Monday, 25 January 2016

Remember to stand back and always yell ‘Fore’!

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.
Sir Robert Sibbald

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’!

Further reading

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

Monday, 13 July 2015

Early-Modern Shinty in the Moray Firth

‘With all the keenness, accompanied by shouts, with which their forefathers had wielded claymores’: Early-Modern Shinty in the Moray Firth.

When researching the history of golf, it is clear that it was not the only sport played out on the links in the Moray Firth region. Shinty, a traditional Gaelic sport, was played throughout the Highlands and Islands and also around the Moray Firth. The sport went by multiple names such as chew and knotty. All were played with a curved wooden stick and a ball, the objective of the game was to drive the ball into the other team’s goal. The game could last for hours and could be played over vast areas. A match in the mid-eighteenth century was apparently played over ten miles near Dingwall. Two village teams gathered their men and met in the middle. By the end, only one player remained, the rest were too exhausted or injured to continue. So, being left alone to do his duty, he whacked the ball the remaining miles to the opposing village to secure the victory.
After the Reformation the Kirk tightened controls on Sunday sport in attempts to ensure complete observation of the Sabbath. People profaning the Sabbath, by heading out to the links for sport instead of attending sermon, was a continual thorn in the side of ministers during the early modern period. However, despite the best efforts of ministers and session elders Sunday sports continued. In the eighteenth century, the Kirk adopted a more lenient approach and fewer sportsmen were officially charged.
The first references of playing at the ‘chew’, a variation of shinty played with a cork float rather than a wooden ball, appear in Elgin in the early seventeenth century. While the game play resembled shinty, the name ‘the chew’ was likely derived from the French game ‘la soule’, a popular ball and stick game played from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century. It is possible that this variation of the game came to the region from trading connections with Europe, especially because the first instance of chew being played was by two sons of Edward Auldcorn, known as ‘Dutchman’. Between 1599 and 1618 no fewer than seven cases of playing chew, instead of attending sermon, were heard before the Elgin Kirk Session. By the summer of 1601, the elders were at wits end with chew players and other sportsmen. Therefore, they made an example out of the troublesome Thomas Makean. He was forced to pay 10s. to the kirk, stay in the steeple for 48 hours and then repent publicly at the joggis. The joggis was a form of public humiliation where an iron collar and chain leash, fixed to a post or wall at the market, was placed around the perpetrator’s neck. Although Makean would have felt the full shame of his deeds, it did not stop other sportsmen from playing chew on Sundays in Moray.
Elsewhere, ministers tried inventive ways to stop Sunday shinty matches.  Daniel Bethune, the minister of Rosskeen in Easter-Ross from 1717 to 1754, ingeniously halted the customary Sunday shinty match. In the early years of his tenure, he approached the leader of the AR dross men, who was famed for his strength and ability at the sport. After serious persuasion he convinced the team captain to become a session elder. Little did the captain know that his first duty as a new elder was to stop the Sunday games! The following week the session elder walked to the playing-grounds with his caman in-hand. He announced to his former compatriots that if they continued at their Sunday games they would feel the full weight of his cudgel. Afterwards, ‘the players thereupon quietly retired, and never afterwards met again on the Sunday for a like purpose.’
Shinty, and sport in general, when played on non-religious days, however, was accepted by the kirk. For example, New Year’s Day was a popular day for celebrations and sport. In Dornoch shinty was played annually on New Years’ day. Men and boys from the working classes took to the links at 11AM and would play until dark. Donald Sage wrote, they played ‘with all the keenness, accompanied by shouts, with which their forefathers had wielded claymores.’ With their blood up and tempers flared the match resembled more of a battle rather than a game. Injuries were common and one unfortunate soul, Andrew Colin, died from being struck in the head by the ball.
Bystanders were also at risk of being injured during shinty matches. In 1770, George Gunn, a customs officer from Thurso wrote a letter to the local magistrate demanding an inquiry into the actions of James Mackie, the officer of excise in the burgh. Gunn reported that he was on his usual stroll along the beach after work when he was attacked by Mackie, who abandon his match specifically to chase Gunn down and beat him to the ground with his knotty stick. Subsequently, Mackie shouted abuses at Gunn and followed him home yelling at him the entire way. The records unfortunately do not tell us how the issue was resolved.
These colourful anecdotes tell us much about shinty and when it was played during the early modern period. The Kirk was keen to stop Sunday matches and used fines, confinement and public humiliation to deter sportsmen from profaning the Sabbath. They also hatched clever, and manipulative, plans to turn former players against their fellows. However, when shinty did not interfere with the Sabbath, ministers left it alone. It remained a popular festive game and was played frequently throughout the year. Golfers, then, were hardly alone out on the links. It is likely that across the Moray Firth many occasionally set down their slender jointed clubs and picked up their caman, joining their neighbours for a lively bit of fun.

