Scottish football and popular culture, 1865-1914

Matthew L. McDowell, University of Edinburgh

The following is the rough (though slightly edited) text of a talk that I gave at The Scotland England Match conference at De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History and Culture on 26 October 2013. I’ve been pleased with the media attention that it’s gotten after Martyn McLaughlin’s recent Scotland on Sunday feature on my talk, so I figured I would release it in full. Enjoy.


Those coming to see some brand new research, you’re probably going to find that there’s only a wee bit in here you haven’t heard or read before; so, my apologies if I’m doing a bit too much regurgitation today. And today, given my research, I’m mainly talking about Scottish football before 1914: specifically, how was Scottish football reflective of the nation’s wider popular culture? And, to a certain extent, how was it related to Scotland’s own sense of national identity, within the context of the United Kingdom, and beyond?

Scottish football’s historiography shares problems with Scottish historiography at large: there is an awful lot about what Scottish history means, but large gaps with regard to its specifics. If we go around the room, most people will already ‘know’ what Scottish football is about: tartan and sectarianism. Our general conclusions on the history of Scottish sport and leisure, perhaps understandably, run a bit skin deep. My paper today – as with quite a bit of my research on the early history of Scottish association football – seeks to change the terms of the debate somewhat, and will examine the early years of the SFA, the SFL and organised Scottish football in the broader context of Scottish popular culture. And, rather than go over the usual ‘origin myths’ of Scottish football again, let’s try to look a bit deeper: what was its wider cultural place during the period 1865-1914? Keeping in mind, of course, that my research mostly focuses on the west of Scotland, Buteshire – and, to a lesser extent, Argyll during this period.


My book came out earlier this year: it’s a somewhat flawed volume: despite its release date, most of it was written several years ago, and I got sidetracked with various personal and professional issues which delayed its release. One or two of my conclusions in it are a bit dated. Nevertheless, it represented an earnest attempt to shift the parameters of Scottish football’s historiography. Some of the best quantitative academic research comes courtesy of Wray Vamplew, who did quite a bit of research on early Scottish football for his classic monograph Pay up and play the game, and Neil Tranter, whose work on nineteenth century sport in Stirlingshire remains some of the standard quantitative analyses of Victorian sport in the UK. Around the same time came Bill Murray’s groundbreaking analysis of the Old Firm, which, in time, was criticised by social scientist Gerry Finn for placing what he believed was undue emphasis on Irish migrants for creating ‘sectarianism’. It was an often robust debate, but it nevertheless advanced the parameters of historical research considerably when discussing ethno-religious bigotry in Scotland. Some work by Joe Bradley and John Kelly – most of it sociological rather than historical – has also advanced our understanding of the Irish diaspora’s role in Scottish sport’s modern-day culture.

But, in the past ten years or so, history has begun recontextualising the Old Firm as part of wider popular-cultural panoply within Scottish society. In particular, Vamplew’s and Joyce Kay’s work has considerably enhanced our understanding of early British/Scottish sport and philanthropy, and Jessica Macbeth and David Gutzke have started examining the gender context of Scottish football’s history. The grassroots, aside from the work of Tranter, is still waiting to play its part in Scottish football’s historiography: surprising, especially given that Scotland’s grassroots football, particularly its ‘junior’ (semi-professional) clubs remain understudied within historical and sociological literature. Most important for purposes of this paper: we have to acknowledge that Scotland’s football culture, the success of Scottish footballers in England, its sad history of ethno-religious discrimination, and its heavily masculinised culture are, inevitably, part and parcel of understanding Scottish footballers’ relationship with work. It calls for a nuanced approach: we must acknowledge that Scottish football was formed within a social milieu unique to Scotland: Presbyterian popular culture itself was highly activist, and friendly societies and other associational-cultural bodies of Scottish society were long a part of the fabric of communities, often incorporated into Scotland’s system of burghal/municipal government previous to the Union of 1707. This was an associational culture, of course, that was highly discriminatory towards Catholic migrants from Ireland.

