Team sport and the seaside: a cultural analysis of Victorian ‘football’ in Largs, Ayrshire, c. 1840-1900

Matthew L. McDowell, University of Edinburgh 

This paper was originally given at the annual meeting of the Modern British History Network at the University of Dundee, 17 June 2011. I haven’t made terribly many modifications with it since its first read, and I’ve turned my attention to other topics since, so feel free to poke holes in it. It’s an appropriate paper for a blog site whose current photograph is of the Largs promenade.

The overwhelming majority of academic research on Scottish football has focused on the country’s urban areas, particularly the central belt, where the ‘Old Firm’ rivalry of Rangers and Celtic Football Clubs has understandably attracted the most attention from historians and sociologists. The regions where football was not the primary attraction, however, have received somewhat short shrift in this study, and therefore do not give a complete picture of football’s cultural place outwith industrial circles. This includes Scotland’s seaside resorts: areas where club sport often existed in a challenging environment when placed against other forms of sport and leisure. The explosive popularity of a newly-minted, codified form of football, the association code, or soccer, made great headway amongst the male, heavy-industrial British working-class during the late-nineteenth century, specifically in the west of Scotland and the north and Midlands of England. But, as Alastair Durie and Mike Huggins state, club sports such as football and rugby were always fighting against the demographics in such regions. Seasonal migration greatly affected the continuity of holiday communities, and resorts typically had more elderly populations. At the same time, the work that was available revolved around the leisure and tourist trades, economic sectors that not only exhibited social stratification (especially in sports like golf and yachting), but also involved working on Saturday (Durie and Huggins, 173-187).

This paper will examine the early days and cultural place of codified team sport in and around Largs, now North Ayrshire, during the period 1840-1900, with an additional view towards the continuous sporting culture in the region previous to the coming of the tourist trade. This is preliminary research, and any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Why Largs? Despite having a ‘junior’, or ‘semi-professional’ club that plays in the West of Scotland Premier Division of junior football, Largs does not share the historical pedigree of heavy industrial locations in junior football, such as Hurlford, Glenbuck or Burnbank. No senior league clubs have ever been from Largs, and the town has not made any impact in the Scottish Cup. If, on the other hand, one is interested in how football evolves in such a location, what challenges the game faced, and sport’s ever-important social place in such a location, it provides an excellent example. Then there is the context of the region itself. The Firth of Clyde, and its tourist trade, was coming into its own during the mid- to late-nineteenth century as a region of tourism and leisure. Cheaper and better transport links, both by rail and by sea, were seemingly integrating the region, comprised on the Scottish mainland of the Ayrshire and Renfrewshire coasts, and a series of islands including Bute, Arran, and Great Cumbrae, and the Cowal, Rosneath and Mull of Kintyre peninsulas on the Argyll coasts. These were maritime regions, and were largely rural, but had seen great economic and cultural changes during the early- to mid-nineteenth century, whereby a town like Stevenston on the Ayrshire coast – where the major employer was the Imperial Chemical Industries explosives plant – would face Arran, a rural island where a series of land clearances were initiated by the Hamilton estate in the early half of the century (Little). This region, culturally, met at the confluence of the Gaidhealtachd and the Galldachd; geographically, it was a bridge between the Highlands, the Lowlands and the Hebrides. Largs’s place in Scottish historical lore confirms this: the Battle of Largs in 1263 signalled the end of the Norse presence on the Scottish mainland.

It is appropriate, then, that the earliest modern references to sport in the region refer to this cultural bridge. In the local newspapers, the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald, and the Largs and Millport Weekly News from 1876, there is no discussion of shinty as a popular sport. Historically, however, Ayrshire, had many fairs, gatherings and burgh sports. John Burnett has spoken of these fairs as including sports for the people, and by the people. One of Largs’s most important calendar dates went by different names: Combs Day, St. Comb’s Day, Colm’s Day – all corruptions of St. Columba. The man rumoured to have brought Christianity to Scotland had his birthday traditionally celebrated on or around 9 June. The Statistical Account of Scotland, taken during the 1790s, and the New Statistical Account of 1834-45, both mention the importance of the day on the ancient calendar, and its waning prominence from the late-eighteenth century onwards. Primarily, its purpose was as a cattle-trading event between Highlanders and Lowlanders, with the added benefit of what sounded like a big party, one that lasted for several days. However, the local ministers stated that Highland agricultural ‘improvement’, which brought commerce and shops to the Highlands, ended this several-days-long event. One man said: ‘They spent the whole night in rustic sports, carousing and dancing on the green to the sound of the bagpipe.’ Tellingly, sport did not seem a part of the event by the end of the nineteenth century. The 18 June 1887 Largs and Millport Weekly News briefly – and negatively — discussed the trading and amusement of the Fair, while listing in great detail the minutiae of another event: the local celebration of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, organised by the burgh commissioners and provost, and featuring a tug of war, and many different categories of races and jumps.

