History of the Game
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 emphatically that it was the Scottish game.
It is fruitless to speculate about whether the game is Scottish in origin. Suffice it to say that the only other part of the world for which any claim has been made, the Low Countries, is spectacularly deficient in that necessary raw material, hard igneous rock, from which alone the peculiar implement of the game, the curling stone, is made. Curling has a long history in Scotland, and it from Scotland that it has been taken to the other colder parts of the world in which the game is now played.
As with all other games evidence for the earliest periods of curling is scarce. But there is little doubt that when the notary John McQuhin recorded a challenge about throwing stones across the ice between a monk at Paisley Abbey and a relative of the abbot in February 1541 the written history of curling had begun.
From then on we find references to the game with increasing frequency, and it is possible to say that by the end of the eighteenth century curling was played throughout the Lowlands of Scotland. Poets of Kirkcudbrightshire, Renfrewshire and Lanarkshire celebrated the game in published poems: though there is no evidence to show that Robert Burns was a curler, he certainly knew all about it, as the 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.)
Several of the parish ministers who contributed to Sir John Sinclair’s Statistical Account of Scotland (1781 – 1799) wrote eloquently of the place in parish life that curling occupied. For example, the minister of Muirkirk in Ayrshire wrote:
Their chief amusement in winter is curling, or playing stones on smooth ice. They eagerly vie with one another who shall come nearest the mark, and one part of the parish against another, one description of men against another, one trade or occupation against another, and often one whole parish against another, – earnestly contend for the palm, which is generally all the prize, except that perhaps the victors claim from the vanquished the dinner and bowl of toddy, which, to do them justice, both commonly take together with great cordiality, and generally without any grudge at the fortune of the day; wisely reflecting, no doubt, that defeat as well as victory is the fate of war. Those accustomed to this amusement, or that have acquired dexterity in the game, are extremely fond of it. The amusement itself is healthful; it is innocent; it does nobody harm; let them enjoy it.
Some curling clubs can legitimately claim a continuous history from the second half of the eighteenth century and prove the claim with surviving minute books.
By the 1830s curling had become so popular and so wide-spread that a demand arose for the founding of a national club to regulate the national game. It should be understood that at this period different forms of the game existed. The commonest form involved rinks of seven, eight, or nine curlers throwing only one stone. This might involve difficulties in the sweeping department, as James Brown in his History of Sanquhar Curling Society suggests:
Their discipline, too, was absolutely perfect. At a time when there were eight men in a rink this was most apparent. Arranged three and three on each side of the rink, they waited with the greatest attention till the stone was delivered, following it quietly but eagerly in its course, till, at the call of the skip, “Soop her up”, down came the besoms like lightning, hands were clasped, the feet kept time to the rapid strokes of the besom, and no exertion was spared until the stone was landed at the desired spot..
In Kilmarnock and the Edinburgh area the form of four in a rink, each throwing two stones, was the custom.
When the Grand Caledonian Curling Club was instituted in 1838 for the purpose “of regulating the ancient Scottish game of Curling by general laws” it was the four by two form of the game that was chosen and by the early 1860s this formed had ousted all the others. By 1842 the new national club had sought and obtained royal patronage, and it has ever since been known as the Royal Caledonian Curling Club.
From 1838 onwards the game exploded in popularity until by the last decades of the nineteenth century every county had at least one club affiliated with the Royal Club, and almost every parish in the land had its custom-made curling pond.
The Royal Club promoted the game by providing medals for play between member clubs, by favouring the institution of groups of clubs into provinces so that larger bonspiels could be played, and by the institution of Grand Matches whereby the North of Scotland could play the South, and in a very real sense the whole nation could participate in its “ain game”.
Originally curlers played on natural lochs and specially constructed ponds. Some seasons were barren, for the ice never carried. Though there had been indoor ice rinks at Manchester and Southport in the latter part of the nineteenth century it was not until 1907 that the first indoor rink in Scotland, Crossmyloof in Glasgow, was built. Two more rinks opened in Edinburgh in 1912, and one in Aberdeen in the same year. Only one survived in 1917. A new rink opened in Glasgow in 1928 – again at Crossmyloof – and nine more in the ice hockey boom of the late 1930s which followed the remarkable winning of the gold medal in that sport by the Great Britain team at the Winter Olympics in 1936. From the 1960s onwards there was a new boom in ice-rink building and in 2014 Scotland has twenty two rinks providing ice for the game.
If you are interested in finding out more about the history of the game visit the curling history blogspot.