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The Story of Gil Heron: The First Black Professional Footballer in Scotland

Lee McKeown, BSSH Scotland Webmaster

Gilbert Heron (1922-2008) is best known for becoming the first black professional soccer player in America and as the first black professional footballer to play in Scotland for Celtic Football Club in 1951. He is also known as being the father of the jazz musician Gil Scott-Heron. Born in Jamaica, Heron would move to Canada as a child and would eventually play football in America for the Detroit Corinthians and later the Detroit Wolverines. Heron would prove to be a successful striker and became top scorer of the 1946 North American Soccer Football League. In 1947, Ebony magazine even described Heron as the ”Babe Ruth of soccer”.


(Gil Heron)

Heron was no ordinary sportsman. He took part in a variety of different sports with Dimeo & Finn (2001) stating that Heron ”was an all-round sports man who ran and boxed and, while in Glasgow, played for leading Scottish cricket clubs too”. In 1940 Heron was even the 1940 boxing Golden Gloves champion of Michigan. BBC Caribbean describes Heron as a ”sporting renaissance man” due to his success in a wide variety of sports.  While Heron enjoyed success in a variety of sports, it is his time in Scotland that he is arguably most famous for.

According to Wilson (2013), during the summer of 1951, Celtic would embark on a tour of America following a successful 1950/51 season which saw Celtic win the Scottish Cup for the first time since 1936/37 by beating Motherwell 1-0 in the final with a goal from John McPhail. It was during this tour of America that Heron was spotted by Celtic. There are, however, conflicting reports of how Heron was noticed by Celtic. Some reports suggest that Heron played against Celtic in a match in Detroit while others suggest that he may have been tipped off.  Nevertheless, Wilson states that Heron who was discovered in Detroit quickly earned the nicknamed of the ”Black Flash” due to his speed and skill with the ball. While Heron was paraded as the first professional black footballer in Scottish football history, he was not the first non-white to play in Scotland. Andrew Watson played for Queens Park during the 1880’s, winning the Scottish Cup. Additionally, the Indian player Mohammed Salim was given a trial by Celtic in 1936 although he did not accept it and thus never played a first team game. Interestingly, Salim played in the reserve trials bare footed and refused to wear football boots as he had previously played bare footed in India.

Gil in Wolverines jersey

(Gil Heron in 1947 with the Detroit Wolverines)

Nevertheless, Heron saw the chance to sign for Celtic as a golden opportunity, claiming in a 1951 interview that ”Glasgow Celtic was the greatest name in football to me”. Heron was given a public trial against a selection of Celtic players divided into green and white teams and scored 2 goals. He impressed Celtic chairman Robert Kelly and was offered a 1 year contract which he accepted.  However, this public trail was not a one off event to display the skill of Gil Heron. Celtic had a free public trail at the start of each season during the 1950’s and 1960’s to parade potential new signings to the general public. Gil’s son Gil Scott-Heron (2012) described in his autobiography that the contract offer from Celtic was a ”Jackie Robinson-like invitation for him. It was something that had been beyond the reach and outside the dreams of blacks”. Indeed, Jackie Robinson had been the first black to play professional baseball in Major League Baseball when he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Previously, black professionals had only played in the segregated Negro Leagues and Heron would follow in the footsteps of Robinson by breaking down racial barriers by becoming the first black professional footballer in Scotland.  Heron would make his Celtic debut on August 18th 1951, with The Ottawa Journal of Ottawa, Canada, reporting that day that ”for the first time in Scotland’s soccer history an American star will play for one of Scotland’s most famous clubs, Glasgow Celtic”.


(The Ottawa Journal, 18th August 1951)

Heron’s debut would be in a League Cup match at Celtic Park against Morton and he would score the second goal in a 2-0 victory in a match with over 40,000 in attendance. The goal he scored was impressive as Heron swiftly struck the ball on the turn inside the penalty area against Scottish internationalist goalkeeper Jimmy Cowan. Heron would again score in a 2-0 win over Airdireonians on 29th August. In a counter-attack Heron ran with the ball from the centre-circle and unleashed a stunning 20 yard strike against Fraser who was also a Scottish internationalist goalkeeper. However, despite showing earlier promise, Heron would have difficulties at Celtic.  It has been claimed that a major factor why Heron did not succeed was because was not a physical player and struggled to adapt to the Scottish game.