Roy Hay has recently stated that finding the exact routes of movement between codes of football – his examples being soccer, rugby and Australian football – was a somewhat pointless exercise, as codification typically worked its way into an already-existing culture of sport. This paper does not attempt to analyse the first presence of soccer and rugby in Largs, and it definitely does not attempt to analyse the first landing of football in the town of Millport, facing Largs, on the isle of Great Cumbrae. The inability to utilise sources which repeatedly record Largs football in its infancy makes it tough to do so anyway. But some general statements regarding the early history of association football in Largs can be made.

First, the latecoming of the railways to Largs – 1885 – eventually changed the focus of the sport culture of the town (Findlay and Swan, 20). Despite being in the county of Ayrshire, the Ayrshire Cup, a popular football cup competition featuring the likes of Kilmarnock, Ayr, Hurlford and Annbank clubs, was initially an impossible dream for clubs in Largs. In November 1877, Largs Western FC was drawn in the Ayrshire Cup to play against Catrine, deep in coal country. The Largs and Millport Weekly News reported that Western would take a pass, and forfeit the game, due to the impossibility of travel to the location during the wintertime (10 November 1877). Football was reported on far more infrequently in Largs than in Millport. By the end of the 1880s the island town seemingly had a more developed football and supporter culture, one that interacted with Largs footballers, even when no organised clubs existed in the town, as was the case when Cumbrae FC played an informal Largs eleven in Largs at the end of January 1880, in a match dubbed by the Largs and Millport Weekly News ‘an international football match between Scotland and Cumbrae’ (31 January 1880). Cumbrae clubs, outwith invitational matches such as this, competed in the Buteshire Cup, where the only major opponents were typically Bute Rangers and Rothesay Academicals. When Cumbrae FC played Bute Athletic in the 1887 cup final at Rothesay, a special steamer stopped at both Largs and further up the coast at Wemyss Bay to pick up Cumbrae supporters and well-wishers (30 April 1887). One Millport club – Millport Victoria – even participated in a cup competition against itself. Newton – comprised of Vics’ members residing east of the Garrison – at the end of the 1880s fought annually against Millport, a club made up of residents from west of the Garrison, for the Presidents’ Cup, donated by Vics’ president William Martin (LMWN, 29 October 1887, 4 February 1888).

After the formation of Largs Thistle Football Club in April 1888 (7 April 1888), however – the first Largs club to last for more than a few seasons – the centre of gravity shifted from the Firth of Clyde onto the mainland. In their inaugural season, Thistle not only competed in the Ayrshire Cup, but put out a fixture card made up of exclusively mainland sides, most of which were from Ayrshire (LMWN, 28 June 1890). Railways, then, allowed Largs footballers competition that was unsustainable by boat, and far less at the mercy of the weather and a lack of winter sunlight, as was the case with island clubs. There would be no repeat of situations like Cumbrae FC’s April-May 1880 matches against Rothesay FC. The first match was to be held at Kilchattan, Bute in April, but was cancelled due to stormy weather. When Rothesay came to Cumbrae in May, a nasty game was made all the worse by the Rothesay team backing out early to catch their steamer home (LMWN, 24 April 1880, 15 May 1880).

The second statement regarding early football in Largs: there was great difficulty in finding a private ground, and the attitude of aristocratic, educational and political elites was not always encouraging. This was, of course, not an issue unique to Largs. Neil Tranter has stated that early, non-privately-owned football grounds in urban areas were often at the mercy of industry and local government, and could be seized at short notice. My own research shows that Scottish industrial elites, while wholly opposed to professional football, were enthusiastic about the possibilities of amateur sport and recreation for their workforces, and often supplied local football clubs with grounds and kit. Those that did not receive this patronage were at a competitive disadvantage.

Largs Thistle were able to survive because they secured a private football ground on Aubery Crescent. The question of grounds, however, was long a vexed one amongst Largs’s football community. According to the Largs and Millport Weekly News, a scratch married v. single football match held in Largs in November 1880 stimulated the impetus to start a new football club, Largs Athletic. The paper, however, was worried about the ‘great difficulty in obtaining suitable ground’ (27 November 1880). Athletic managed to last only a few seasons, their death coming about on 31 March 1883, ‘and everyone was sorry that the club had to be dissolved for the want of a ground to play on’ (10 January 1885). Outside forces were attempting to influence the debate, specifically J.W. Parsons, famous Scottish athlete who brought a crack team of rugby players to Largs on New Year’s Day, 1885, where a local team made up of many ex-Largs Athletic players played an association game against the outsiders. Parsons had spoken to the former owner of their ground to allow the game to take place, and Largs Athletic were resurrected through his efforts (17 January 1885). When Millport Kames visited Largs two years later in April 1887, however, to face an earlier team named Largs Thistle, the paper hoped that this match was ‘what promises to be a revival of the football game’ in the town (9 April 1887). The match took place on Allanpark, which was lent for this occasion by Mr. Blair, a local butcher. Allanpark would be used again a week later when Thistle took on a Glasgow club, St. Mungo Wanderers, visiting during the Glasgow Spring Holiday. The Largs and Millport Weekly News was thrilled by the pitch, but qualified: ‘It is a pity but the club could secure the field regularly with the hedge taken out of the centre it would be a very good field for football’ (16 April 1887).