We must also acknowledge that, as education and local government are highly acknowledged to have played their part in moulding British sport, there are, of course, different systems of education and local government up north that played their part. We’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of Scotland’s different systems of property and law, which no doubt played their part; usually this gets talked about with regard to the Highland Clearances, golf and deer hunting, but we need to examine its wider implications. And yet, strict nationalist interpretations of Scottish football’s history are still bold ones: we must necessarily acknowledge that the movement of people and capital within the UK, and beyond it, is crucial towards understanding its history, especially during this period. My current work reinforces that Scottish football’s relationships with broader British and European trends of work and migration must be studied further; my own research only begins to broach the surface of that.

In re-evaluating Scottish football’s history, we must start at some ill-defined ‘beginning’, such as there can be one. One panel at the recent Football 150 conference at the National Football Museum in Manchester examined this. Tony Collins discussed the ‘primordial soup’ from whence most major codes of global football came, including association football (or soccer), rugby, American and Canadian football, Australian football, Gaelic football, and other codes that have long since died out, and have been left unstudied by us. Gavin Kitching speculated that the dynamism of the Scottish game was a critique of ‘English’ football of the Sheffield FA, one which was based up the specialism of trades in Clydeside employment. Recent research, meanwhile, by the likes of Adrian Harvey, Peter Swain and Collins, has emphasised the role that wider nineteenth-century economics of sport, including gambling, had on moulding a ‘football culture’ that previous historiography had insisted came out of nowhere.

Very little of this sort of research, however, examines Scotland, and very little has been done on Scotland during the early- to mid-nineteenth century: by myself included. The additional recent research of John Hutchinson, and earlier Neil Tranter, on the no-hands football-playing circle which surrounded controversial Conservative town councillor John Hope in Edinburgh – during the mid-nineteenth century – hints that this is but one of many traditions which might have existed during the mid-nineteenth century. Andy Mitchell, in his research on the early years of Queen’s Park, has also noted that it is significant that several of the first members of QP, Scotland’s first official football club, formed in 1867 – were all based at Fordyce Academy in the tiny village of Fordyce, Aberdeenshire – QP, like Celtic and Rangers, are also a part of Scottish football’s historic link to migration. In his recent address at Football 150, Roy Hay stated that, within searchable newspaper databases of Scottish newspapers, there are 130 references to ‘Football’ during the period 1800-49, this number inevitably increases when you use different search terms: for example, ‘Footfall’ (and there a lot of historical, regional weekly newspapers in Scotland which have not been digitised).

Football was a well-known, if nebulous quantity by the mid-nineteenth century: beyond regular ba’ game traditions at Jedburgh and Duns in the Borders, and Kirkwall in Orkney, there were also regular ‘football’ matches associated with Fastern’s E’en (Shrove Tuesday) in Kilmarnock during the mid-nineteenth century – this was a festival that also included cock-fighting. So it was this football culture – a culture of community, a culture of gambling, and a culture of fun that saw itself propelled into a more organised spectator arena by the 1870s. While for example, Kilmarnock Football Club may have been started by ex-cricketers based at Kilmarnock Academy, such a popular, and indeed earthy game, could not have sprung up over night. We cannot and should not conflate the origins of some of Scottish football’s institutions the existence of something which was new. As Hay has stated, football could not have ‘exploded’ the way that it did if it was a ‘new’ thing.