Gil playing pool snooker John Glass portrait

(Gil playing pool)

However, Celtic historian Tom Campbell believes that existing players in the Celtic squad did not like Heron. It has been suggested that established stars such as Charlie Tully and John McPhail possessed significant influence in the dressing room, which Celtic manager Jimmy McGrory did not properly control. Campbell (2008) states that ”there were definite cliques within the club. McPhail was a charismatic character, he was the centre forward and he’d won the Cup for Celtic in 1951, but I think the other players kind of played to him, and almost visibly resented any player trying to take his place. There wasn’t quite the professionalism there should have been”. Heron was seen as a threat to the popular John McPhail and often found himself isolated on the pitch. Bobby Collins, though, was not impressed with the treatment of Heron and showed his disapproval by refusing to pass into space for McPhail in a match against Third Lanark. While McPhail and Tully saw Heron as a threat, he did have friends at Celtic, with Sean Fallon in particular befriending the Jamaican. However, it must be pointed out that the treatment towards Heron was not personal or racially motivated. Campbell claims that Leslie Johnson, another striker, was also treated in a similar fashion as he was also considered a threat to McPhail’s place in the team.

Eventually, Heron was relegated to the reserves where he would score 15 goals in 15 appearances. Despite his successful reserve scoring record, Heron would not play again until December in a 2-1 victory over Partick Thistle, however, he failed to impress on his return. While Heron was not recalled to the first team, he would be called to the Jamaican national side to play a series of matches against a Caribbean all start side in February 1952. Heron would score 4 goals in 3 games in front of a combined audience of over 70,000.


(Jamaica v Caribbean All Stars poster 1952)

Another reason why Heron was unsuccessful at Celtic may also have been his poor disciplinary record. Heron was red carded in a reserve match against Stirling Albion on January 2nd 1952 for fighting an opponent. Celtic chairman Robert Kelly did not look favourably towards players with poor discipline and Heron’s days at Celtic appeared to be numbered after this incident. The season would prove to be a failure for Celtic, finishing in lowly 9th place and winning no trophies. As a result, Heron would not be offered a new contract. Following his release from Celtic, Heron would be signed by Third Lanark who were at the time also a respected member of the Scottish top division. Heron would go onto play 7 games in total for the Thirds at the start of the 1952/53 season. All 7 games Heron played where in the League Cup and he scored a total of 5 goals during his time at the club, with 2 goals being scored on his club debut.


(Gil playing for Celtic)

It wasn’t just football that Heron played while he was in Scotland. During the summer of 1952, Heron would play for Poloc Cricket Club in the south of Glasgow before signing for Third Lanark.  He would also play for Ferguslie in Paisley during the summer of 1953. After leaving Third Lanark, Heron moved to England to play for the Kidderminster Harriers for season 1953/54. It was a bright start for Heron before he was eventually relegated to the reserve team, similarly to his time at Celtic. Heron was forced to leave the club at the end of the season due to the club suffering financial difficulties which forced them to sell a number of their star players.  After leaving the Kidderminster Harriers Heron would return to Detroit with his second wife who he had met at Celtic, and they would go onto have 3 children together.

