Monday, February 08, 2016

Pondhunting 'Cairnie ponds' and 'Sprinkle rinks'

It's been a while since I wrote about the project to map the 'Historical Curling Places'. See that post here. The project continues to thrive, and I enjoy the small part I play in it. Although begun by David Smith, nowadays Lindsay Scotland and Harold Forrester take the lead, and contributions from others are always welcome. Perhaps there is an old curling pond near where you live. You could become a 'pondhunter'! What does 'your' pond look like today?

It is exciting that the project has no finite 'end'. Yes, perhaps one day all the places where curling has taken place will be mapped. But for each place, other questions arise. Who played there? What significant games were played there? If the place was a curling pond, was it constructed by a local club? If so, when? How long did it last? What costs were involved in its construction and maintenance? When and why did it fall into disuse? Are there newspaper reports of play there? Are there photographs of the venue in use?

In trying to answer even some of these questions, we stray away from just a mapping exercise, and enter the realms of social history, and a way of life long past.

There's one question that I've not posed above, that is, what type of curling place does each entry in the database, or dot on the map, represent? It is apparent when studying the maps, see here, that there is great variety in the places that curlers in the past found to pursue their sport.

It is possible to classify these places into a number of different categories. In past times curlers found themselves on ice of the following types: natural water, managed water, maintained curling club ponds, Cairnie-style shallow ponds, and tarmac rinks.

I've set out my attempt at a classification below. I've tried not to use the term 'artificial'. That's because it is just too general and 'artificial' can apply to a deep water pond with sluices to regulate the water depth, to a Cairnie-style shallow pond, or to a tarmac rink. 

Let's expand on these a bit further.

Curling will have begun on ice that formed over 'natural water'.  Everyone is familiar with the outdoor 'Grand Match', the last of which was held in 1979 on the Lake of Menteith. But there are many references to venues that are somewhat smaller, or even to frozen rivers. Probably a safer option was the frozen surface of a flooded field, and my first outdoor experience was on such a venue near Gateside, Beith. I remember it well.

1. Natural Water
1a. Loch or lake
1b. Lochan or tarn
1c. River
1d. Flooded field

2. Managed Water
2a. Canal
2b. Mill pond
2c. Fish pond
2d. Reservoir
2e. Ornamental pond in estate grounds
2f. Ornamental pond in public park

3. Maintained curling club ponds
3a. Natural shape club curling pond, with managed water intake and sluice or drain
3b. Regular shape constructed club curling pond, with water intake and sluice, perhaps with an embankment or dam

4. Cairnie-style shallow ponds
4a. Clay floor
4b. Concrete/cement floor
4c. Wood floor
4d. Bitumen/asphalt/tarmacadam floor
4e. Metal floor

5. Tarmac rinks
These are also known as 'sprinkle rinks', and were constructed in the early twentieth century. More on these below.

Aside from these five categories, there are also 'packed snow' rinks. These were (and are still) found in Switzerland and New Zealand, but rarely, if ever, in Scotland. There are instances where tennis courts and bowling greens have been flooded in winter time. And of course there have been outdoor rinks with artificial refrigeration, usually of a temporary nature around Christmas time, for skating and curling.

In the classification scheme above, the difference between categories 4 and 5 can cause confusion.

Cairnie-style ponds are shallow ponds with a small border to retain water to a depth of a few centimetres. They are named after John Cairnie of Largs. In 1833 he published a book, Essay on Curling and Artificial Pond Making, in which he describes fully his efforts to provide an ice surface which would allow him to curl when natural lochs or deep water ponds were not bearing. Some pages of his book, facsimile copies of which are readily available, refute claims by the Reverend John Somerville of Currie who sought credit for the invention. I resist the temptation to lay out the arguments here! However, Cairnie made his pond work, and there are many reports of play on it, for example:

This clipping from the Edinburgh Evening Courant of January 17, 1829, predates by some four years the publication of Cairnie's book, and shows that the importance of his invention was being recognised even then. 

You can see what Cairnie's pond in Largs looked like, in a painting which belongs to the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, here. John Cairnie of course became the Club's first president on its formation in 1838.

The bottom of Cairnie-style ponds had to be be of a material which would retain water. Cairnie himself experimented with a number of materials, but over the years others successfully constructed ponds with floors of clay, cement, concrete, tarry materials, wood, or even iron plates. The water depth of a Cairnie-style pond is usually only 3-4 cm. The floor does not need to be perfectly flat as the water finds its own level. Given a sharp frost, the water freezes completely, providing complete safety, compared with the dangers of curling on insufficiently strong ice floating above several feet of water. However, Cairnie-style ponds did not give the characteristic sound of the stones travelling across ice on 'deep water' places, which gives rise to curling being referred to as the 'Roaring Game'.