If you want to know more about the early material culture of shinty in Sutherland, follow this link:
William Cramond (ed.), Extracts of the Elgin Kirk Session 1584-1779 (Elgin, 1897).
Roger Hutchinson, Camanachd! The Story of Shinty 2nd ed. (Edinburgh, 2004).
Hugh Dan MacLennan, Not an Orchid (Inverness, 1995).
Tony Money, Manly & Muscular Diversions: Public Schools and the Nineteenth-Century Sporting Revival (London, 2001).
Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica; or, Parish Life in the North of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1889).
 ‘Papers of the Sinclair family of Freswick, Caithness 1523-1891’ National Records of Scotland, GD136.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Driving Forward Education in the North of Scotland

The creation of the new Professional Golf BA (Hons) degree at the University of the Highlands and Islands, North Highland College-Dornoch, in association with the Royal Dornoch Golf Club, has further solidified the connection between golf and education in the north of Scotland. In Dornoch, the country’s favourite pastime has been connected to education for at least 400 years! Since the seventeenth century, golf has had an integral role in the education of young Scots. John, the adolescent earl of Sutherland, was known to golf, ride and practice his archery while enrolled at the Dornoch Grammar School from 1616. The connection between golf and education can be traced back even further. James Melville, a student of St. Andrews University in 1574, was a golfing fanatic. His journal reflected his passion for the sport and was illustrative of how it was played. He also recounted that Robert Stewart, Bishop of Caithness, whose seat was at the Dornoch Cathedral, was a very competent sportsman who favoured golf and archery above all other recreations.

The young earl of Sutherland continued his education in Edinburgh and in St. Andrews. It was there where he befriended James Graham, the earl of Montrose. The young earls were archery, hunting and dining companions. Montrose’s accounts frequently recorded expenses for golfing. Unfortunately, Sutherland’s accounts are not as thorough but it is very likely that he joined Montrose on the links. The next generation of Sutherlands continued to play golf while pursuing their education in London from 1654 to 1656. About this time, David Wedderburn, headmaster of the Aberdeen Grammar School, solidified golf’s position in grammar school curricula with his vastly popular Latin phrasebook, Vocabula. This book served as a learning aid for pupils, introducing them to conversational Latin. It remained in print from 1636 until the early eighteenth century. It dicussed numerous sports such as Archus (Archery), Bacculus (Golf), Globi (Bowls) and Pila Pedalis (Football) so that the students would continue to use Latin while out on the links exercising. 

The links at Aberdeen, as well as at Dornoch, had long been associated with sport. Gordon of Rothiemay in 1661 described the links as a place for sport. In 1715 Forbes of Forveran wrote that golf and bowls on the Queen’s links were healthy recreations for school and university pupils. As far back as 1594, James VI secured Monday afternoons for school pupils’ recreation, to help mitigate the profanation of the Sabbath by practicing sport on Sundays. Kings and Marischal Colleges then designated supervised periods of physical education on the links for their students.  The links were a busy place and cheers and jeers would have been heard from students for keen strikes as well as for duffed shots. 

In the eighteenth century, golf, along with other sports, remained an important feature of a young Scottish gentleman’s education. In the nineteenth century, during the heyday of club formations in Scotland, and subsequently Britain, the association between golf and education persisted. While many schools supported team sports to teach leadership skills and teamwork, they also encouraged golf. It offered an opportunity to hone precision, develop strategic thinking and provided moderate and healthy exercise. From 1879, to the beginning of The Great War, 385 golfing societies were founded in British cities, eighteen percent of those were associated with education! In Edinburgh alone, there were twenty-two golf societies linked to educational institutions.