The press

In large part, football’s ‘explosion’ can be linked to the growth of a newspaper press, both of sporting-only newspapers and the dailies, once they got their reportage act together. Sporting newspapers were a part of what Matthew McIntire and others have referred to as the ‘New Journalism’, which prospered after the 1853 abolition of the advertisement tax, and 1855 repeal of the stamp duty took place. The ‘New Journalism’ was a mix of conviction and sensationalism which allowed for the publication, in some cases, of frivolities like gossip and sport. As David Hutchison has stated, Scotland was too distant a location to become swamped by London dailies; often, editions would arrive via railway too late to be considered immediate news. This allowed Scotland, at least in part, to keep its own regional papers. Scotland’s first sporting-only paper to arrive was the Scottish Athletic Journal, born on Friday, 1 September 1882. Two years later saw the arrival of the Scottish Umpire, and the two very different papers were forced to merge into Scottish Sport in 1888 upon the November arrival of Scottish Referee, a comprehensive, in-depth paper on sport (especially) sold at the low cost of one halfpenny, easily within the price of labourers. These were, undoubtedly, sensational and highly opinionated papers, with a network of correspondents who were surely football players and officials themselves. Initially, these ‘members of the press’ were more middle-class, and this manifests itself in the sympathetic treatment of Queen’s Park, Scotland’s self-appointed football ‘missionaries’. The fact that, by the mid-1870s, football games were even covered at all marked a major change in the reporting of football from previous centuries: Hay has rightfully stated that the impetus for football to become more organised quite probably came from journalists, rather than from within the private schools.

Technology inevitably played its part in modernising the reporting of sport: in his 1895 memoir, Alexander Sinclair, the managing partner of the Glasgow Herald, stated that carrier pigeons were originally used to relay results from the pitch to the local telegraph offices, who then relayed the news to the newspaper offices; but by the advent of the telephone, this baroque method became obsolete. It was around that time that more photographs began appearing in newspapers; and, even when they did, photography was still a highly impractical process. As Mike Huggins and others have stated, etchings and sketches remained an important part of drawing the general atmosphere of football matches from the 1870s onwards. The Bailie, a semi-satirical newspaper which chronicled Glasgow’s elite and celebrities, from the 1870s onwards showed sketches of footballers and games. Amongst the ranks of these sketch artists were John Mackay Hamilton – a pantomime periodical publisher – and Alexander Stuart Boyd, who crossed over from satirical publications like The Bailie and Quiz, to sketch football. Before moving onto London in 1891, and later New Zealand, Boyd drew football matches, though it remained a distant passion. In one collection of his work, Boyd stated that he felt uncomfortable drawing sport:

I cannot claim to have been [a sport enthusiast], and it may be observed that in this sketch the sports are got over in disgracefully slipshod fashion, while the pencil has been busy with the characteristic individuals in the general crowd of easy-going promenaders…[1]

So even in the press treatment of football, there was crossover from showbiz…

Sociability, music hall and tourism

… and indeed, if we are talking about crossover from pantomime, we are talking about a world that had considerable entertainment-industry cache, even around 1900. So, as Huggins and Keith Gregson have stated previously, early English soccer and its off-the-pitch performative culture owed quite a bit to music hall. Dave Russell has also recently explored the links between late nineteenth/early twentieth century and music, including several Scottish songs which make reference to sport appearing in music hall repertoire south of the Border. Along with singing choirs which existed as part of teams (for example, Queen’s Park, Rangers, and Port Glasgow Athletic and many, many more all had them), the existence of music hall songs and pantomime-like programmes in the socials and ‘conversaziones’ of Scottish football clubs directly placed the early organised game within the broader gamut of popular culture. As Paul Maloney states, Scottish music hall underlined a specifically Scottish kind of imperial patriotism – there was a lot of tartan – and existed in a different social context to England, where the Church of Scotland placed incredible pressures on legitimate theatre up to the 1840s. Many clubs performed pantomime versions of Rob Roy, for example, whenever they needed to clear off debts. Perhaps it was significant that Glasgow Green, where a lot of Glasgow football clubs were born (including the Old Firm) existed on a patch of land between modern-day Celtic Park, over by where the Parkhead Forge used to be – and, towards the centre of town, the Saltmarket, where many of Glasgow’s music halls and even less legitimate theatres were based. As Hamish Telfer and John Weir have noted, such a performance culture went hand-in-hand, at least with most clubs, with overindulgence.

