Thursday, July 03, 2008

How many have drowned?

We've had our first question! Curlboy in the thread on the Scottish Curling Forum asks, "How common was drowning in the years gone by?" Given that the sport was often played on frozen lochs, accidents must have occurred. David answers the question!

"Contrary to the received wisdom of the present day, that curling out doors is inherently dangerous, the historical fact shows the opposite.

J Gordon Grant in his The Complete Curler tells us that the 'Army Rules' provide that two inches of ice will support a man, or infantry spaced six feet apart; when four inches thick it will carry a man on horseback, or cavalry, or light guns; when six inches thick, it will support heavy field guns, such as 80-pounders, and wagons drawn by horses…”

Why then do the Curling Authorities of the present look for eight inches of ice, a thickness that the Scottish climate is not really designed to produce?

Why did the Royal Club, as Bob informs me, have a team of subaqua specialists standing by at the last Grand Match in 1979?

All my researches over the last forty years and more have produced but one curling disaster. As Sir Richard Broun wrote in his Memorabilia Curliana Mabenensia, 1830 , page 27, after listing all the Dumfries-shire parishes vanquished by Lochmaben '…and perhaps Kirkmichael might have been added to the list, but for the occurrence of a most disastrous accident by which six individuals were drowned, and a termination the most melancholy put to the bonspiel.' This is the only report of death by drowning at a curling match that I have come across.

Sure enough the newspapers from time to time recorded the death by drowning of persons because of ice breaking but they were mainly schoolboys sliding on the ice. Boys were generally inclined to try out the ice before it was properly bearing. Hence the advice reported to me by a miner from central Ayrshire whose mother used to say, 'Boys, don’t go onto the ice until the curlers have been on it.' (If it bore curlers it would bear sliding laddies.)

This is the sort of report that occasionally appeared: 27 January 1841, The Scotsman. “On Monday forenoon, while a number of boys were amusing themselves curling on the Molendinar Burn, immediately above the approach to the Necropolis, where there is a dam formed, and where the water is consequently deep, the ice gave way, and seven of them were immersed and almost in an instant disappeared, below the remaining ice. The dam, however, was emptied by opening the sluice with as little delay as possible, but we regret to say only five of them were got out alive. The names of the boys drowned are Francis Duff and William Rolls.” [Scottish Guardian].

I am not saying that ice never gave way under a curling match; merely that drowning was a very rare occurrence. The well-known black and white TV clip of Sir Robert Dundas and friends going through the ice of his shallow pond at Comrie in Perthshire in 1965 is but one example of this.

The last game I enjoyed on Coodham Loch near Symington was played on ice which creaked a bit but when measured after the game it was over 2.5 inches! Anyone who knows me knows that I am a fair test for a sheet of ice."

David B Smith.

Top: This is a still photo of Sir Robert Dundas and fellow curlers going through the ice at Comrie in 1965. You have to admire the dedication of photographer Alex Cowper, who kept filming before disappearing through the ice too!
Above: That's David with his back to the camera on the ice at Coodham. The photo was taken by a member of Troon Portland Curling Club. You can find more pics of members of that club curling outside in the archive section of their website.
Below: If drowning was an ever-present threat to curlers would Charles Altamont Doyle have made fun of falling through the ice as he does in this sketch of about 1860? From the David B Smith collection.


Anonymous said...

that is my grandad George Goodwin in the kilt,going through the ice at Comrie. I would love to get a copy of the moving film of this event for my mother, any ideas?

Anonymous said...

Hi, I would like to communocate
with you. Your Grandmother Margaret(Daisy) mother (Helen) was a sister my wifes grandmother Eliza Blacxkie who married Thomas McDougal.

How do we communicate
phone is 604 596 4736 Country code 1 or email

Gilmore House B&B said...

To anonymous, think my brother put original comment on this and have just come across your comment, how interesting. you can e-mail me at

Louise Woodburn said...

I was chatting to a friend of mine who remembers seeing the images of George Goodwin go from standing on the ice raising his glass to falling through and he is interested in purchasing these images if anyone has them.

Please contact me at if anyone can help.

Thank you.