The Royal Dornoch Golf Club and the University of the Highlands and Islands continue this tradition. Together they further affirm the importance of golf in the educational experience of school pupils and university students, as well as providing them an opportunity to make it a career. The launch of the Professional Golf degree, the impressive record of the Golf Management degree and the support of the Royal Dornoch PhD Studentship drives Dornoch forward as a leading centre for golf and an excellent place to obtain a robust education. As students walk up to the first tee after class to enjoy an evening round they should recognise that they are following in the footsteps of generations of golfing students. 

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Merry-Making on the Tidal Mud Flats at Meikle Ferry: An Extreme Fishing Expedition or Sport Induced Madness?

Merry-Making on the Tidal Mud Flats at Meikle Ferry: An Extreme Fishing Expedition or Sport Induced Madness?

Four centuries ago on the north shore of the Dornoch Firth there was a sight to behold. Hundreds of people amassed on the sands at Portnaculter, present-day Meikle Ferry, at low tide to participate in what can be described as a folk horse-race/mass fishing expedition. An account of this peculiar practice was cemented in history by Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun in A Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland. Gordon explained that in the spring and summer when the streams ran into the firth at low tide, six to seven hundred of ‘the commoun sort of inhabitant doe convene on hors-bak... and so doe swim toards these sands; and when they doe aryve upon these beds of sand, incontinent they run their horses at full speed, stryveing who can first aryve at the fishing place, wher they doe indevoar, with all dilli-gence to tak these [sand eels].’  These small fish were actual sand eels. The race quickly could become chaotic and cutthroat: ‘as they doe run their horses, the rest doe tak no notice thereof to res-cue them, bot suffer them to ly ther among the horse feitt, and run on their intendit course’. Even watching the racers pounding across the beach at low timed towards the sandbanks would have been tremendously exciting.

HistoryLinks: Photograph of the inner Dornoch Firth looking northward.

We don’t know much about horse racing in the Moray Firth There are just a few accounts at Tain, Inverness, Banff, Huntly and Aberdeen from the 1630s until the mid-nineteenth century. However, these events seem well organised and attracted gentlemen from a large area. The Inverness race attracted men from as far away as Inverlochy Castle, near Fort William. Each race had a silver prize for the winner. The prizes included a silver cup at Inverness (the patron unknown), a silver cup at Banff, engraved silver hilted broad swords at the Huntly and silver plate at Aberdeen provided by the Dukes of Gordon.

The race at Meikle Ferry was not quite the same as these highly organised and prestigious events. The trophies for the winner of this race were full bellies for months to come. The race for the sand eels was not just about stocking the larder. Gordon noted that ‘they tak such abundance during some few days, that it sufficeth them for pro-visions of that kind of fish during lent, and most pairt of the yeir following’. It is clear that taking the fish also served a religious purpose. Sport in this period functioned on two levels: it was exciting recreation and it provided the people of Sutherland the opportunity to gather the fish they required for this holy period. Unfortunately the history of many of these folk races have been lost, along with other folk sports, as they were part of larger events and either no record of them were created or survive. This is especially true when no official prize was given. Gordon’s account of the race therefore provides a rare window into the past demonstrating the presence of folk horse racing on the Dornoch Firth.

The sands at Meikle Ferry were not the only location for horse racing. Gordon provides a little hint of forgotten races on the links at Dornoch. As ‘about this toun... ther are the fairest and largest linkes... of any pairt of Scotland, fitt for archery, goffing, ryding, and all other exercise; they doe surpasse the feilds of Montrose or St Andrews’.  Across the Firth, the Tain links were also a site of horseracing as well as golf up until the mid-nineteenth century. After that part of the links were ploughed. Just as elsewhere around the Moray Firth, the people who lived around the Dornoch Firth were very active horse racers. At Meikle Ferry the invigorating recreational pursuit was interwoven with the celebration of Lent, and fish, rather than silver, was the prize. The frenzy of activity at Portnaculter, leaving deep hoof prints in the mud, was an exciting community occasion. Was it sport induced madness or an extreme fishing expedition? I am sure for participants it was both, as the galloped at full speed towards the best fishing spots leaving the neighbours behind.