Gil with Milne, Boden, Mallan, Fallon & Bonnar and Ladies at Largs 1951

(Gil with Celtic teammates and partners:Roy Milne, Alec Boden, Jimmy Mallan, Sean Fallon, Gil Heron and John Bonnar )

While Heron did break racial barriers by becoming the first black professional footballer in Scotland, his appearance would not lead to a significant change in racial attitudes. According to Onuora, (2015) a black player would not play in the top flight of Scottish football again until Mark Walters played for Rangers against Celtic on 2nd January 1988. While Walters was indeed the first black player to play in the Scottish top flight since Gil Heron, Paul Wilson who played for Celtic in the 1970’s was mixed race. Born in India, Wilson had a Scottish father and a Dutch-Portuguese mother who had ethnic links to Africa. In 1975 in a 1-1 draw against Spain, Wilson became the only non-white player to be capped by the Scottish national team during the 20th century.  Wilson was subject to racial abuse, and in a 2011 interview he stated ”I got it right bad but was strong and able to never react, retaliate or gesture because I had grown up with all this racism. I got so much stick at school and beyond.” While the signing of Heron did not lead to a significant change in the public attitude, it was nevertheless a step in the right direction. Heron may not have been a footballing success in Scotland. However, his is warmly remembered as a cult hero and as a pioneer for being the first to cross the professional colour line of Scottish football during a time when blacks were not yet considered equal to whites.

Note – Special thanks to the author of The Shamrock article The Noble Stride – Celtic and the Pioneering Herons for providing a great amount of information as well as the images used in this article. Thanks must also go to the Celtic historian Tom Campbell and Third Lanark historian Bob Laird for helping to provide information about Gil’s playing days in Scotland.

Link to: The Noble Stride – Celtic and the Pioneering Herons


Campbell T (2008) Charlie Tully: Celtic’s Cheeky Chappie, Derbyshire: Breedon Books Publishing Co Ltd

Dimeo P & Finn G, ”Racism, National Identity and Scottish Football” in Carrington B & McDonald I eds (2001) Race, Sport and British Society, London: Routledge

Onuora E (2015) Pitch Black: The Story of Black British Footballers, London: Biteback Publishing

Scott-Heron G (2012) The Last Holiday: A Memoir, Edinburgh: Canongate Books

Wilson B (2013) The Official History of Celtic Football Club, Liverpool: Celtic FC Limited

Wilson B, Gil Heron

[Accessed 19/7/2015]

Interview: Paul Wilson on Stein, Celtic and Racial Abuse in the 1970s, 10th October 2011, The Scotsman

[Accessed 24/7/2015]

Remembering Gil Heron, The Sunday Herald

[Accessed 24/7/2015]

The Gillie Heron Story, 9th January 2009, BBC Caribbean

[Accessed 27/7/2015]

The Noble Stride – Celtic and the Pioneering Herons

[Accessed 19/7/2015]

U.S Negro to Play for Glasgow Celtics, Ottawa Journal, 18th August 1951, The Celtic Wiki

[Accessed 19/7/2015]


New blog editor

Lee McKeown, BSSH Scotland Webmaster

Hello everyone,

My name is Lee McKeown and I am the new webmaster of the British Society of Sports History Scotland network.

I have recently completed my course in BA Hons Social Sciences with History from Glasgow Caledonian University, achieving a strong 2:1 grade. I am interested in sports history and wrote my history dissertation on the impact of high-profile African American boxers, such as Muhammad Ali, on influencing 20th century civil rights.

I am currently looking into applying for the online long distance Sports History and Culture MA from De Montfort University in Leicester as I would like to pursue a career in possibly sports academia or sports media.

My background is in the sport of freestyle wrestling were I have competed in domestic and international competitions for over 10 years.

I have 5 years of voluntary experience in being the website administrator of Tryst Lions Wrestling Club in Cumbernauld and as the Communications Assistant for the Scottish Wrestling Association, were I have written content for their website and acted as assistant to the Marketing & Membership Director.

I have also written an article about the history of Scottish wrestling which involved a lot of new independent research, as there was very little existing research on this subject.

I was also a wrestling volunteer at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games were I was involved in looking after the Field of Play. I had an amazing experience at this event and I would like to be involved in a high-profile event such as this again in the future.

I will now be responsible for updating the BSSH Scotland blog and Twitter account (@BSSHScotland), and I am looking forward to the challenges that await.

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.


(Donald Dinnie)

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.


