The Royal Caledonian Curling Club

The Royal Caledonian Curling Club

National Governing Body for Curling in Scotland

1979 Grand Match

Held on a beautiful clear-blue sky of a day, and after a gap of 16 years, on ice that was ultimately 8¼ inches thick, the 1979 Grand Match at the Lake of Menteith followed what was by now becoming a well-trod path – just a few days before it had looked to be deferred!

Would this be the third Grand Match to take place in the past 44 years? Described in the 1979-80 Annual as one of the most severe winters since WWII and certainly comparable with the winters of 1947, 1959 and 1963 (when the Grand Match was last held – again at Lake of Menteith), there had been some hope to have the Grand Match during January: From the 28th of January 1979 variations on the required six inches of ice had been recorded at all of the four pre-selected sites; Loch Leven, the Lake of Menteith, Lindores Loch and Stormont Loch, but heavy snow fall had caused rutting on the ice. Then the rain came down, melting the snow, and causing other problems, i.e., despite a refreshed hard frost, once again Scotland’s Curlers had to wait, as the top layer of frost refused to bond with the lower layer! We can only imagine the frustration!

All of Scotland held its collective breath in the clear frosty air, in hope and wonder. Well, unless you were a Golfer, although The Sunday Telegraph suggested that even Golfers could not begrudge Curlers their Great Day. Yet, the Royal Club Grand Match Committee, at times comprising some 50 hard working volunteers, and headed up by the then Convener of the group, James Hamilton, had to consistently report in the negative – Match not on yet!

This would perhaps have been especially irksome as the previous year had seen the Royal Club at its closest to holding the Grand Match for many years. The then President of the Royal Club, Chuck Hay, must have been grinding his teeth in frustration. One report by Anthony Troon for The Scotsman, summed up the Grand Match in these terms: ‘The Grand Match……..is probably unique among sporting events for three reasons: (a) usually, it doesn’t take place at all; (b) when it does, the result doesn’t matter very much; and (c) certain stimulating drugs are not discouraged.’

Curlers in general were probably in need of a drug-induced boost that year as not only had 1978 seen a Grand Match near miss, but also the closure of Edinburgh Haymarket Ice Rink and (the then) Falkirk Ice Rink (with associated displaced Curlers), although Irvine and Kinross Ice Rinks were now up and running. These Curlers will certainly have understood the claim made in The Scotsman – ‘curling is generally regarded as a pleasant form of mild insanity linked with weather conditions…………’ as they prayed for those favourable weather conditions.

Mr. Hamilton kept a diary of progress in the build-up to the Grand Match, and this is also recorded in the 1979-80 Annual. By the 2nd February you can sense a quiet expectation as he records ‘the top layer of ice has now fused with the bottom layer’, and he asked the Secretary of the Royal Club, Robin Welsh, to send out the warning postcards to Clubs.

He continues: ‘Match provisionally planned for the 7th. 6¼ inches of good ice. Forecast from Pitreavie ‘frost continuing’. Arranged police coverage, car parking, and medical attendance.’

The last Grand Match held at the Lake of Menteith had been in 1963 – could we really be about to see another?! It seemed so. Telephone calls to the Royal Club’s Head Quarters at 2, Coates Crescent resulted in all other tasks being set aside as Draws and all the other paraphernalia of a Grand Match were readied and distributed. This resulted in a hiatus of activity. The RAC were contacted, (road signs); the BBC was contacted (possible recording of the event); the Insurance Company (obvious) and even Her Majesty The Queen – our Patron – received a telegram.

Robin reports that ‘the telephone rang for three days!’ Nerve-wracking at the best of times, this must have been all the more so as the staff supporting Robin Welsh were at that time all new to the Royal Club and, because of the near miss in 1978, the Royal Club had been inundated with entry forms for the 78/79 Season. Interest having been hugely rekindled after a long period of no Grand Matches, the closing date for entries saw 707 teams entered which, according to The Scottish Curler of February 1979 represented ‘a dilemma of alarming proportions.’ These were eventually whittled down to 600 teams, (to play on 300 sheets marked out on the ice), much to the individual Clubs’ chagrin!