Historylinks: Meikle Ferry.

Robert Gordon, Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland from its Origin to the Year 1630: with a Continuation to the Year 1651 (Edinburgh, 1813).
Black’s Picturesque Tourist Guide to Scotland (Edinburgh, 1852).
William Mackay (ed.), The Chronicles of the Frasers: The Wardlaw Manuscript...The True Genealogy of the Frasers 916-1674 (Edinburgh, 1905).
Papers of the Gordon Family, Dukes of Gordon (Gordon Castle Muniments), GD44, National Archives of Scotland.

Friday, 30 January 2015

The Royal Dornoch PhD Studentship: The Early-Modern Golf Industry in the Moray Firth and Aberdeen By Wade Cormack

The professionalisation of a sport is an important part of their development. Prior to professional golfers, however, many Scotsmen were involved in professions related to golf such as ball and club makers, merchants and greens keepers. These professions were necessary for the sport’s development and supported enthusiasts at their favourite pastime. Golf in the Moray Firth and Aberdeen, as the evidence suggests, was a popular and sophisticated sport. While many historians of golf have scrutinised the sport at the major southern golfing centres, it is necessary to acknowledge that the Moray Firth and Aberdeen also contributed to the development and definition of one of Scotland’s favourite sports.

References to golf, as we already know, date back to the mid-fifteenth century; however, specific references to people involved in the creation of golfing equipment do not become readily available for another century. Interestingly, especially for small golfing centres, club and ball making were not always done by a noted professional. For example, accomplished bow makers often times made clubs, just as cobblers (shoemakers) periodically stitched golf balls, if there was a demand for such goods. Therefore, it is difficult to judge accurately the actual size of the early-modern golf industry. Nevertheless, documentary evidence can illuminate important details about how it functioned and those involved.

Legal disputes concerning the lawful production of golf balls in Edinburgh date back to 1554, when a group of cobblers were found illegally making featheries. King James VI, a known patron of the game, intervened in the industry in 1618 and granted James Melville a twenty-one year monopoly for ball making. Melville’s high-handed actions however created further legal action as his rivals from Leith petitioned the Privy Council in 1629 for their intervention. John Dickson, one of the petitioners against Melville, moved from Leith to Aberdeen in 1642 and found a new market for his golf ball making abilities. Dickson then received a licence for his craft from the burgh, as the community was without such a craftsman. The professionalization of the craft continued westward to Elgin. In 1652 George Watsone, mentioned in a previous post, appeared in the Elgin council records as a burgess and ‘golfballmaker’ in a non-golf related commercial dispute. Further evidence suggests that golf ball making did not stop in the region in the eighteenth century, as the Earl of Seafield and Findlater placed an order for a dozen to be sent to him from Aberdeen in the winter of 1711 and 1712.

Old Royal Dornoch Golf Club
Old Royal Dornoch Golf Club

To compliment the work of Dickson and Watsone, Alexander Gordon and his son James plied their trade making golf clubs as burgesses of Banff from 1652 to at least 1691. Elgin also had a number of club-makers and bowers operating in the burgh during the mid-seventeenth century, as the council assured them that even in old age they would retain their status in municipal affairs. During the seventeenth century the golfing industry thrived in the north and a cohort of talent craftsmen devoted their working lives to golf and ensured enthusiasts, who had the money, had all the necessary equipment for the sophisticated game of golf.

