Call for Papers: Histories of Cross-Border Sport in Scotland and England

Saturday, 17 October 2015 at the Robert Burns Centre, Dumfries

The British Society of Sports History, Scottish Network, is pleased to invite you to ‘Histories of Cross-Border Sport in Scotland and England’, our annual one-day symposium, this year at the Robert Burns Centre in Dumfries.

Suggested paper topics might include (but are not limited to):

  • The South of Scotland, the North of England, and civic, ‘regional’, and ‘national’ identities
  • Sport, gender, and work in the region
  • Cross-Border sporting events, competitions, and leagues
  • Sport, environment, and agriculture
  • Biographies of sportspeople and sporting ‘heroes’

Papers from emerging scholars, community historians, as well as museum and heritage practitioners, would be particularly welcome.

Our keynote address will be given by Professor Tony Collins, International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University, who will be discussing: ‘Rugby in the Borders and at the Borders’.

Abstracts should be no longer than 200 words, and should be sent to BSSH Scotland ( by Sunday, 13 September 2015, along with any other queries.



Programme: Scottish Sport and the Arts


Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, Friday, 28 August 2015

Presented by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the British Society of Sports History, Scottish Network


9.00-9.15            Registration with tea/coffee

9.15 – 9.30         Welcome · Imogen Gibbon, Chief Curator and Deputy Director Scottish National Portrait Gallery

9.30-9.50            The Search for a Great Scottish Football Novel · Andy Mitchell, Compiler and Editor Scottish Sport History

9.50-10.10          Against All Odds: The Underdog Myth in Scottish Football Fiction · Cyprian Piskurek, Lecturer British Cultural Studies at TU Dortmund University

10.10-10.30        Gordon Williams, Straw Dogs, Gregory’s Girl and Denis Law’s Book of Soccer · Ian Scott, Curator Sport, Leisure & Newspapers National Library of Scotland

10.30-10.50        Football, Popular Culture, and Identity in the Novels of Irvine Welsh · Dr Anthony May, Centre for the Study of Football and its Communities Manchester Metropolitan University

10.50-11.10        Session discussion


11.10-11.30        Tea/Coffee/biscuits


11.30-11.50        What to Wear for Gymnastics: Thinking through Artworks and Absences in Museum Collections · Tiffany Boyle, PhD Candidate Department of Art History Birkbeck University of London

11.50-12.10        Margaret Morris: Artist, Educationalist and Remedial Therapist · Wendy Timmons, Programme Director: MSc Dance Science & Education University of Edinburgh, Iliyana Nedkova and Maria Papageorgiou

12.10-12.30        Has the Highland Fling – Flung? Interrogating the Art/Sport Binary within Highland Dancing Practice · Bethany Whiteside, PhD Candidate (Sociology of Participatory Dance) Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

12.30-12.50        Session discussion


12.50-2.00          Lunch


2.00-2.20            A Rich Tapestry with many a Web and Weave · Dr Hugh Dan MacLennan, broadcaster, author and Professional Fellow Academy of Sport, University of Edinburgh

2.20-2.40            Fitba’ Daft: Scottish Sport and the Silent Screen · Maria A. Velez-Serna, Post-Doctoral Research Assistant University of Glasgow and Caroline Merz, PhD researcher University of Edinburgh

2.40-3.00            Session Discussion


3.00-3.20            Tea/coffee


3.20-3.40            ‘Papa had a famous deer hunt yesterday’: The Sporting Life of John Murray, 4th Duke of Atholl (1755-1830) · Nel Whiting, PhD Student University of Dundee

3.40-4.00            Sir David Baird of Newbyth (1795-1851) in “The Golfers” by Charles Lees, RSA – “Whatever he took in hand, he steadily pursued until he acquired the complete mastery of it.”A review of his achievements by David Affleck, East Linton

4.00-4.20            Charles Lees and the Grand Curling Match on Linlithgow Loch, 1848: the portrait of a society? · John Burnett

4.20-4.40            Session discussion


4.40-4.45            Conclusion


5.00-5.30            Walkround Playing for Scotland exhibition

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

Call for Papers: Scottish Sport and the Arts


Presented by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the British Society of Sports History, Scottish Network

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Friday, 28 August 2015

To mark the ongoing exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery: Playing for Scotland: The Making of Modern Sport, we are teaming up to present a one-day conference on Scottish sport’s historic and contemporary relationship with the arts, broadly defined. Suggested papers topics might include (but are not limited to):

  • The painting of Scottish sport and sportspeople
  • Scottish sport and cinema
  • Scottish sport and literature
  • Scottish sport and photography
  • Scottish sport and statuary
  • Scottish sport, cartoons, and comics
  • Scottish sport, plays, and performance art

Abstracts should be no longer than 200 words, and should be sent by Friday, 29 May to both Imogen Gibbon ( and Matthew McDowell ( Any queries should also be sent to Imogen or Matthew.

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.

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