(Jimmy Esson)

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 110,5305176

DRAFT PROGRAMME: British Society of Sports History, Scottish Network, 2nd annual symposium: Highland Archive Centre, Inverness. Wednesday, 29 October 2014

(If interested in attending, please email BSSH Scotland at bssh.scotland AT Registration costs £10, not including meals.)



1220       WELCOME


Matthew L. McDowell, University of Edinburgh




Alison Mason, High Life Highland




Hugh Dan MacLennan, Independent Researcher

The National Shinty Archive


Wade Cormack, University of the Highlands and Islands

Playing by the Rules: Early-Modern Burgh Sports in the far North East of Scotland


Magda Warth-Szczyglowska, University of Glasgow

‘Gamsters at the Gowf’: The category of ‘golf’ in a new Historical Thesaurus of Scots


1430       BREAK




Simon Glassock, Independent Researcher

Scotland, Empire and rugby: The significance of the Waratahs tour of 1927


Sean Huddleston, University of the West of Scotland

The Last Hurrah? Rangers and the Decline of British Unionism since the 1940s


1540       BREAK




Barry Wright, University of the Highland and Islands

during the week of the Northern Meeting, the Race course at Duneancroy will be open for HACK, PONY and CART HORSE RACE, at which very considerable merriment is expected’. A consideration of Horse Racing in the eastern Highlands, circa 1660 to 1915


Gordon Cameron, Applecross Heritage Centre

Bealach na Bà: a Highland Challenge


Michael James, University of the Highlands and Islands

‘To Retire was Ignominious’: Class Participation and Masculine Identity in Skye Mountaineering, 1860-1901.


1730       BREAK




Victoria Connor, The Carnegie Club

Andrew Carnegie’s ‘Heaven on Earth’: Sport and Leisure on the Skibo Estate, 1898-1919


Archie Jenkins, De Montfort University

Robert Gibson, long forgotten North Northumberland professional football player and sprinter





Football and the ancient art of simulation: much ado about nothing? A historical perspective.

Matthew L. McDowell, University of Edinburgh

It’s time for the men’s World Cup again; and, with it, the usual hyperbole and moral hand-wringing over anything perceived as cheating. Rather than acknowledging gamesmanship as the inevitable outcome of keeping score, the popular discourse from the commentariat on ‘diving’, simulation, and feigning injury has come to have rather gendered and racist undertones to it. (Real men don’t dive. Diving is something that foreign footballers do, and they’re coming over here and teaching our players to do it.) There is an oddly Victorian ring to this stuff that jars with football being a working-class game, where winning (and money) do indeed matter. Simulation might be a problem, but does anyone seriously believe that it is as morally corrosive anything else which erodes sporting integrity in football: for instance, promoting institutionalised racism and sexism,  slave labour, child trafficking, and the allowance of football clubs to be used as money laundering schemes for dictators and criminals? A little bit of perspective would be welcome here.

It might also surprise the commentariat to hear that, in fact, gamesmanship is nothing new. It was a much-criticised, yet integral part of west of Scotland football culture in the late-nineteenth century, for instance. [1] Supporters were amongst its most keen exponents: pitch invasions, for instance, were often used by rival sets of supporters to end cup ties where the result was turning against their respective teams. (Local FAs typically cancelled the results of games where pitch invasions took place.) Local newspapers even insinuated that these FAs themselves often forced teams to replay ties under vaguely-defined justifications, the suspicion being that perpetually cash-strapped FAs desperately needed the money from gate receipts.