By February the 4th and in freezing cold weather, (one of the most severe winters since WWII remember!), Mr. Hamilton had transported the marking equipment from Loch Leven to the Lake of Menteith (not a quick journey even in good weather, but in those days with so few Motorway links between the two venues even less so), and on Monday the 5th he commenced marking ‘with two squads (25 in each) led by Willie Wilson and Dave Arnott.’ Mr. Hamilton records in his final report in the 1979 – 80 Royal Club Annual: ‘We required a minimum of 50 workers and I made only six telephone calls that evening. On Monday morning, at 9 a.m. 60 workers turned up, many of them well known curlers who I am sure do little manual labour at home, but who were prepared to take off their jackets and work all day for the Grand Match.’ The work involved becomes very clear when you look at the many aerial photos of the Match – the area covered is truly huge.

The Squads marked in opposite directions to each other facing out from the Lake Hotel, Port of Menteith, and you can see the effect of this from one of the aerial shots of the Lake as printed in Sheriff David Smith’s Book – Curling: An Illustrated History – when the many rinks at play seem to form a giant arrowhead pointing straight at the Hotel.

Preparations proceeded afoot, no less so than by the Office Bearers of the Royal Club: According to tradition, the Royal Club President, Capt. C. J. L. (Jack) Anderson (Cupar Curling Club), would compete against the President-Elect’s team skipped by Tom Dickson (Hamilton C.C.). The President of the Ladies’ Branch – Lucy Fleming, having also rallied the troops, expectations were now at an all time high as 2,400 Curlers – 600 teams – awaited the call!

By Tuesday, 6th of February, all the rinks were marked with only a few being eliminated because of poor ice conditions at that particular spot on the Lake. Just a little reminder of the skill the Convener and his team have in assessing the indefinable feel of the ice and of the inherent danger should they misjudge its character – especially on a Lake in places 80 feet deep! The final count was 330 rinks. There then followed huge excitement, for the ‘Match On’ signal was given to the Secretary, and BBC Radio made the announcement.

But of course the ‘word’ was already out and Curlers from across Scotland had been searching in sheds and attics for outdoor stones, crampits, brushes and lifebelts! In fact Sheriff David Smith’s book records some interesting details about Grand Matches in general, noting that as well as looking out these items – the Whisky is purchased! ‘………….Stones are set out in the frost to freeze them down ready for play and every Curler goes to bed with a silent prayer that the thaw will stay away long enough to allow the match to be played this year.’ With that, Curlers in their thousands deserted businesses, shops and farms and hastened to the Lake.

The Scottish Curler Article (February 1979) remarks that ‘at 7.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 7th February, the view from the bedroom window at Coldon, home of Sandy and Mona Callander, was worth waiting for after a lapse of 16 years. As the sun rose in a clear, blue sky, the Lake of Menteith shone brightly in a ringing frost. All was ready and everything was right for the big day.’

It would be about this time that Bob Cowan (present Editor of The Scottish Curler), like all those other Scottish Curlers lucky enough to be included in the Draw, were bent on making their collective way to the Lake by private car, lorry or bus (the days of using the train were gone). Bob reports that, charged with transporting his Club’s 8 outdoor stones, he had a few interesting moments en route as his Nissan skidded and he had to get out and redistribute the weight of all those stones! He also reminisced about one of his team, (Willie Jamieson from Aberdeen), becoming somewhat incommoded and Bob Kelly (another well-known name in Curling), had to step in and take his place – good fortune for Bob and surely typical of the day’s fortunes for many. Dunkeld, (all dressed up in their Atholl Tartan uniforms), may have been more unfortunate than some for according to Bob Cowan they ended up in Accident and Emergency at Stirling! Could that team have represented some of the broken wrists recorded for the day?!

John Campbell of The Sunday Telegraph perhaps best conjured up the scene: ‘It was a breathtaking sight, a spectacle never to be forgotten, as I rounded a corner on the narrow country road and caught my first glimpse of the glinting, petrified Lake of Menteith, set in a bowl of the Perthshire hills surmounted by the glistening, snow covered mass of Ben Ledi against a sky so blue you felt you could wear it. The lake itself, with its thousands of matchstick men, was a canvas in sharp black and white that L. S. Lowry could have painted, but which I find mere words inadequate to describe.’

