The History of Scottish Wrestling
Lee McKeown, BSSH Scotland Webmaster
Originally featured on the Scottish Wrestling Association website in December 2014:
In modern Scotland, several forms of wrestling are practiced with the most common styles being various forms of catch-as-catch-can wrestling. This is an old Lancashire term meaning to ‘catch any way you can’. Now called Olympic freestyle, catch wrestling is said to have been introduced in Scotland by Donald Dinnie around 1870. This style of wrestling became very popular and challenge matches for cash rewards frequently occurred in music and dance halls throughout Scotland. While freestyle wrestling had grown to become the most popular style of wrestling globally since its introduction in the 1908 Olympics, traditional forms of wrestling such as Scottish Backhold wrestling were very popular in nineteenth century Scotland.
Traditional wrestling in England is usually known as Cumberland style wrestling while ‘’in Scotland it is normally called Backhold or Scottish Backhold to differentiate it from its English cousin’’. In Scottish Backhold, the wrestlers grip each other at the waist with the main objective being to thrown the opponent to the ground. There are several traditional forms of Backhold still practiced in Scotland such as Uist wrestling and Cumberland & Westmoreland style.
While the popularity of traditional wrestling has fallen since its peak in the nineteenth century, it continues along with other traditional sports such as caber toss and archery in the modern Highland Games. Activities such as wrestling were popular in the Highland Games as they allowed men to competitively show off ‘’their physical strength, stamina, accuracy and agility‘’ (Nauright & Parrish) to their local communities. There are a variety of different Highland Games in various locations throughout Scotland that host competitive Backhold wrestling. While wrestling was contested at many different games, The Highland Games of Bute was ‘’one of the most important’’ as it kept alive the spirit of Celtic wrestling. The International Federation of Celtic Wrestling (FILC), founded in 1985, is currently the governing body of traditional Celtic wrestling.
FILC President William Baxter is one of the most influential figures in maintaining the traditions of folk wrestling in Scotland today. A member of Scotland’s oldest wrestling club, Glasgow Wrestling Club, Baxter would go onto form Milngavie Wrestling Club in 1952 and later become British national coach at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
While it is generally quite difficult to obtain information about nineteenth century sporting culture, there are detailed records of nineteenth and early twentieth century Scottish wrestling. According to these records, some of the most notable wrestlers of the century include James Scott, Launceston Elliot, Donald Dinnie and Jimmy Esson.
James Scott became the first known Scottish wrestler to win a title in any recognized wrestling style in 1812. Scott, described as a ‘’quick striker and a skillful wrestler’’ defeated famous English wrestler ‘Belted Wull’ to claim his title. Scott was rewarded with a sum of 12 guineas, the average 6 months pay for an ordinary farm labourer, and was paraded as a hero in the Scottish borders.
Launceston Elliot is known as the first Scot to compete in wrestling at the Olympic Games, competing at the first modern Olympics of 1896 in Athens. Elliot, who won gold and silver in the weightlifting events, competed in Greco-Roman wrestling were ‘’he suffered a surprise defeat‘’ against eventual champion Carl Schuhmann of Germany in the first round. Schumann himself was the gymnastics champion as athletes were allowed to compete in multiple sports.
It is generally agreed that Donald Dinnie was the most successful Scottish wrestler of the nineteenth century. He is said to have won over ‘’2,000 wrestling matches in different styles all over the world’’ in a 57 year career. Donaldson (1986) argues that Dinnie was ‘’the words first sports superstar’’ as he competed in one event after another for the significant cash prize.
Jimmy Esson of Aberdeen became the first legitimate world freestyle wrestling heavyweight champion when he won the Alhambra tournament of London in 1908. In 1913, Esson fought world heavyweight champion boxer Jack Johnson in a wrestling match. During the match ‘’Johnson was thrown and his shoulders pinned to the mat‘’ almost as soon as the bout has started. After this great triumph, Esson was enlisted as a soldier during the First World War and tragically died in a German prisoner of war camp in 1917.
While traditional wrestling is now operated under the Scottish Wrestling Bond, The Scottish Wrestling Association was previously the governing body of both traditional and freestyle wrestling in Scotland.The Scottish Amateur Wrestling Association (SAWA) was founded in December 1930.
