1847: Penicuik Loch

It has been decided: Scotland The Brave will remain part of the United Kingdom. And with all the talk of Caledonia these last few weeks, it was inevitable my attention would turn to a great Caledonian sporting invention – Curling.

In its modern form teams of four (called rinks) slide 20 kilo-ish stones across 40 yards of ice (also called rinks) towards a target. The captain of the team – the ‘skip’ – issues instructions to the two sweepers who use their ‘besoms’ (brooms) to speed up the stone’s journey. There’s all this complicated strategic stuff as well, but that’s the bare bones of it.

The idea to slide big hunks of stone across ice is probably as old as, well, ice. But in the 1400s the sliding of ‘loofies’ became popular in the Scottish Low Lands. The Scots weren’t the first and only to think this was a fun way to while away the winter months – the Dutch, for example also curled with wooden ‘stones’. But the Scots took it to a whole new level.

Whilst most people think about golf as the Scots great gift to sporting-kind, curling is the game that captured the national imagination. In 1715 – eight years after the Act of Union – one curling enthusiast Alexander Penicuik opined:

To Curle on the Ice, does greatly please, Being a Manly Scotish Exercise.

Throughout the eighteenth century, the popularity of curling increased. It was affordable – the requirements being ice, riverstones and brooms – and post-match rituals were convivial, to say the least (whiskey anyone?). A great step was taken in 1795 with the formation of the Duddingston Curling Society. The DCS was to curling what the MCC was to cricket: they set out in writing the standard rules which were then taken up by other clubs. For example, it was the DCS who determined that curling stones should be round – not as obvious as it might seem.

The motto of the Duddigston Curling Society gives an insight into how curling was bound up in a sense of ‘Scottishness’:

Scoti: alii non aeque felices ‘This is how the Scots enjoy themselves: the rest of mankind is not so lucky’.

Then, in 1838, The Grand Caledonian Curling Club was formed. It was the peak body for curling as most of the clubs around Scotland joined thus creating a national association. The Club did a great deal to encourage curling in the nineteenth century by encouraging consistency and competition. For example, curling teams could have been made up of up to four people who threw two stones each or 6, 7, 8 players who would have each tossed one. The decision by The GCCC to set the standard rink at four made it easier to organise competition between clubs.

One of the grand ideas of the Grand Caledonians was ‘The Great Match’. First played during the great frost of 1847 at Penicuik Loch, the lake became an icy arena for a ‘bonspiel’ as teams from the north of Scotland pitted themsleves against those from the South. The train companies helped out by putting on ‘specials’ to transport the hundreds of teams and their supporters to Caresbreck. The historians of Scottish sport, John Burnett and David Smith have described The Great Match as “the whole nation at play”. And indeed it must have seemed that the whole nation did curl – far more than did golf. By 1869, for example, there were 58 golf clubs in the entire United Kingdom, but there were 414 curling clubs.

There have been 34 Grand Matches since 1847. In 1892, 300 rinks competed – that is 1200 competitors. In 1935 there were 644 teams. The last was in 1979 with 2500 competitors. Dependant on a good frost, the last one planned for 2009 was cancelled due to a bit of a thaw.

It’s a shame really. I imagine it must look beautiful, all those people moving in such concentrated devotion on the ice. A bonny sight indeed.

John Burnett and David Smith ‘Curling’ in Encyclopedia of traditional British Rural Sports ed. Tony Collins, John Martin and Wray Vamplew (Routledge: 2005).

The Oxford Companion to Scottish History ed. Michael Lynch (Oxford: 2001)

The New Penguin History of Scotland: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day ed. RA Houston and WWJ Knox (Penguin 2001)

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