Despite the fact that it may seem somewhat incongruous that such a Scottish event as the Grand Match should take place on a ‘Lake’, on site the flurry of activity, begun with the marking out of the rinks and the installation of the public address lines continues. There is, for example, the hoisting of the Royal Club Flag and, with Curlers arriving from as far apart as Ross-shire and Wigtown, the Police are there to regulate parking on the adjacent frozen fields. Sheriff David Smith’s book records that ‘the Royal Club Secretary and Grand Match Secretary establish themselves in their headquarters in the local hotel, prepared for a long hard day.’

Later Mr. Hamilton’s Diary was to note ‘The Television teams and members of the Press attended in force, and the Match received extensive coverage’ with film flashes shown nationwide and on Canadian Television.

Back to Mr. Hamilton’s Diary:

February 7: Arrived at Lake 9 a.m.. Official measurement 8¼ inches of ice. Loudspeaker equipment, safety equipment, ropes, ladders and lifebelts put out. Maps showing layout of rinks placed at entry points. Numbered cards placed on blocks. Flags raised and final arrangements for Opening Ceremony made.

Competitors started arriving at 10 a.m. and parking arrangements went smoothly, as did the checking-in of the rinks. Stones, (suitably chilled as a ‘hot’ stone would go straight through the ice), are quickly unloaded from cars, tethered together by ropes, and dragged carefully (and slowly) onto the ice – a performance described by Sheriff Smith as looking ‘for all the world like faithful puppies…………..’

Amidst all this activity and the greeting of many old friends arrive the ‘camp-followers’ bearing food and provisions; rinks are found and according to Sheriff David, ‘……hands are shaken; drams are drunk.’ Coloured tassels, ribbons or luggage labels are tied onto the handles of the stones, (to differentiate one rink from another), and the many spectators (about 3,500 of them or 8,000 depending on which report you read) take up the best vantage point.

That Diary again: ‘At 11 a.m. the helicopter’, (sponsored by Alexander Harley of Milnathort), ‘carrying the President’ (in his trade-mark fur coat for which he had been offered $1,000 whilst on Tour – and refused – much to the severe disappointment of some), ‘arrived and toured the Lake – a tour the President had to repeat for the benefit of the media’ – the BBC not wishing the STV to have the best shot! Some of the spectators may not have appreciated this as it is believed, and indeed Sheriff David records it as such, the down-draft sent many ‘slithering across the ice!’ The President ought to have approved it, for on the second trip round, ‘the blades of the helicopter also blew a storm of snow’ over his rival team – as reported by Willie Kemp in the Scotsman article of the following day. Willie also felt that the Helicopter, on landing, gave a fine example of a sliding delivery!

‘The Opening Ceremony begins with speeches, the Queen’s telegram’ is read out – Her Majesty sending ‘warm good wishes,…….. and music from six pipers from the Queen Victoria School, Dunblane’ blazes out, ‘ending with the Earl of Elgin’ (President of the Royal Club in Season 1968/69) ‘firing the’ (ancestral) ‘Cannon to signal the commencement of the Grand Match!’

That Cannon – firing a quarter-pound charge – is Portuguese and dates back to 1679 when one of the Earl of Elgin’s ancestors discovered it in Peking. The Earl of Elgin’s family have a long association with Curling – his Grandfather – the last nineteenth century Viceroy of India, coits in hand, had them polish the floor of the Ballroom at the Viceregal Lodge in Simla – divide his ADC’s into rinks of four – éh voila! (The Earl’s club – Broomhall – would celebrate its Centenary in this memorable year of The Grand Match).

Mr. Hamilton’s Diary does not record the Curlers’ reaction to the Opening Ceremony, and in any case Sheriff David implies that ‘so great is the din that his (the President’s) greetings over the loudspeakers go unheard by the majority’, but it can be imagined that the sound of the cannon fading across the surrounding hills will have been met with a resounding cheer – enough to set wintering flocks aflight – should either the cannon have failed in that task – or the amassed Tartans all vying for domination of the scene! Immediate Past President Chuck Hay, (at that time only recently made an OBE), as he observed the thunderous roar of the first stones (300!) to be thrown across the heaving and creaking ice, must surely have wished that this event (one to rival an OBE?) could have happened in his year of Presidency.

Sheriff David quotes ‘Till their loud roaring stanes gar the snowy heights tingle.
As they ne’er did before, and may never again.’

