Remember to stand back and always yell ‘Fore’!
Early modern golf, compared to many of its contemporary sports, was rather genteel. The nature of the game lends itself to moderate exercise, precision, concentration and patience. When compared to early modern shinty, or football for that matter, golf possessed a limited amount of danger for its participants and did not unravel into riot. That is, until libations were consumed at the nineteenth-hole dinner parties! However, that is not to say the history of the sport is not without its unfortunate incidents.
Thomas Mathison’s The Goff (1743) was the first book, a satirical poem, dedicated to golf. The publication clearly shows that there was an element of the game that did not always sit well with others. The links were a multi-purpose space and were used for drying fishing nets; for collecting household building material; grazing of livestock; and, of course, playing sport. Occasionally, these purposes collided. Mathison wrote:
The harmless sheep, by Fate decreed to fall.
Feels the dire fury of the rapid ball;
Full on her front the raging bullet flew,
And sudden anguished siez’d the silent ew;
Stagg’ring she falls upon the verdant plain,
Convulsive pangs distract her wounded brain.
The shepherd, who owned this sheep, was certainly less then pleased about his poor ewe being hit. On inspecting the object that caused the ‘convulsive pangs’, Mathieson continued:
Then to the ball his horny foot applies;
Before his foot the kick’d offender flies;
The hapless orb gaping face detain’d
Deep sunk in sand the hapless orb remain’d
On the links the feathery clearly could cause havoc. On 23 April 1785 an inaccurate shot on the links of Portsoy proved fatal. A group of young men gathered to take part in their favoured amusement; however, things soon went awry. A young girl had wandered out onto the links, unbeknownst to the golfers. One young man lined up his shot but it must not have come off the club well and rocketed towards the young girl, hitting her on the head, fracturing her skull. Unfortunately, the poor young soul succumbed to her injury the following morning. The news of the incident travelled throughout the north-east and was reported in The Aberdeen Journal on 2 May. The newspaper did not mention the names of the poor young girl or the young gentlemen out on the links but would have served as a warning to the readership. The golfers were to be aware of the pedestrians on the links and the non-players needed to keep their heads on a swivel, on the lookout for feather-fill projectiles.
Spatial awareness has not always prevailed among golfers. In 1690 Sir Robert Sibbald was out walking in the Leith links and found himself in the middle of game of golf. Distracted by his thoughts, Sibbald walked into the backswing of a youngster and his face required some serious medical attention. The fate of the young boy, however, was not recorded. That was not the end of Sibbald though, he returned to work and finished his illustrious career as a physician, professor of medicine and geographer.
Closer to home, a century later on the Tain links, two friends ventured out one evening for a round. The game was concluded abruptly when ‘Hugh stood rather too close to Havana’s side and drawing his club with full force he hit Hugh in the brow.’ Hugh was knocked unconscious and fell to the ground and remained bed bound for quite some time afterwards. Many were worried for his health because he ‘fell as if he were dead’.
Although these anecdotes are rather amusing, their warning remains important in the current day. When you are out for your next round always remember, stand back from your fellow players and yell ‘FORE’!
Thomas Mathison, The Goff (Edinburgh, 1743)
W. Macgill, Old Ross-Shire and Scotland as seen in the Tain and Balnagown Documents (Inverness, 1909)
O. Geddes, A Swing Through Time: Golf in Scotland 1457-1744 (Edinburgh, 2007)
Aberdeen Journal, 2 May 1785