This is a photo taken recently of a Cairnie-style pond at Tarfside, in Glen Esk, Angus. Although dating from the end of the nineteenth century, it was renovated a few years ago. See play on the pond here and here.

Nowadays it is a wooden edge that keeps the water in place, and the pond appears to have a concrete base. Sadly, there has been no play on the Tarfside pond so far this winter.

But another Cairnie-style pond has seen considerable activity. The Highland Curling Club's pond at Kingsmills, Inverness, has four sheets, with a clay base. See photos on the club's Facebook pages here.

Now to category 5. 'Tarmac', short for tarmacadam, is mentioned frequently in reports of curling in the early twentieth century. What is tarmac, exactly? Defining the word's meaning is not so simple, see here.

The word is associated with John McAdam, who was born in Ayr in 1756 and died in Moffat in 1836. He is credited with inventing the 'macadam' road surface, namely that roads should be higher than their surroundings to achieve drainage and constructed with a base of large rocks, then with smaller stones, the layers tied together with fine gravel. You can read McAdam's 1819 paper Practical Essay on the Scientific Repair and Preservation of Roads online here.

It was in 1901 that Edgar Purnell Hooley patented a method for mixing tar and aggregate to go on top of a macadamised surface, compacting the lot with a roller. The various recipes for 'tarmac' date from this time.

The material was certainly used as a base for Cairnie-style ponds, but gave its name to a new type of curling place - the 'tarmac' or 'sprinkle' rink.

The Complete Curler by J Gordon Grant, published in 1914, suggests that the first tarmac curling rink was made in 1903, and between then until the book was written 'hundreds of tarmac rinks have been constructed throughout Scotland and the northern half of England'. He describes the depth of the ice on a tarmac rink, as 'only the mere skin of about the thickness of a sixpence, and this is obtained by spraying water lightly over the rink, which instantly freezes'.

So a Cairnie-style pond has a few centimetres of ice, whereas the thickness of ice on a tarmac rink is only one to two millimetres.

As there is no depth of water on a tarmac rink to allow it to find its own level, it follows that the stretch of tarmac on the base of a tarmac rink had to be perfectly flat.

An early reference to 'tar macadam' in the construction of a curling rink can be found in the Scotsman of November 22, 1904. This says, "The first game of the season, and the first game on Mr Stoddart's new private artificial pond at Howden, was played yesterday forenoon between rinks skipped by Mr James Wyllie, New Calder, and Mr Robert Maconachie, Mooralmond. After a keenly contested game which lasted two and a half hours, the score stood fifteen each when, on account of the fall of snow, the order to cease play was given. The ice was in splendid condition, and the new pond in every respect gave evidence that the tar macadam system of artificial curling ponds is a success."

James Edward Stoddart was in his early fifties, the head of the household at Howden, and living there with his wife Agnes, his daughter, Agnes Young, and three servants. He had been President of the Mid-Calder curling club since 1896. His wife was a 'Patroness' of the club. James Stoddart must have been a really keen curler to have gone to the trouble and expense of constructing a tarmac rink on his property, one of the first to do so. He deserves to be remembered as a curling 'pioneer'!

On November 28, 1904, the Scotsman reported, "Mid-Calder. Members of this club had splendid play every day last week on Mr Stoddart's private artificial pond at Howden. This pond has proved in every way the advantages of the tar macadam system of artificial curling ponds. On Tuesday, after two and a half hours play in the forenoon, the ice became somewhat 'bauch' and after lunch the curlers engaged in a game of bowls on one part of the pond while the other part, which had been sprayed, gained time to freeze. Curling was then resumed the same afternoon."

The reference to playing bowls on the same surface as the curling rink is interesting. A tarmac surface that could have a use for other sports in the summer months would have been a sound investment. 

The Ordnance Survey 6 inch to the mile map published in 1908 shows the house, and a feature, highlighted, which is likely to be the tarmac curling rink. Howden House still exists, see here, and is surrounded now by Livingston new town.

As luck would have it, we may even know who constructed the rink at Howden. Andrew Scott, whose letterhead is above, was based at Watson's College Pavilion, Myreside, Edinburgh. He wrote in November 1905 to a prospective client, although it is not clear who this client was. Scott's letter says, "Your committee has visited the pond at Mid Calder belonging to Mr Stoddart. If the directors were satisfied it was suitable for those games (curling and bowls), I willingly guarantee you a pond even better than that."

This could mean that he had constructed the rink at Howden himself, or it could mean that he knew all about that rink but thought he could do an even better job in constructing a similar one. 

Scott's business seems to have flourished. The Arbroath Herald and Advertiser for the Montrose Burghs on November 19, 1909, describes how the Arbroath curling club's Cairnie-style pond had deteriorated and been converted to a tarmac rink, the work carried out to everyone's satisfaction by Andrew Scott. 