So what about the players themselves? In one January 1882 friendly between and Kilmarnock Athletic FC and Barrhead’s Arthurlie FC at the former’s Holm Quarry ground, the Kilmarnock Standard noted that: ‘The play of the Arthurlie forwards was strong, but at times they descended to the lowest of all football tactics practised – that of lying down in front of goal.’ [2] Cup competitions, and the later coming of leagues after the 1890 creation of the Scottish Football League (SFL), raised the financial stakes considerably. In a November 1888 Lanarkshire Cup tie between Coatbridge’s Albion Rovers and Larkhall’s Royal Albert Athletic, Rovers protested to the Lanarkshire FA regarding the apparent use of nickel studs in the Royalists’ boots. Some witnessed disagreed with this account, however, believing as they did that Rovers were ‘most assiduous in embracing mother earth’. [3]

Meanwhile, aside from simulation, the management of clubs also partook in gamesmanship. What one supporter thought of this differed on whether or not it was one’s own club taking part in what occasionally amounted to psychological warfare. At the start of one Larkhall Charity Cup match in August 1895, Royal Albert initially included four cup-tied players in their starting line-up. Motherwell, the opposing club, quickly pointed this out to the referee, and Royal Albert immediately replaced the four footballers with new players. ‘This piece of smart work’, stated the Scottish Referee, ‘was warmly applauded by the crowd of spectators’. [4] The Referee was less welcoming to one junior club, Glasgow Perthshire, whom the paper noticed in 1895 seemed to be saving their best players for the most important matches. The paper saw the potential for retaliation amongst clubs visiting Perthshire’s ground, thus drastically affecting the gate, and taking away players considered bankable draws. [5]

So as we currently watch football taking place at the highest levels, it is untrue and a bit unhelpful to think of time where the sport did not feature its more calculating side. If one wants to write a PhD thesis, however, on media discourses on diving and gamesmanship and what they ‘mean’ in the grand scheme of ‘fair play’ rhetoric, that’s another story altogether.


[1] Elements from below are used in my book A Cultural History of Association Football in Scotland, 1865-1902 (Lampeter: Edwin Mellen, 2013).

[2] Kilmarnock Standard, 21 January 1882.

[3] Scottish Referee, 12 November 1888.

[4] Scottish Referee, 2 September 1895.

[5] Scottish Referee, 17 May 1895.

The ‘ownership’ of Ailsa Craig and the opening of the Wilson quarry, 1907

Dr. Matthew L. McDowell, University of Edinburgh

In the coming weeks, Sport in History will be releasing a special issue on the geographies of sport and leisure, which contains an article written by me on the history and uses of Ailsa Craig. This was written before Trump International’s purchase of the iconic Turnberry golf course, which the islet overlooks. In this piece, I place these recent events both at Turnberry, and in Ailsa Craig’s protracted sale, in a broader historical context: specifically, the 1907 opening of William Wilson’s granite quarries on the island.

Insouciantly – rather than unwittingly – Donald Trump has made quite a name for himself in relation to the Scottish ‘Land Question’. Aside from the controversy surrounding his newly-built golf courses in Aberdeenshire, his relationship with his neighbours there, and his staunch opposition to offshore wind-farm projects near his course, Trump International has also recently purchased Turnberry on the Ayrshire coast. Famous for holding the Open Championship on several occasions – most recently in 2009 – the course showcases one of global golf’s most famous images: that of the stunning Ailsa Craig, an island just over ten miles off the Ayrshire coast. Golf is not Ailsa Craig’s only contribution to the world of Scottish sport: its more literal contribution is as the source material for the world’s curling stones. (You might have even seen it on a 2006 episode of BBC’s Coast. Or, more recently, an episode of BBC’s The One Showcue the trad music.)

The island, however, also meets at the confluence at another strand within the world of leisure: that of bird-watching, as the island has long been a nesting place for rare seabirds. But, amongst the gannets and kittiwakes that come to the island, puffins – famous inhabitants of the island – were missing from the 1930s to the early 1990s, due to the efforts of egg-eating brown rats who made their way onto the island, quite probably from a coal boat in 1899 (at least, according to former quarrymen and lighthouse keepers). [1] Not only is Ailsa Craig, then, not ‘unspoilt’ by humanity, but it is also real estate. The eighth Marquess of Ailsa has been attempting to offload ‘his’ island since May 2011. Initially, its sale price was £2.75m; now, it currently sits at £1.5m, with its probable sale to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – long caretakers of the island’s bird population – complicated by a failed scheme to build a five-star hotel from over a decade ago, which resulted in the automated lighthouse and still-standing quarrymen’s cabins being owned separately by a businessman, and being sold at a vastly inflated rate.