Whilst Ian Turnbull, (who went on to become Grand Match Committee Vice-Convener in 1984, and Convener in 1993), was busy, (along with other Committee Members), assisting the Grand Match Convener and local Committee Members wherever possible, and competing, his wife, Ann, was busy setting up her rink. They introduced themselves to their young (male) opponents and as the skip of the latter turned away she overheard him remark ‘the old bizzums are using crampits!’ Needless to say Ann is delighted to report that she and her ladies defeated their young opponents – and their hacks!

Willie Kemp also reported that Jim Steele of Hamilton, a former Scottish Champion ‘felt he would have done better had the spectators spaced themselves equally either side of the ice for his match; the uneven weight tilted the ice fractionally, making the stones run to the one side.’ All this whilst Alex Torrance employed his, by now to-be-expected war-cry: ‘Hur-ray, Hur-ray!’

The Scottish Curler of March 1979 also includes a footnote on Donald McLean ‘……who had played at Loch Leven in 1959 and the Lake of Menteith in 1963, (and now) skipped a rink of his three sons from the Allangrange Club. They won by 19 shots to 1.’ Quite a record.

Mr. Hamilton goes on to record that it was ‘a perfect day, the sun shining from start to finish’ with the curling being interrupted only by an occasional very low flight by the helicopter and breaks for refreshments.’

Thinking of those ‘refreshment breaks’ it is perhaps worth noting that the number of ‘ends’ played can vary: The time allocated is 3 hours, but some rinks may only succeed in playing 8 ends, some 18, with an equal variety in the scores achieved. Could both those statistics be assisted by the number of those refreshment breaks? Willie Kemp remarked that ‘some of the ice was surprisingly good – especially where play had taken place over the previous few days!’ Ice at the outer reaches of the marked rinks was slower, harder work, with some stones not making it past the hog line.

Once again that other main occupation of a Grand Match, (apart from the curling), took place; the sport of trying to work out the total weight on the ice! This is never possible of course – as no one can work out the weight of the ‘provisions’ – which may be a euphemism for ‘Whisky!’ But some have reported that the British Army, ever accurate in these things, reckon the weight would be equivalent to a Steam Locomotive.

The other great excitement for the Royal Club that January had been the 1979 Canadian Touring Men’s team; a member of that team, Bill Meyer, the Secretary for the Tour, had remained in the UK to visit with relatives in England. Such is the lour of the Grand Match that Bill was delighted to delay his return flight and travel north again to join in the spectacle that is the Grand Match.

He joined President Jack Anderson (whose Father had also been involved on Royal Club Committees), and Royal Club Secretary Robin Welsh, the day before the Match when he assisted in the numbering of all those cards (1 to 300) ‘for placing on wooden blocks showing rink numbers on the ice.’ No easy task amidst radio interviews and frequent telephone interruptions! Bill went on to compete in the Match on rink 80 with Ronald Grant, Sandy Smith and Don Cowen and Bob Woodhouse from Wales, ‘and they won their game.’ Don Cowen also managed to find time, in between shots, to make a photographic record of the Lake.

A glorious day drew to a close with the signalling of the cannon’s sound, some final drinks are shared and enjoyed, the conversation is filled with enthralled jubilation at having taken part in such a great event. Score Cards are handed into the Secretary’s Office and it will be a matter for the following day to finally know who won – but as Sheriff David observes ‘No one knows whether North or South has won. No one cares. Winning is not important. To have been there is the thing.’

William Hunter of the Glasgow Herald summed up the day: ‘Scotland……..split into two parts so that each could throw stones at the other. It was the grandest Grand Match there may have been. Curling came out from the artificial cold of ice rinks into the thin brilliant winter warmth of a perfect Perthshire day. The Lake of Menteith……………groaned and heaved under 370 tons of happy hectic humanity.’

Mr. Hamilton’s Diary records ‘….…. slowly, very slowly, the ice cleared and in orderly fashion the crowds wended their way home. The end of a memorable occasion.’ The end of the Royal Club’s 38th Grand Match.

Those crowds left, according to Mr. Hamilton’s final report, only two empty bottles and two small sacks of rubbish and even then he admonished them to do better in future – ever important where a Farmer has to return his stock to the field. The day also left him with a few notes: (1) to order up more toilets for the Ladies next time and (2) that ‘We also now realise that transparent polythene is not the ideal surrounding for gent’s toilets!).