It was usually Celtic that ended up getting the dog-whistle treatment with regard to its players being involved in the drinks trade, a common route of social mobility amongst Irish Catholics and their children, with Irish workers being frozen out of many other trades – which, as mentioned before, had highly associational work cultures (the Freemasons, etc.). But, in fact, work within the pub trade, as Robert Lewis has stated (and what my own research has also looked into), supplied more than a few Scottish imports to English football in the 1870s and 1880s with employment – so lateral and upwards movement within the football world sometimes went hand-in-hand with mobility in the hospitality industry. The pub, in many heavily industrial locations (especially Ayrshire), served as the fulcrum on which local football clubs socialised: many, as in England, were used as changing rooms and meeting places. And even most major city clubs usually had their favourite haunts: teetotallers, meanwhile, were catered to by the Mikado Tea Rooms.

Overindulging in alcohol was seen at several different football functions: at one game itself, the England/Scotland match of April 1898 at Celtic Park, Scotland’s captain James Cowan turned up to the match drunk from the night before, found his place in the starting lineup, and on the receiving end of a defeat by England. In the after-match dinner at Ancell’s Restaurant, after Renton’s victory against local Dunbartonshire archenemies Vale of Leven in the 1885 Scottish Cup final, insults were shouted between tables, and at the referees’ tables. But outwith the elite, overindulgence was far more common: the Renfrewshire FA’s March 1889 presentation of its association cup to Paisley’s Abercorn FC was a riotous affair in which men mounted the tables singing, while long, aimless speeches were made by the winners and the association officials. Sometimes, performance culture could be overindulgent as well: the Scottish Referee had commented that local clubs, particularly junior clubs and associations, needed performance culture of some kind to justify their social place within football’s bureaucracy. But this was still a high-risk path, and it had victims: the February 1895 concert of Dalziel Rovers, a junior club based in Motherwell, was a disaster: the public did not buy as many tickets as were expected. Worse still was the Largs Junior FA’s Hogmanay concert series of 1896-97: they had initially hired Durward Lely, a comic tenor known for playing Nanki-Poo in the Gilbert and Sullivan musical The Mikado during his time at London’s Savoy Theatre. The first concert, however, was a disaster, so they needed to hire him again to recoup their losses (and after this concert was a success, he treated them to dinner). As with many coastal communities, football struggled to gain a foothold in this region – as with neighbouring Rothesay on the other side of the Firth of Clyde, one often finds that financial mismanagement, along with confusion as to what associations’ and clubs’ spent money on, made football part of tourist culture. Where Scottish football clubs went on tour was as much about the hospitality they would receive, so much as it was about spreading the gospel of football – or, in the case of Celtic, Rangers and Hearts in Scandinavia, getting paid – even on those tours, hospitality is an important part of the media accounts.

Gender and sexuality

It is important to note that a lot of what I’ve just mentioned functions as a form of gender performance, and that the birth of association football took place within a highly gendered environment, especially within the very male circles of heavy industrial labour in Scotland. ‘Separate spheres’ was as relevant a concept within these communities as would have been the case in middle-class spheres. As Hamish Fraser and others have stated, pubs did not always allow women as customers. It is crucial to note that, while more quantitative research needs to be performed on this, the proportion of women in an industrial community was probably irrelevant towards determining whether or not women there viewed or participated in football. In the textile communities in the football-mad Vale of Leven, in Dunbartonshire, for instance, most residents were women – while in mining communities in the Ayr and Doon Valleys in Ayrshire had far less women, but women had a more demonstrable presence in the stands. Women were common participants in women’s matches during Fastern’s E’en traditions. Macbeth’s and Margot McCuaig’s research has shown that, in association football, an unofficial meeting of Scotland and England ‘tens’ took place in Edinburgh in 1881, nine years after the first men’s international match in Partick – and the first official SFA-sanctioned women’s match took place near Shawfield in Glasgow. When the FA, however, warned its clubs against playing charitable matches against ‘ladies’ team in 1902, an equivalent rule was approved by the SFA. These early years of women’s football in Scotland were recently documented in the BBC Alba documentary Honeyballers. Women were a rhetorical ‘other’ in the eyes of the Scottish footballing press: the Scottish Umpire, in 1884, noted that the presence of a female bullfighter in Spain had ‘the same desire for novelty that originated that monstrosity, the female footballer’ [2]. When the era of the ‘New Woman’ came about in the mid-1890s, the media were openly hostile towards women who were perceived to be in search of women’s international caps and professional salaries, and were equally suspicious of women journalists.