By the mid-eighteenth century Scottish golf had reached another stage in its development, with the official founding of the Honourable Company of Gentleman Golfers and the drafting of the first set of rules. The Moray Firth and Aberdeen were also participating in this development. For example, in Cromarty an informal golfing and dinning club had formed in the mid-century that attracted numerous gentleman and merchants from the surrounding Black Isle and Easter Ross. Chief among them were Sir Charles Ross of Balnagown, Sheriff McLeod of Geanis, and William Forsyth. After enjoying themselves on the links the gentlemen would retire to Forsyth’s home for his generous hospitality. But that begs the question, who was supplying them with their equipment and wine? David Alston points to James Fraser, a local merchant from the Black Isle. Fraser’s account book from 1755 to 1759 illuminates the business transaction of this golfing fanatic. His business mainly consisted of importing luxury goods, such as Lisbon wine for Mr. Forsyth, and exporting grains and salmon. However, his book also recorded the sale of a golf club to Mr Hugh Munro. Fraser’s trading connections were vast, so it is difficult to pinpoint the club’s origins. It possibly came from Elgin or Banff, or from one of his trips to Edinburgh and Glasgow, where he purchased numerous golf balls and paid multiple caddies.

Twenty years later, in 1777 the Fraserburgh Golf Club was formed, followed shortly by the Aberdeen Golf Club in 1780. The charter for Fraserburgh’s golf club had many notable members including Lord Saltoun, Sir William Forbes of Fettercairn and Pitsligo, Alexander Garden of Troup. The club’s charter is excellent tool to understand the social network of the golfer that met every third Tuesday from April to September, acting in a similar way to Cromarty’s club. However, the charter illuminates another development of the game in the north: the designation of the role of the greens keeper and his salary.

It is clear then, that although the ‘Metropolis of Golf’ was centred at St. Andrews and the monopoly on golf ball making was in Edinburgh, the Moray Firth and Aberdeen were also active in the early-modern golf industry. The ball and club-makers, in addition to merchants, were selling their wares within a competitive market, as it was not uncommon for gentlemen to order equipment from the south. However, judging by the number of noted craftsmen and the length of time they were active, they adequately supplied the local market. Importantly in the formation of the sophisticated game played today, the eighteenth century witnessed the creation of a new profession, the greens keepers, to maintain the links and keep them at their best. So, next time you are at the Royal Dornoch Golf Club and you see Eoin and his crew out maintaining the course, and likewise see Andrew, Gary and Sean in the Pro Shop, know that they are following in the footsteps of a host of talents and experienced professionals who devoted their lives to the game of golf. 

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Royal Dornoch PhD Studentship: Winter Golf By Wade Cormack

Sitting inside the club house at the Royal Dornoch, next to the windows overlooking the links, the sun begins to set at 4:00PM and it is apparent that winter is fast approaching.  Turning my gaze towards the east, the North Sea crashes against the beach, to the south, past the stack of the Glenmorangie Distillery, the hills behind the Struie will start to accumulate snow and to the west, the glistening white pointed peaks will announce their presence against the blue winter skies.

This sight, from down on the links is breathtaking for golfers and non-golfers alike. Here, though, the snow does not fall as deep, or like last winter, rarely at all. The placement of the winter tees signals the beginning of a new golfing season. Although the temperature is dropping and the sunlight lacks its nearly constant glow of the summer months, golf in Dornoch continues with enthusiasm as members adjust their game for winter play.

Royal Dornoch Golf Club
(Dornoch Castle in the Winter from the West 1950, Source:

Royal Dornoch Golf Club
(The 13th Green, the Championship Course December 2010 Source:

Golfers in Scotland have rarely languished in the winter months but remained active continuing their favourite pastime. Sir Samuel Forbes’ 1715 description of the Queen’s Links in Aberdeen provides insight into the favoured winter sport. He wrote that along the Queen’s Links ‘the one end of which field, affords a healthfull summer recreation of short bowls; and the other end, the like healthfull winter recreation of the gowff ball’. The links were indeed an active site of recreation in Aberdeen with university students and grammar school pupils taking to the fields alongside their adult counterparts. Dornoch’s praised links were also busy with sports during the school term. In the seventeenth century we have multiple references to Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun, tutor to the young Earl of Sutherland, purchasing bows, arrows, golf clubs and balls along with other ‘necessars for his lordship’s exercise’ to be used while at school in town. 