In hindsight it was also the end of an historic occasion in the history of the Grand Match and the Royal Club, for some 28 years later, as I write this in October 2007, that spectacular event, not recently repeated because of warmer winters (if you are of the Global Warming persuasion, or Sun spots if you are not), is still being referred to as ‘the last Grand Match!’ But then, Curlers are nothing if not ever-optimistic; in all that time they have never once given up hope, with our recently retired Grand Match Committee Convener, Ian Turnbull often heard to remark – ‘Ah well…..maybe next year!’

Following the Match a Photographic Competition was run in The Scottish Curler with the results being printed in the October 1979 edition. Robin Welsh as Editor of the Magazine (as well as being the then Secretary of the Royal Club) was pleased to include detail of some of the photographs received. Although we no longer have the photos (they were returned to the photographers), of themselves they tell a big part of the story…

  • A dramatic welcome to the helicopter bringing Royal Club President Jack Anderson (Joan Donald, Edinburgh);
  • A fine group of Dunkeld Curlers in their Atholl tartan uniforms (Mrs. Quinn, Airdrie);
  • A pram-on-the-ice study (Mrs. Hoad, Perth);
  • A balmoralled enthusiast ‘ouching’ as he tests the running edge of his stone (George Marwick, Edinburgh);
  • A former Scottish Champion spreadeagled on the ice (Stewart Gilmour, Glasgow);
  • Another fallen curler who said that he was lining up his stone (Mrs. Stevenson, Oakley, Dunfermline);
  • Impressive landscapes (Chuck Hay, Perth, and Jack Young, Aberdeen) and studies (by Chuck) of the Grand Match Convener and Royal Club Secretary.

Robin concluded by stating the above to be ‘an embarrassment of riches’ but that after much thought the prize would go to Miss Lynn Fraser ‘for the candid-camera portrait of her father, Jim, on all fours, roaring encouragement to his sweepers.’ The prize? A half-gallon of Scotch Whisky presented by John Haig & Co..

Mr. Hamilton’s final report in the 79/80 Annual wished, amongst other things, to record the Royal Club’s special thanks to Col. J. R. Simpson for the use of his field as the car park, without which of course the Grand Match could not have taken place.’ This grateful thanks took the form of a framed print depicting the now famous Ron Burgess (of The Daily Express) photograph of the aerial scene at the Lake on that memorable day. This print now hangs at the Royal Club’s Head Office.

The following year’s Annual 1980-81 and the 1979 Grand Match was already becoming legend! It was subsequently reported that the final count on Commemorative Grand Match Badges issued was 2000 and that ‘2000 privileged Curlers now owned one;’ and that the event had been such a success 942 entries were received for the 1980-81 Season! A collective Curling optimism which, like the commemorative badges, and the memories, will probably last forever.

For the record the Results listed on page 92 of the 1979-80 Annual were:

  • North beat south by 3,937 shots to 3,144.
  • The Challenge Trophy (Cup on the winning side with the highest average majority of shots per rink): Edzell Club. Four Badges (highest-up rink) to Dave Hood’s rink.
  • Second Trophy: Hercules Club. Four Badges (highest-up rink) to Mike Thomson’s rink.
  • Medal (second highest club on losing side): Lundin and Montrave Club.
  • First English Province Irving Cup (highest-up Ladies Rink): Abdie Ladies (who scored one more end than Orwell Ladies!).
  • Strathcona Medal (rinks skipped by President and President-Elect) shared by Jack Anderson and Tom Dickson who finished ‘peels’.

Acknowledgements

Grateful thanks for all their help and input, including photographs to:

  • Sheriff David Smith, Royal Club Historian – for the aerial photo and details of the Grand Match included in his book – Curling: An Illustrated History – page 128 and page 129.
  • Bob Cowan, Editor, Scottish Curler, for all his help and advice, not least access to the February, March and October 1979 issues of The Scottish Curler, and for his own photographs of the day together with those of others.
  • Ian and Anne Turnbull, Past Convener, Grand Match Committee and President, RCCC 1983/84. Special thanks to Anne for allowing access to her Newspaper Clippings and photographs.

Foot Note: Should you, on reading the above, have been at the 1979 Grand Match (perhaps you were one of the entrants to the photographic competition), and still have any anecdotes or photos of the day which you would like to share, the writer (Theresa McDougall) would be delighted to receive these. It may not be possible to include all on the website, but they would most certainly add to the Royal Club’s archival record of such a momentous day.