On the other hand, women were very much a part of the universe of footballers of this era: professional ones or not. The media often lobbied for the presence of women at club’s social functions; and, at least partially, this was because many of these footballers viewed women as objects of desire. It was definitely the case when footballers went on tours to the Firth of Clyde, the Highlands, and England. But closer to home, the Scottish Athletic Journal’s junior correspondent, Juvenis (who enjoyed talking about women), wrote an ode to his audience in 1886 about a ‘maiden fair… whom all South-Side (of Glasgow) footballers [were] raving about’ [3]. One can infer that this is a potentially explicit affair; and, indeed, salacious gossip was often not far from footballers: John Weir’s research has shown that, in 1895, a Glasgow sheriff investigated a potential case of prostitution, whereby a South-Side club apparently allowed women access to grounds by giving them keys to the club houses. While this case was dropped, two more lurid tales were given human faces: Reynolds: a Celtic and Aston Villa defender, in 1898, was forced to pay £20 damages to Sarah Bing for the ‘seduction’ of her daughter, in using her money to help pay off his gambling debts. Meanwhile in 1899, another Celtic man, John Campbell, was forced to pay £200 to Lizzie Riley of Cowcaddens for breach of the promise of marriage and her ‘seduction’.

As for women in the stands, meanwhile, the press seemed unsure as to how to react to them. The terraces were very reactionary places, and some papers often drew pretty pictures of the scenes where women attended football matches in fashionable clothes. More partisan female supporters received a different treatment: Annbank, a club from an Ayrshire mining village which met with a moderate degree of success (and successfully exported many footballers to English football), was always noted as having a strong support amongst women. The Dalry and Kilbirnie Herald noted at one match against Kilmarnock in 1895, after praising the beauty of the village, continued on: ‘nor did I shut my eyes at the sign of Annbank’s dark-haired daughters, even though their interference with the game smacked of the masculine’ [4]. The local papers in Renfrewshire even believed that ‘mill girls’ were responsible for agitating one of the nastiest derbies in early ‘senior’ Scottish football: that between Greenock Morton and Port Glasgow Athletic (a derby which Tranter has written an excellent article on). The Port Glasgow Express and Observer detailed one such apparent encounter in 1898:

They appeared last night in swarms on Princes Street. Shouts of “Good old Port; dirty Morton,” and “Dirty Port; Good old Morton,” were heard all over the place. The Morton contingent proceeded down the Greenock Road, and a conflict ensued about Williams Street. There was a general scuffle among the girls and stones were thrown. One girl was so badly hit on the eye that she had to be taken into the surgery of a doctor at hand. [5]

We are obviously not talking about a press corps that had much sympathy for female footballers or supporters, so their objectivity in such accounts is difficult to determine. But women were definitely a part of the real and rhetorical universe of these footballers, despite our necessity to take some of these accounts with a grain of salt.