Ailsa Craig’s ‘ownership’ has always been contested space. Previous Earls of Cassillis and Marquesses of Ailsa used the island largely as a food store; and, when passengers aboard the popular Clyde steamships began shooting towards the island in the 1840s and 1850s – usually so they could watch the birds scatter – the second Marquess of Ailsa placed a gamekeeper, in the person of Mungo Guthrie, on the island to protect his stock. The rare birds – and their eggs – were considered the Marquess’s property, along with native rabbits, and the third Marquess had additionally placed raccoons and badgers on the island. (The badgers quickly died off, and talk of introducing chamois, while mooted, never got off the ground.) Guthrie and future gamekeepers/quarrymen – who were later typically members of the Girvan family – were allowed to sell dynamited ‘cheeses’ (which would later be ground into curling stones) in order to meet their rent obligations; and, while gamekeepers were allowed to kill and eat the stock on the island, they were still obligated to protect the island from outsiders, and to allow the Marquess and his friends to hunt on the island whenever they pleased.

Dynamiting for curling stones was a small-scale, if dangerous, enterprise. A far greater operation was brought to the island in 1907, in the person of the Ailsa Craig Granite Company of Kilsyth quarrymaster William Wilson, who obtained contracts for providing raw materials for road building for locations throughout Scotland, England, and Ireland. This was ultimately a hugely unprofitable enterprise, and labourers would end up working in primitive conditions on the island, whose lighthouse would not have a telegraph installed until 1935. But, even if this particular operation did not meet with the sustained resistance that Trump’s Aberdeenshire courses have faced, they nevertheless provoked public anger over the scale of the quarries – initially thought to equal over a thousand men – and the possibility of environmental damage to the island, its appearance, and its bird population. J. Hamilton Mitchell, in one letter to the Scotsman, stated:

Ailsa Rock, standing in silent majesty and in all the beauty of its solitude, is not only one of the most remarkable features of the Firth of Clyde, but an object of interest to all who know it. Its picturesque outline is a pleasant break in the monotony of the large expanse of ocean, and even the partial destruction of its dizzy precipices and weather-beaten-cliffs, with their myriads of sea-fowl, would render it for ever an eyesore to all lovers of the wild grandeur and beauty of nature. [2]

Aside from other angry letters by people with pseudonyms such as ‘Kitty Wake’ and ‘Tammie Norrie’ (the Scots word for ‘puffin’), another letter by ‘Interested’ stands out. Ailsa Craig here was not just a national treasure, but a kind of secular cathedral, which questioned the Marquess of Ailsa (also called the Earl of Cassillis) and his decision to allow mass quarrying on the island, given his interest in preserving other great architectural works:

I observe from yesterday’s papers that the Earl of Cassillis presided at a meeting of the St. Andrew’s Society on Tuesday last, at which the question of the restoration of the Holyrood Chapel was discussed. At this meeting it was agreed that a letter be written to the Lord Provost of Edinburgh requesting him to call a public meeting in the interests of the beneficiaries under this trust, who appear to be the Knights of the Thistle, in the first place, and, secondly, the people of Scotland. Is it not rather inconsistent that his Lordship should associate himself so prominently with the restoration of this historical building, while at the same time his father, the Marquis of Ailsa, is about to hand over the world-famed island in the Clyde to the tender mercies of the quarrymen. I hope it is a sign that, after all, such will not be its fate. [3]

Ironically, however, much as there is a section of support in Scottish society for Trump’s Aberdeenshire and Turnberry manoeuvres (one person I spoke to recently was elated at the possibility of a new bypass road towards Turnberry that went around Maybole’s notoriously-congested centre), the Wilson quarry had at least one big cheerleader: the Ayr Advertiser. In their 14 February 1907 edition, for instance, the Advertiser castigated the ‘city papers’, who ignored the possibility of more work for local men based in and around Girvan, where the economy was then considered weak:

The announcement that Lord Ailsa has leased the right to quarry granite on Ailsa Craig to a Glasgow firm, has drawn forth indignant protests in the city papers. The writers of the letters are moved by high sentiment at the prospect of the removal of a most interesting ocean landmark. But the danger they perceive is surely a remote one. It has been estimated that the quantity of granite in the Craig is about 600 million tons, and on the large supposition of 1000 tons per working day being quarried and removed, at the end of 100 years the contour of the rock would not be sensibly altered, and a 1000 years hence steamers from Ayr would probably be still going on excursions round the Craig, which would then preserve most of its features of interest, and possibly some new ones. Long before that time the demand for granite may have ceased, in consequence of the discovery of other substances better suited to the purposes for which it is at present used, or by earthquakes or volcanic action in the present Ailsa Craig may disappear and other islands be thrown up. Meanwhile, so long as quarrying went on, a large amount of employment would be provided, both on the rock itself, and in conveyance of the material to places where it would be wanted. These are common-sense considerations which should not be left out of view when sentiment is being so powerfully appealed to. [4]

The Advertiser had nothing but praise for Wilson, and seemed thrilled even at the obligatory act of having erected cabins for the workmen:

A start has now been made on Ailsa Craig by Messrs Wilson, of Kilsyth, who yesterday made a thorough exploration of the island. Being pressed with inquiries regarding material they have started two set makers in the meantime to produce samples. They have already booked a pressing order for 1500 tons of sets to be delivered at the earliest possible date. It will thus be seen that the venture is an assured success. Messrs Wilson, with commendable consideration for the interests of Girvan, have placed an order for the first block of workmen’s dwellings to be erected on the island with a local tradesman, notwithstanding the fact that his offer was considerably higher than some others. It is to be hoped that the people of Girvan will appreciate this act of consideration on the part of Messrs Wilson, and give every facility in their power for the development of what promises to be a very important industry. The placing of the first contract with a Grivan tradesman is very acceptable just now, considering the dullness of trade. [5]

This was problematic, of course, since conditions were dangerous: none of this mentions reckless dynamiting, or being hours away from the Scottish mainland by boat, or having to contend with brown rats playing around in workmen’s cabins. In the coming years, Wilson’s quarrying operation would have problems with all three.

The practicalities of living and working on a place like Ailsa Craig are not ones that are immediately thought of when overseas tourists (like this author!) gawk at the amazing sight of Ailsa Craig in the distance: not just from Turnberry, but from Troon, Saltcoats, Millport, and the rest of the Firth of Clyde’s coast. One tends to make up their own imagined history of the island whist they view it from afar, or on the television. The Dubai World investment company’s Leisurecorp, the previous owners of Turnberry and its famous ‘Ailsa course’, believed the facility to be an ‘under-utilised asset’ compared to St. Andrews, Gleneagles, and Carnoustie. Stephen McGinty, in his October 2008 Scotsman piece on Leisurecorp’s recent purchase of Turnberry, noted that: ‘[The view of Ailsa Craig] is a view that the new Arab owners of Turnberry wish to see better broadcast around the world’. Now that Donald Trump has bought this particular view, he has also purchased an appropriate backstory to go along with his cynical and rather irony-free appropriation of Scottish land, imagery, and culture. The warning to him, then, should be that one might be able to own land and assets, but still have no control over its various meanings.



[1] National Records of Scotland (NRS), Batch 32304H-HRS, Wild Birds Protection, Secretary of State for Scotland, No. 3182/418, Letter from the Board of Agriculture for Scotland to Ernest R. Graham, Northern Lighthouse Board, Edinburgh, 10 June 1924.

[2] Scotsman, 12 February 1907.

[3] Scotsman, 8 March 1907.

[4] Ayr Advertiser, 14 February 1907.

[5] Ayr Advertiser, 28 February 1907.

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