would become one of the biggest hits at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. At almost 500 years old, Curling is one of the oldest official sports of the Winter Games, and is also yet another glorious creation that can be added to the list of great Scottish inventions.

Over the years curling seems to have gone from the quirky cult hit of the games, to a sport that viewers are now legitimately watching in their droves. Of course this is helped by the fact that as of this morning, both of Team GB’s curling teams are through to their respective semi-finals. It’s also interesting to note that all of the 2014 GB Olympic curlers are Scottish, and with the exception of one, are aged in their twenties.

The women’s team are world champions, having lifted the crown in Latvia last March when captain Eve Muirhead, at 22, became the youngest captain to win the title. Her Sochi team includes Anna Sloan, 22, Vicki Adams, 24, and Claire Hamilton, 24. The men’s team finished fourth and fifth in the past two Winter Games. David Murdoch, 35, captains the team of Michael Goodfellow, 25, Scott Andrews, 24, and Greg Drummond, 25.

The Sterling Stone

The Stirling Stone

Nicknamed ‘chess on ice’, for centuries curling has been a favourite game in Scotland. In fact, during the first two thirds of the nineteenth century it can be said that it was the Scottish game, before the mighty football began to dominate. Evidence of curling’s early days first start to appear around the beginning of the 16th century, when what is thought to be the earliest known curling stone was found when and old pond was drained just outside of Dunblane, inscribed ‘Stirling, 1511′. The first written account of curling was in 1541, when the notary John McQuhin recorded in his protocol book a challenge between John Sclater, a monk in Paisley Abbey and Gavin Hamilton, a representative of the Abbot. The report indicated that Sclater threw a stone along the ice three times and asserted that he was ready for the agreed contest.

Over the coming centuries curling became one of the most popular amusements during the long Scottish winters. Kilsyth Curling Club in North Lanarkshire claims to be the first club in the world, having been formally constituted in 1716. (And yes, it’s still around to this day). Curling was even a popular topic in poetry – although there was no evidence that Rabbie Burns was a curler, he certainly knew all about it, as these two stanzas from his Tam Samson’s Elegy clearly demonstrate:

When Winter muffles up his cloak,
And binds the mire like a rock;
When to the loughs the curlers flock,
Wi’ gleesome speed,
Wha will they station at the cock,
Tam Samson’s dead?

He was the king of a’ the Core.
To guard, or draw, or wick a bore,
Or up the rink like Jehu roar
In time o’ need;
But now he lags on Death’s hog-score,
Tam Samson’s dead.

(The “cock” was the “tee”, to “wick abore” was to wick through a port; the other technical terms are still intelligible to curlers wherever the game is played.)

A curling match at Eglinton castle estate, North Ayrshire, Scotland. 2 February 1860

A curling match at Eglinton castle estate, North Ayrshire, Scotland. 2 February 1860

By the mid 19th century, the popularity of the game had exploded, and demand rose for a governing body. Founded in 1838, the Grand Caledonian Curling Club’s purpose was to regulate “the ancient Scottish game of Curling by general laws”. The club obtained royal patronage in 1842, and since then has been known as the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. As Scots immigrated throughout the 18th and 19th century, they took curling with them to all (cold) corners of the world. Today curling is mostly played in Canada, introduced by Scottish migrants in the 19th century.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century every county in Scotland had at least one club affiliated with the Royal Club, and almost every parish in the land had its custom-made curling pond. Originally curlers played on natural lochs and specially constructed ponds. However some seasons were barren when the winters were too mild. In 1907 the first indoor rink was built in Glasgow, with others popping up shortly after in Edinburgh and Aberdeen. While the game soon after experienced a decline in popularity, interest in curling is well and truly on the increase – today there are at least 26 purpose-built rinks in Scotland for the game.

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About Nadine Lee

Originally from New Zealand, Nadine is a documentary researcher now based in the north east of Scotland.

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