I’ll conclude this paper with two very different accounts of pre-1914 football in Scotland, ones which explain the highly-nuanced identity of Scottish football within the wider class and political context, as we perhaps do imagine that football is a world until itself – but of course, it is not. And, once again, it is important to go to the grassroots here: after all: when people are out there cheering for the Old Firm, or even for Scotland: how did we get there? What are the shared experiences behind all of this? In the 1890s, those within non-football playing circles often looked on at shock: this included John Baird Stirling, a solicitor in Johnstone, Renfrewshire who, in June 1892, pursued an action in Sheriff Court against George Houston, the owner of the land where the marginal Johnstone FC were based: accounts from the Johnstone Advertiser noted Stirling’s wall was ‘being used as a urinal, the effluvia permeating the premise, while in certain conditions of the atmosphere of his residence is impregnated with the odour of tobacco smoke’ [6]. Between all of that and the noise from cheering, it apparently kept his family up until 9:30 at night. And, in plain sight, the players would often change in the nude. (I haven’t talked much about the atmosphere of the terraces today, but there you have a whiff of it…) The printing of this account kicked off a flurry of correspondence to the Advertiser: ‘Johnstonian’, perhaps most succinctly, summing up the concerns of many with regard to the tone of the court action, stating: ‘It seems hard that some people in Johnstone, of all other towns in Scotland, cannot allow the working classes to have any recreation whatever, without doing their best to discourage it’ [7].

A decade later in Rothesay, on the isle of Bute, football – which would never be viable as a professional sport on an island, even on an island near to Greenock – was getting squeezed from a variety of ends, despite arguably being the favourite sport of men based on the island. The Conservative/Unionist town council actively discouraged the playing of football in Rothesay’s public park, despite there being no other suitable grounds for playing the game. This was while yachting and golf were enthusiastically patronised – financially – by the Council. Meanwhile, the rise of a paradoxical kind of ‘Celtic’ consciousness was also taking place amongst some of the island’s people within the pages of the local Buteman newspaper during 1907. A man likely to be Alexander Gemmell, secretary of the Kyles Athletic Club (who counted shinty as their most successful sport), openly criticised Rothesay’s people for abandoning their roots. He asked: ‘Why has Rothesay not a Shinty Club? Have you forgotten the game of your forefathers?’ Gemmell, in turn, criticised football as the true foreigner on Bute’s shores:

Rothesay folks are thoroughly Highland, and the old instinct for the game of shinty still courses with undiminished vigour through their veins. Football is a Lowland pastime, and to a Highlander is not at all to be compared with shinty… Indeed, if the Rothesay lads would give the same attention to shinty for three or four years that they have given to football for the last 20 years, they would take a leading position in the shinty world… [8]

As Irene Reid has hinted at, the irony of this more nationalist sport (superficially, at least) was in its healthy patronage from landed elites: in Bute’s case, most notably by the fourth Marquess of Bute, who initially paid for expenses of the Bute Camanachd Club, something that, with some rare exceptions in Ayrshire in Lanarkshire, proved elusive beyond a symbolic level for football. Ironic as well, then, that football was something that was shared with the Sassenach, whereas shinty allowed no outlet for revenge against the Auld Enemy – the course of its internationalism necessarily looked across the Irish Sea, rather than to Newcastle, Liverpool, London, and other cities in England that had become a part of the Scottish emigrant experience. Football, then, became part of a paradoxical narrative of both antagonism and a mutual relationship with England. There’s still so much of Scottish football’s history that needs to be explored before we say these are definitive conclusions; but the place of Scottish football within the communities and its popular culture remains an ongoing process regardless, one that has little definitive idea of where it is headed, but very much to tell us about the plural, though often contested origin myths of a Scottish nation articulated through sport.


[1] Alexander Stuart Boyd, Glasgow Men and Women: their children and some strangers within their gates: a selection from the sketches of Twym (London: Holder and Stroughton, 1905), 129.

[2] Scottish Umpire, 19 November 1884.

[3] Scottish Athletic Journal, 24 August 1886.

[4] Dalry and Kilbirnie Herald, 3 May 1895.

[5] Port Glasgow Express and Observer, 18 February 1898.

[6] Johnstone Advertiser, 10 June 1892.

[7] Johnstone Advertiser, 1 July 1892.

[8] Buteman, 15 September 1907.


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