It is known that by 1938, Kenneth Whitton was acting as President of the SAWA and Willie Carmichael as honorary secretary. Whitton & Carmicheal would also serve as Scotland team managers at the 1938 Commonwealth Games, then known as the British Empire Games, for a squad of only ten athletes, including two wrestlers.
For the SAWA, the Commonwealth Games have been the most prestigious event that Scottish wrestlers can represent Scotland as Scottish athletes can only represent Great Britain at other highly prestigious events such as the Olympics and European & World Championships. The Commonwealth Games, formally known as the British Empire Games, are therefore an important aspect in the history of Scottish wrestling. While Moore (1992) states that the British Empire Games where originally to be used as a vehicle to promote friendly and competitive contact between Commonwealth nations, the Commonwealth Games has now grown to become one of the most prestigious and anticipated sporting events in the world.
While no Scottish wrestlers competed at the inaugural Games of 1930, the first Scottish Commonwealth wrestling team would compete at the next Games of 1934 in London. Murdoch White, Edward Melrose, Robert Harcus and Arch Dudgeon contributed to a highly successful Commonwealth début for Scottish wrestling as Melrose took the gold while White, Harcus and Dudgeon all claimed bronze medals. Until 1954, ‘’Scotland could proudly boast Britain’s only Commonwealth Games wrestling gold medal’’ as no other home nation won gold until Kenneth Richmond of England at Vancouver 1954.
Despite this early success, it was not until the 1950’s and 60’s that freestyle wrestling fully took off in Scotland with the establishment of several new clubs across Scotland. Examples of successful Scottish clubs include Cumbernauld, Denny, Milngavie Springburn and Tullibody Wrestling Clubs. Cumbernauld Wrestling Club was founded in 1969 by Mike and Evelyn Roles. For the club, ‘’it was success from the word go, winning three British titles in their first year’’. Michael Cavanagh became the clubs first Scottish champion in 1970 while Bobby McLucas became the first Cumbernauld wrestler to compete at the Commonwealth Games in 1978. Micheal Cavanagh, Brian Miler, Paul Nedley and David Connelly would also follow McLucas by representing Scotland at Commonwealth level. After years of consistent success, the club was to be replaced by the new Tryst Lions Wrestling Club in 1987. Since its foundation, Steven McKeown has served as club coach and has helped to produce countless Scottish and British champions.From the club, David Connelly, Paul Nedley, Steven McKeown and Lewis Waddell have held the honour of representing Scotland at the Commonwealth Games.
(Tryst Lions Wrestling Club 2013)
Milngavie Wrestling Club was founded in 1952 by Willie Baxter, then a member of Glasgow Wrestling Club. In addition to freestyle, the club has also taught Greco Roman, Cumberland and even arm wrestling throughout its history. The clubs most successful wrestlers are said to be John McCourtney who competed at the 1968 Mexico Olympics and several Commonwealth Games and David McGrath who was the first Scottish wrestler to win gold at the European Junior Championships. McCourtney is also the first and so far only wrestler to win the British freestyle, Greco-Roman and Cumberland Championships in the same year which gives him a unique spot in the history of Scottish wrestling.
(Tullibody Wrestling Club 1980’s)
Tullibody Wrestling Club was founded during the 1960’s by a Mr Davidson of Tullibody. The club was originally founded as a boxing and wrestling club that was exclusive to senior members for the first nine years of its existence. Brothers Ronnie & Robert Mitchell brought the club early success as they both won the Scottish Championship in 1971 with Ronnie also winning the British title of 1971. Ronnie also qualified for the 1970 British Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh and is also the first person to win British titles in both wrestling and boxing. Ronnie would later become club coach in 1976 until the closure of the club in 1988. In 2005, the club was restarted by Colin McLaren and Alan Harper, both acclaimed wrestlers. Brian Harper, Shannon Hawke and Chelsea Murphy are some of the most successful members of the club. Both Harper and Hawke have won multiple British titles and represented Great Britain at the 2013 Youth Olympic Festive in Australia with Brian claiming bronze and Shannon silver. They also competed at Glasgow 2014 with Harper at 17 years old being the youngest member of the event and youngest member of the Scottish wrestling team.