Patronage was something that Millport football clubs received, no matter how limited the sport’s potential was on Cumbrae. Then again, Millport was perceived to have had a major problem with anti-social behaviour deriving from its male youth. Accounts from the Largs and Millport Weekly News upon the paper’s 1877 inception show that boys in Millport were known for hanging around the streets at night, making noise and chewing tobacco (7 April 1877, 21 April 1877). This, apparently, made some sort of recreation a necessity, and Cumbrae FC attracted celebrities to its cause. When Cumbrae needed a ground for the approaching 1880-81 season, they approached George Boyle, the sixth Earl of Glasgow. The Earl lent them Farland Point on his property, on the condition that they assume the costs of construction – which, in turn, would be refunded by him should the ground need development for some other purpose (17 April 1880). The club then went about collecting money from, amongst others, local politicians. £40 was collected, with a surplus left over (Ibid., 24 April 1880, 9 October 1880, 13 November 1880). Even in this instance, however, one of the major impediments with football’s local development comes to the fore: land ownership. The New Statistical Account in the 1840s listed Cumbrae as being two-thirds owned by the Earl of Glasgow – who doubled as the island’s patron – and one-third owned by the Marquess of Bute (p. 74). In Largs, the Earl was still the major landowner, followed closely by Sir Thomas Macdougall Brisbane. All of Skelmorlie, to the north of Largs, was owned by Archibald William Montgomerie, the thirteenth earl of Eglinton (p. 798). Land for sport, thus, was not always arranged through local landlords, and on Cumbrae it was noted that neither aristocrat spent more than a few weeks a year on the island, if that (p. 76).

Land ownership was intrinsically linked with local governance. It wasn’t until 1876 that Largs became a police burgh, and local government met to discuss infrastructural matters in the town. There was very little mention of football in the minute books of the Largs Burgh Commissioners; but when it was mentioned, it was never in a positive context. Despite the newspapers’ insistence that there was little organised football in the town, informally there was a significant amount for it to have been considered a public nuisance. A letter was read at the 29 April 1878 meeting from James B. Robert, coach hirer, complaining about ‘scholars playing foot-ball & other games in Boyd Street and School Street, & leaving large stones on the street’ (Minute Book 1, Commissioners of the Burgh of Largs, 1876-1885, GB 1/1/1 North Ayrshire Heritage Centre, 145-46). But football didn’t just get in the way. Throughout Spring 1887, after seeking legal advice, the Commissioners asserted their right over the Broomfields, on the Brisbane estate, for the purposes of banning the playing of football on the grounds (Minute Book 2, 1885-1898, GB 1/1/2, 18 May 1887, 3 June 1887). Similarly, provisions for recreation and physical education in the local schools seems to have been lacking. Schools in Largs and nearby Fairlie are spoken of as having playgrounds; and, in April 1883, the Largs School Board approved the payment of a drill instructor for £2 a year (COS/10/2/148, 2 April 1883). But this was a far cry from the grittier Saltcoats and Ardrossan further down coast, whose school board had far more generous provisions for drill and exercise equipment. Such apathy, and possibly hostility, towards certain kinds of recreation was not untypical in British seaside resorts. Durie and Huggins state that: ‘In general it was the wishes of wealthy and status conscious visitors which prevailed through the period, in all but the most popular of resorts, delaying the emergence of some working class and team sports’ (Durie and Huggins, 182).

So the third conclusion, then, in this preliminary analysis, similarly revolves around the class-based popularity of recreation: simply speaking, football was not the most important, the most interesting, or the most economically-viable sport in Largs and environs. The coverage given to different sports in the Largs and Millport Weekly News confirms that yachting and curling had already-strong footholds in the region. This village, populated by 3,554 persons in 1841, was, in fact, a centre of competitive and technological innovations in yachting and curling. But, to get a true feel for the awkwardness of codified football’s arrival in this seemingly foreign place, one must go to the Largs and Millport Weekly News of 9 February 1878. Despite the wishes of the local managers of one particular sport, its devoted spectator base would not allow its annual meeting to be cancelled. This sport was ploughing. The annual ploughing match of the Largs Agricultural Society was held at Bankhead, the farm of Ritchie McPherson. The Society had wanted to do away with the annual meetings, but they were too popular to get rid of; and indeed, despite the dull weather, many spectators arrived. The late resilience of such rural ‘sports’, and fairs such as Combs Day, suggests the need for a nuanced approach when examining the history of sport and popular culture in regions such as Largs, which exist at a crossroads between rural, urban and maritime societies. It also suggests that association football’s conquest of the world was by no means universal, even in regions indelibly associated with world football, such as the west of Scotland.


Durie, J.I. and Huggins, M.J., ‘Sport, social tone and the seaside resorts of Great Britain, c. 1850-1914’, International Journal of the History of Sport 15 (1) (1998): 173-87.

Findlay, R. and Swan, T.S., Largs: a short history (LS McLellan, 1992).

Little, J.I. ‘Agricultural Improvement and the Highland Clearance: The Isle of Arran, 1766-1829’, Scottish Economic and Social History 19 (2) (1999): 132-54.


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