Thirty years later, when the Earl of Sutherland’s two sons were in London, they also enjoyed golf during the winter months, as their expenses list the purchase of equipment in mid-November of 1656. The Earl of Findlater and Seafield, travelling in the opposite direction, north from London to his seat at Cullen House,  purchased a set of golf clubs for his son, Lord Deskford, in Edinburgh before returning home in the autumn of 1711. The Earl himself also enjoyed golfing near Cullen throughout the autumn and into the winter months of 1712 and 1713, as he recorded the purchase a dozen golf balls that were to be sent from Aberdeen.

While the elite have left numerous expense accounts for purchasing golf equipment in preparation for winter play, we know that the common people were also playing golf during the winter months. The kirk session was vigilant that people were to observe the Sabbath and attend sermon; however, on occasion, avid golfers contemplated their place with God while out on the links. For example, on 19 January, 1596 Walter Hay of Elgin was accused of playing bowls and golf on Sunday during the time of divine service and was fined accordingly.  Fifty years later in Elgin, golf related business remained active in the winter months. George Watsone, a burgess and golf ball maker, was brought before the burgh magistrates who reprimanded him for not settling his debts and instructed him to pay Alexander Geddes for a set of golf clubs he had purchased in February 1649. 

From these few examples, it is clear that golf has been enjoyed in both the summer and winter months. From the elite to the more common ranks of society, golf was played and business continued as snow began to accumulate on the hills. Although there were fewer hours of daylight and the temperature had cooled, golf in Scotland, and especially along the Moray Firth region, was an enjoyable winter sport. So, put on your hats, throw on another layer of clothing, fill your flask up with tea and do not let your golf clubs gather dust. Golf in Scotland is not just a fair weather sport but fit for all seasons.

Friday, 21 November 2014

The Royal Dornoch PhD Studentship: Introduction By Wade Cormack

Thank you for reading the first instalment of my blog. My name is Wade Cormack. I am the post-holder of the Royal Dornoch PhD Studentship at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Centre for History. In my blog I will discuss my research as it unfolds as I investigate the history of early-modern sport and physical education in northern Scotland.
Specifically, I examine the coastal plain that stretches from Wick in the north, to Beauly in the south-west and to Aberdeen in the east. Geographically, it is a low-lying and largely fertile area flanked by the Highlands at its back and the North Sea to its front. Historically, writers have marvelled at how the north and the south shores of the firth share similar landscape features with corresponding rivers and rises and depressions in elevation. In the early-modern period there were a number of important royal burghs that dotted shoreline. They were centres of trade, civil and ecclesiastical administration and sport!
Culturally, this region was neither totally Highland nor Lowland in nature but a mixture of the two. Similar to other geo-cultural boundary areas in Scotland, the Highland and Lowland cultures and landscapes converge and ideas, customs and goods were exchanged. Take for example, sport. In the burghs of Dornoch and Elgin, both with their cathedrals and royal burgh status, golf was played by the inhabitants. Golf, was a largely Lowland sport thrived in this northern region, as the links were, and still are, a great quality. However, in Dornoch and Elgin golf was at times played alongside the Gaelic sport of shinty. Here, then, we have an overlap of sporting traditions and cultures. While golf was played out on the links by small-independent groups of people, shinty was a festive sport, played at least yearly, but especially around Yule, that involved large numbers of townsfolk who often battled until darkness to settle who would claim victory for the day.

From 1600 to 1800 sport in Scotland transformed, as it did elsewhere in Britain and in Europe. The early instances of improvised and festive sports slowly changed into what we would recognise today. Catalysts for this change were the codification of rules, the standardisation of equipment and the creation of sporting associations. These changes happened slowly at first, but rapidly increased with the dawn of the nineteenth century. From the 1830s onward, sport transformed at a gallop pace. It was institutionalised, massive spectator events became popular and there was a division between amateur and professional athletes. 

In the following blog entries I examine the early history of golf in the north, the rise of new sport related professions and how the informal game of golf was formalised. Next, I investigate the history of archery, bowls, football, horseracing and shinty in this region. Importantly, my blog explores who controlled sport, where and when it was to be played, and who the active participants were. The history of sport in early-modern Scotland is still largely unknown. My aim here is to slowly pull back veil of time and uncover what Scottish sport was like and how it was interwoven with cultural practices within this region.
Until next time, all the best,
Wade Cormack