The Royal Caledonian Curling Club Annual for 1908-09 reprinted a letter, previously published in the Scotsman, written by John Anderson of Hillside, Moffat. Anderson had documented the occasions on which curling on the 'tarmac' had been possible over the winters of 1906-07 and 1907-08, and had compared the frequency of play with that possible on deep water ponds. He concluded that tarmac rinks had been a great success, offering three to five times the opportunity to play each winter than on deep water ponds. He also discussed the costs involved in constructing a tarmac rink.

The construction and costs of a tarmac rink were also detailed in the Royal Club Annual for 1909-10, in a letter to the Secretary containing the specification and cost of the three-sheet tarmac rink which had been laid down at Dyce, Aberdeen, in the summer of 1907. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century then, all of Scotland's curlers knew about tarmac rinks, and many more such sprinkle rinks were to be constructed, perhaps in consequence of the publication of information in the Royal Club Annuals.

Gordon Grant, in the Complete Curler, describes one way of constructing a tarmac rink. "The levelled space for the rink is first covered with a thick layer (about nine inches) of broken stones or brick, on top of which is spread a layer of ashes. This is levelled and consolidated by rolling. Another layer of rough ashes is spread over this, and it is again rolled level. An inch of sand is then placed on the top of this, and again it is rolled; then an inch of fine ashes, and more rolling. Lastly tar is run on evenly, sprinkled with fine sand, and rolled once more. The tar sinks into the ashes, and binds the mass together, thus providing the surface for spraying."

There was one disadvantage to such rinks - the sun! The ice on top of the tarmac was only a few mm thick, at most. So tarmac rinks were often constructed with artificial lighting, and games played at night!

And there was another more serious problem. As anyone who drives around Scotland knows well, even modern road surfaces have a habit of breaking up with constant wear, and the effect of winter weather! James Smith, the keenest of curlers, already had a natural loch and a Cairnie-style rink at Craigielands, near Moffat. To maximise his opportunities for play, he constructed a tarmac rink so he would be able to play after even a light frost. Denis Forman, in his own autobiography Son of Adam, recalls curling on the Craigielands tarmac. "When frost was forecast two gardeners would water the tarmac at nightfall and return to do the same at dawn. The sprinkling of water froze immediately even in a mild frost, and James Smith would not be slow to summon eight players to join him for a game. These would be 'friendlies' between members of the family and estate workers. Lunch was taken (a 'piece' and Camp coffee) at the little pavilion James had built by the rinkside to hold the stones for the tarmac game. As the day warmed up bits of tarmac stuck through the film of ice and scratched the stones' underside, so James provided at his own expense sixteen stones of various weights and with varying degrees of keenness to meet the taste of each player."

So, there was a possibility of damaging your stones if you played on the tarmac!

Keeping the tarmac surface level, and in good condition, from one season to the next would have been difficult. Yes, the top surface could be repaired, or completely relaid. If things got too bad there was an obvious solution. By building a small retaining 'wall' around a tarmac rink, it could readily be turned into a Cairnie-style pond, and I believe that is what happened with many.

J Gordon Grant, writing in 1914, refers to the introduction of the tarmac rinks as signifying 'a new era for the sport'. Of course two things intervened to change that prediction. One was the opening of Crossmyloof and then Haymarket to provide indoor curling on artificially frozen ice, and the other of course was the Great War.

Where were Scotland's sprinkle tarmac rinks? Good question. They don't often show up named as such on old maps. After all, would a surveyor immediately recognise a strip of tarmac, with no water in evidence, as a curling place? Sometimes, when a tarmac rink was constructed alongside an existing deep water, or Cairnie-style, pond, the outline of the tarmac can be seen on a twentieth century map. Lindsay Scotland has found several news reports from the Scotsman which describe the opening of new tarmac ponds, but often the location is vague. I know of two. There was one in Lochmaben, beside the Kirk Loch, known as the 'Coronation Rinks'. This dates from 1911, although the original surface has been replaced and the area is now a car and caravan park. The photo above shows what remains of the tarmac rink at Wanlockhead which was opened in 1923. If you know of other examples, please let Lindsay Scotland know. Become a 'pondhunter'! Lindsay's contact details are here.

But beware. Not all curling places that are described as 'tarmac rinks' are Category 5 sprinkle rinks. The Partick curling club pond, see here and here, may originally have been constructed as a Cairnie-style pond, and refloored at some point with tarmac. 

Bob Cowan

Thanks to Lindsay Scotland and Harold Forrester for help and encouragement with this article. Photos of the Tarfside pond and the Wanlockhead tarmac are by the author, as is the scan of Andrew Scott's letterhead. Scott's letters are in the author's collection of curling memorabilia. The news clipping image is © The British Library Board and reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive. The map clipping is a screenshot from an online map at the National Library of Scotland's maps website here. The top image is a screenshot from the Historical Curling Places website.

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