In addition to these clubs, some of Scotland’s most successful wrestlers in recent years include the likes of Calum McNeil and Graeme English. English competed at the 1988 Olympics in South Korea and won bronze at the 1986 and 1994 Commonwealth Games while McNeil competed at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and he won a bronze at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. Other Commonwealth medalists include Willie Booth who won silver in 1966 and David Connelly who won bronze in 1986. The bronze medals of 1994 were to be Scotland’s last Commonwealth medals until Vio Etko took bronze in 2014. In addition to Olympic and Commonwealth level, Scottish wrestlers have also competed at other prestigious events such as World Championships and Commonwealth Championships while younger wrestlers have competed at European Junior and Cadet Championships. Scotland has also sent representation to the World Veteran Championships with Bobby McLucas recently winning medals in 2010, 2011 and 2013. While it is always an honour to represent Scotland at international level, The 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow proved to be one of the most important and most memorable occasions in the history of Scottish wrestling.
(Team Scotland Glasgow 2014 –Top left to right: Lewis Waddell, Colin McLaren, Luigi Bianco, Vio Etko; Alex Gladkov, Kathryn Marsh, Shannon Hawke, Fiona Robertson, Ross McFarlane, Vladimir Gladkov; Gareth Jones, Chelsea Murphy, Sarah Jones, Jayne Clason, Donna Robertson, Brian Harper)
The Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games was the biggest event ever held to involve a Scottish wrestling team. Glasgow 2014 would be the third time that Scotland would host the Commonwealth Games after Edinburgh held the Games in 1970 and 1986. The Scottish team was made up of fourteen athletes consisting of seven male and seven female wrestlers. The team, combining a mixture of both youth and experience, had the potential to achieve Scotland’s best Commonwealth medal tally for 20 years. Coached by Vladimir Gladkov and Colin McLaren, the 2014 Games proved to be highly successful for Scottish wrestling as Vio Etko (61kg) and Alex Gladkov (65kg) won Scotland’s first Commonwealth Games wrestling medals since Calum McNeil and Graeme English took bronze in 1994. Coach Vladimir Gladkov was appointed Scottish national coach in 2007. Gladkov had previous experience with the Scottish team as he was coach, along with Micheal Cavanagh, at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. Before Glasgow 2014, Gladkov successfully coached Team Scotland’s 14 athletes to qualification standard, including Vio Etko and son Alex.
On July 30th 2014, Etko, originally from Romania, defeated Michael Asselstine of Canada and England’s George Ramm before losing to eventual champion and London 2012 Olympian David Tremblay of Canada. In the bronze medal match, Etko swiftly dispatched of Adam Vella of Malta 10-0. This victory was especially sweet for Etko who placed fifth at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India. Upon discovering that he had become the first Scottish Commonwealth Games medalist since 1994, Etko stated ‘’I am fortunate to be the person who has done this. I thought I could make some history in Scottish wrestling, and I have been competing over 10 years’’. It was highly appropriate that Etko’s medal was presented by Michael Cavanagh, then chairman of Commonwealth Games Scotland.
The following day Gladkov, on his Commonwealth Games début, lost his first match to reigning Commonwealth Champion and 2012 London Olympic bronze medalist Yogeshawar Dutt of India. In the repechage, he defeated fellow Scot Gareth Jones before claiming an incredible 22-16 win against Chamara Perera of Sri Lanka, the highest scoring match of the competition. Gladkov was injured during the match making his victory all the more remarkable. Describing the match, Gladkov said ’’ It was one of the hardest fights I’ve ever had and to win is just amazing’’. Another highlight of the 2014 Games was during the opening ceremony when Scottish wrestling President Victor Keelan delivered the officials Commonwealth oath at Celtic Park in front of 40,000 spectators and an estimated TV audience of approximately one billion people. It should also be noted that an army of friendly volunteers with almost no experience in the sport of wrestling helped to deliver a world-class wrestling competition that contributed to Glasgow 2014 successfully becoming known as ‘’the best games ever’’.
(Vio Etko & Alex Gladkov)
(Note: Due to the lack of available sources, some information may not be fully accurate. If you notice any errors or have any information you would like to add please contact the SWA.)
Donaldson E (1986), The Scottish Highland Games in America, USA: Pelican Publishing Group, p 15
Moore K ‘’The warmth of comradeship: the first British empire games and imperial solidarity’’ in Mangan J eds (1992) The cultural bond: sport empire and society, New York: Routledge p 201
Nauright J & Parrish C (2012) Sports Around the World: History, Culture, and Practice, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC p 110