The Early Years of Organised Curling Clubs in East Lothian (Haddingtonshire). What they tell us about “brither curlers”.

David Affleck, Independent Researcher

David Affleck retired from managing Social Work services in 1996. His long standing interest in how groups and communities function has since found an outlet in a number of social history research projects using transferable skills. Subjects of study range from Pittenweem Social History between 1800 and 1855, the first 100 years of the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society and the partnership between farmers of East Linton and the President of the Board of Agriculture to promote improvements and experiments in agriculture within the U K between 1793 and 1850. A keen club curler, he is currently analysing the early years of East Lothian’s constituted Curling Clubs.

This is a version of a paper originally given at the British Society of Sports History’s inaugural Scottish symposium, on 8 June 2013 in Glasgow.

The original title for my talk was to be A history of curling in East Lothian. As I reflected on the challenge of coming last in the programme and keeping you interested three things struck me. Firstly, curling is usually a team sport and teams can provide rich material for analysing group dynamics, one of my favourite interests. An editorial comment in the second edition of the Scottish Gardener of December 1852 referred to “party squabbles, discreditable cliques, splits in societies and fraudulent shows” as the alternative scenario to the theme of an article on “the pleasant side of Horticulture”! Secondly a recent BBC Scotland news programme asked the question as to why Scotland’s women curlers could win a world championship this year when the Scottish men’s football team cannot even qualify for Europe. The sport psychologist to the women’s successful team was asked to give the explanation. Thirdly, the person who plays last in a curling team could have the opportunity to win or lose a game with the last stone. Eve Muirhead did it this year in Finland when her team won the World Championship for Scotland. Being the last to play can in the sport of curling, can be an advantage.

The emergence of the organised club in the sport of curling began towards the end of the 18th century. There had been some clubs in the 17th century while the first reference to a game of curling was by a John McQuhin, a notary in Paisley and dated 16th February 1540/41. The organised game with standard rules arose from the formation of the Grand Caledonian Curling Club in 1838. It later became the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in 1843. Their adoption of the rules devised by the Duddingston Curling Club in January 1804 is still the basis for the modern world wide game.

My study started by looking at three East Lothian clubs in existence in 1838 when the national club was formed. The first was Dunglass and Cockburnspath, one of several clubs that depended on support of the estate proprietor, in this case, Sir James Hall of Dunglass. In his History of Curling, the Rev John Kerr said it was formed in 1831 but it did not affiliate with the new national organisation until 1851. Their surviving minute book dates from that time. By comparing the listed names of the first members with those submitted to the Royal Club at the time of the application to join and with the census of 1851, we know that the members were mainly farmers from Berwickshire. The Pease burn at Dunglass had been reported as a source for the early curling stones. Here are two examples. Sixteen of these stones belonging to Dunglass Curling Club were displayed at an exhibition in Glasgow in 1984-85 including the Jubilee stone presented to the RCCC in 1888 and weighing in at 117 lb. (53 kilo.) The modern game from 1838 had adopted the round stone. Were the Dunglass curlers still playing with the channel stones in 1851? John Kerr tells us they were the Sons of Anak, a quote from the Old Testament suggesting their opponents were “like grasshoppers in their sights”. Against opponents with the newer smaller round stones, it could have been a game of brawn versus brain. The absence of the earliest minutes means we do not know the answer but we do know that in 1900, they were not happy about a change of rules in a competition open to all East Lothian clubs so they opted to join Berwickshire instead. However, this sketch from their minute book dated 1887 suggests by that time they were using the standard round curling stone.

The second club was East Linton which was a founder member of the GCCC. The earliest entry in the surviving minute book starts in 1844. An attempt to rectify this has an entry dated 1838 but it is inserted after entries from 1846. The minute book makes no reference to the fact that its President, Sir David Baird, became the third President of the new national organisation in 1840/1841. While it listed the names of the original members for the period 1839 to 1843, Patrick Sherriff, the Secretary for the first four years is not mentioned. It is hard to believe that this was an error. The East Linton club had a social mix of age and occupation in its membership. It had an estate link which this early photograph indicates. This second early photograph of a match at Smeaton Lake is perhaps more representative of the membership. It was very competitive. When a new competition for this trophy was first played in 1859, the East Linton club were expected to win the trophy. They didn’t. It was won by a club from North Berwick who proceeded to have an inscribed silver medal attached to the trophy. In 1860, the second year of the competition, the men from East Linton won the cup and removed the silver medal attached. It was the cup they played for and nothing but the cup! Letters of complaints to the press followed. Today the cup is still competed for without any attached medal. The East Linton club is still competing today.

The third club Gladsmuir was founded in 1835. John Kerr reported it was founded by the Rev John Ramsay, the first curling historian and publisher of the rules of the Duddingston Curling Society. He was wrong. A local farmer and his friends had elected themselves at the first meeting. This was a dysfunctional club with members from a wide radius, riddled by mischief, inter-family strife, exercise of power by its first President, a John Deans who we now know was a thorn in the flesh to John Ramsay. He did not complain. By 1837, he had been unanimously elected President and supervised the construction of an artificial pond which would offer many more days of curling than waiting for deeper ponds to freeze. In 1841, he and four other members resigned leaving John Deans and his few associates to run a club which John Kerr said was more about dinner when the members were inclined rather than curling. It was not until after the death of John Deans in 1869 that a newcomer to the district with a belief in team spirit and the esprit de core associated with army life changed the club’s fortunes and put Gladsmuir Curling Club on the map.

In 1900 there were nineteen Curling clubs in East Lothian. Eight of them have now been analysed in depth. Two things then happened. A tour to Canada in 1902 which involved twenty-four curlers and their stones showed the value of the indoor rink. One in Glasgow opened in 1909 and was followed in 1912 with one on Edinburgh. The chairman of the Directors of that club was the President of the East Linton club. It had agreed to admit women in their membership in 1882 but it did not happen. In 1912, the first Ladies curling club was formed at the new Edinburgh rink.

What I have shared with you is a preview of some of the research material. You can read more about the early curling clubs in an article to be published in the British Association for Local History in August this year. Hopefully that will encourage further local research on curling clubs and their community links and improve our knowledge on the evolution of the game and the lives of the people who played a part in it.


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