My recent journey across Rannoch Moor and its bleak, inhospitable landscape, reminded me of a story from the Scotsman of February 13, 1895, which I had unearthed before going to speak at the 130th anniversary dinner of Lochaber Curling Club in 2000.
The story is best told as it appeared in the newspaper, for the writer of the article has succeeded in portraying the tremendous enthusiasm of the curlers for the game and their resilience in coping with the 'difficulties' they encountered on the Moor of Rannoch.
Curling under difficulties
"The adventures of a party of curlers on Rannoch Moor last week are probably unprecedented in curling annals, and perhaps not unworthy of record in the Scotsman.
At the initiative of the Dall Club, Rannoch, a friendly match was arranged with the Lochaber Club, Fort-William, to be played on Rannoch Moor on Wednesday last, three rinks a side. Dall is one of the foremost clubs in the Highlands. Instituted in 1850, it has shown its prowess at Southport in Lancashire, against the foremost clubs of the North and South, as well as in play with the neighbouring clubs, and has won no small renown. The Lochaber Club was formed in 1870, and during the twenty five years of its existence has not had a period of frost of so long duration as the present, or of anything like the severity which has been experienced during the last six weeks. The club pond is only a few feet above sea level, and whole winters pass without its having bearing ice. The facilities for play possessed by the club are therefore among the most limited of any in Scotland. It has a considerable membership, however, and among its members are some enthusiastic curlers, who (as events prove) can hold their own with clubs which are able to play from November till April. In its young enthusiasm three rinks of the club on one occasion chartered a steamer to convey them to Oban in order to be able to take part in a grand match at Carsebreck. On that, and on a subsequent occasion when they took part in the grand match, had all the northern clubs done as well as they, the victory had not, as it did, gone to the south. Their Oban neighbours credit them with having, on the evening before the last grand match, telegraphed to stop the match because, having entered three rinks, they could not take part in it owing to a block on the West Highland Railway. The Lochaber men say this is a mere canard got up by the Obanites out of spite to the West Highland Railway, of whose success they are supposed to be extremely jealous. They further retort that in the grand match the Oban Club had need of their help, for the three rinks entered by that club were each and all beaten. And so the chaff goes on to the mutual satisfaction of both parties.
If the Lochaber Club failed to get forward to the grand match, they have not been idle at home. In addition to their play among themselves, in which the president’s rink won the late president’s medal, a young curler carried off the points medal, four rinks of the bachelor members of the club beat an equal number of rinks composed of the married men, and the vice-president’s team beat the president’s. They won the Royal Club medal from Invergarry, and defeated in succession Spean Bridge, Ardgour, Ballachullish, and Oban.
On Wednesday morning of last week, at 7.30, three rinks started by train for Rannoch Station to meet the like number from Dall. The morning promised an altogether favourable day, a promise which was not fulfilled. By the time the teams met, the ice had been cleared of snow, on a small lake about half a mile from the station. But those who were employed in clearing it evidently knew nothing of curling, for when the players reached the ice it was found to be altogether unsuitable for their purpose. As often happens in elevated positions, when the ice is soft, or showers of sleet fall instead of snow, the surface was rendered rough and ridgy with the wind, and instead of being true ice, was merely hardened snow and slush. They had therefore to betake themselves to Loch Laidon, fully a mile from the railway station. Here they had to clear rinks for themselves, and the match commenced somewhat later in the day than was intended. This was unfortunate; for before play had long proceeded, snow began to fall heavily. Loch Laidon is 924 feet above sea-level, and a snowstorm upon it, with a strong wind sweeping over its shelterless surface, is, as the curlers found to their cost, something to try the strongest frame. For a time they persevered, hoping the storm would abate. The stones lying at the one end of the rink could not be seen from the other. The direction of the skips could not be heard. The player could merely see a dim outline of a man, seemingly at a great distance, waving a broom and wildly gesticulating, as if he were the very spirit of the storm. In the direction of this shadowy figure the curling stone was hurled. If it did what was wished, well; if not, the other side thought it better.
In this way play continued for some time. At length a consultation was held, and the game brought by mutual consent to a close. When the totals were summed up, Lochaber was found to have won with the narrowest possible majority. How the game would have ended had it been possible to continue it till the appointed close, no one, of course, can tell. On some future day the two clubs may be able to meet under more favourable circumstances.
The hardships of the curlers were only commencing at the close of their play. They had not only to take themselves, but also their curling-stones, back to the railway station. There were no idlers at hand who could be hired to do this work for those who were the less able to do it for themselves, and there will always be among curlers men whose skill as players is greater than their physical strength. For the strongest even to struggle through the deep snow and the blinding drift was no easy undertaking. The very direction in which they ought to go was more or less uncertain. In one place they had to climb a knoll, which might have been avoided. They would next plunge into a hollow filled with snow, where they sank to the waist. The distance seemed interminable, and the struggle almost too much for human strength. But shelter was reached in safety by all at last.
The place thus reached was a wooden hut used as a licensed store for supplying the wants of the workmen while the line was being constructed, and still occupied. Here, fortunately, there was a considerable supply of food, with an abundance of fuel; and it was well for the curlers that such was the case, for they had to make it their home for the next forty eight hours. The supply of water was scanty, but of strong water, in the form of whisky, there was an abundance, and there was a considerable quantity of beer. The usual teetotal drinks were not awanting, but they showed their unsuitability for the climate by getting frozen and having to be thawed, after which they were not found very palatable.
In this refuge in the wilderness the two curling clubs enjoyed themselves for an hour or two together, and fared not badly all things considered. After sufficient rest and refreshment the Dall men set their faces homewards. Seven miles of difficulty and danger lay between them and the head of Loch Rannoch, where they would find rest and food and shelter; and about seven more had to be struggled through before they could reach their homes. The first part of the journey would have to be accomplished through the storm. Of how they fared there is no record yet available, but it is known that all got back in safety.
The Lochaber men were eighteen or twenty miles from the point at which a train could at first reach from the north, and walking that distance on Wednesday afternoon was out of the question. Thursday was a day of fierce, cold wind, which made walking equally impossible, and they had to wait with patience to be relieved. The only consolation they had was that they could communicate by telephone with their friends and relieve their anxiety on their account. On Thursday, engine after engine arrived with snow-ploughs from the south, attempting to clear the line without success. They remained embedded in the snow until at last there were five of them. The last was accompanied with a squad of some 150 men, and effected a clearance. Each successive arrival brought to the curlers’ shelter an additional number of guests in the form of railway officials of one grade or another. For two nights from thirty to forty men were thus crowded together in a limited space, with little in the way of comfort. A good breakfast each morning they were able to obtain, but for the rest of the day they had to fare as best they could. Biscuit, beer, and whisky were the chief means of keeping off hunger. One young man who apparently did not consider his head strong enough to stand drinking undiluted whisky – water was scarce – and did not care to regale himself on thawed lemonade, got possession of a dozen bottles of beer, placed them in a corner, and lay down on the boards beside them to sleep. When he awoke, the bottles were there, but the beer had found other quarters.
There was only one bed in the place, and sleep could be obtained only by snatches. The wakeful ones found a wicked pleasure in disturbing the sleepers’ repose. The principal amusement during the day was watching the engines panting in the snow, and having their work undone before it was well finished. At night some amused themselves playing whist; those who could sing, sang song after song until they were hoarse; those who could not joined in the chorus. Their spirits were not allowed to flag.
On leaving home on their curling tour, the Lochaber men had before them a three days’ programme. On Thursday they were to meet the Cardross Club; on Friday one or two other clubs in the valley of the Clyde; and on Saturday forenoon they undertook to meet the Helensburgh Club. On Thursday a temporary clearing had been effected, and they started on one of the engines to keep their appointment with Cardross, but a short five minutes brought them to the end of their journey. The engine became embedded in the snow.
Friday morning came clear and calm. It was known by telephone that a working train was able to reach Loch Treig side, to a point some fourteen miles distant. Provisions had become reduced to half a loaf of bread and half an ounce of tea. There were still some biscuit and whisky; but, not choosing to subsist longer on such fare, a few of the more venturesome resolved to walk the fourteen miles that separated them from the cleared part of the railway. They set off after breakfast, and reached the workmens’ train without mishap. This brought them safely home. For those who would not undertake to walk, relief came from the other end of the line. The hundred and fifty squad opened the way, and the wearied curlers that night found beds and comfort at Tyndrum.
As proof that their energies had not been exhausted, they agreed to meet two rinks of the Oban Club on Saturday, and they beat them to their hearts’ content. Two of the men who had walked to Loch Treig joined some others of the club next morning, and went by steamer to Corran, where they helped to beat two rinks of the Ardgour Club; and thus the excursion to Rannoch Moor was brought to a triumphant close, leaving none the worse for the adventure.”
The railway line across Rannoch Moor had just been opened. The line was built in two phases; the section from Fort William to Craigendoran was begun in 1889 and completed in 1894 and the extension to Mallaig, begun in 1897 and opened in 1901.
Above: Dall CC medal, from the author's collection.
Top: Rannoch Station, one of the remotest stations in Britain, on a gloomy winter's day in 1981. This photo is © Copyright Anne Burgess and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.