Thursday, September 29, 2016

The 'Boulder Age': When Your Curling Stone Had a Name!

Curling's history can be traced by studying old stones. The earliest curling stones are called 'loofies', and were without handles. In the photo above, David Smith is demonstrating how he thought a loofie from his collection might have been thrown. No ice on this occasion back in 2003, the discussion taking place in the back garden of his home in Troon!

Most loofies that have survived to this day are not as large as David's. They have indentations for thumb and fingers, as above, and were usually light enough to be easily held in the hand. Exactly how they were thrown, or indeed how the sport was played, remains unknown.

But this article is not about loofies, but is about what followed as the sport of curling evolved.

The introduction of a handle heralded the second era of curling in Scotland, probably in the seventeenth century, the game then being played with rough blocks with handles attached, such as in the image above. If the first era in curling history might be called the 'Age of the Loofie', then the next stage in the sport's evolution could be termed, 'The Boulder Age'.

These old stones varied considerably in size and weight. Each player threw one stone, often in teams of eight players aside. Rough though they were, curling stones were prized objects. Some even had names! These reflected their characteristics, or identified them with their owner.

By the time curling clubs were being formed in the early nineteenth century, most were playing with round, dressed stones. Some treasured their old curling stones, even though they were no longer played with. The Reverend John Kerr's book The History of Curling and Fifty Years of the Royal Caledonian Crling Club was published in 1898. Kerr included the names of several clubs who still looked after old stones from the 'Boulder Era', with names. For example, Alyth CC had 'Rookie', 'The Goose', and 'The Deuk'. Blairgowrie had 'The Soo', 'The Baron', 'The Egg', 'The Fluke', and 'Robbie Dow'. Coupar-Angus had 'Suwaroff', 'Cog', 'Fluke', 'Black Meg', and 'The Saut Backet'.

'The Provost' and 'The Baillie' were in the care of the Dunblane CC. The Duns CC had 'Rob Roy', and another called 'The Egg' (presumably different from Blairgowrie's stone of the same name). It was recorded that 'The Guse' and 'Bluebeard' had gone missing. 'The Whaup' and 'The Town Clerk' belonged to Hawick CC, and 'The Girdle' and 'The Grey Hen' to Jedburgh.

Lochmaben had 'Tutor', 'Skelbyland', 'The Craig', 'Wallace', 'Steelcap', 'Bonaparte', 'Hughie', 'Redcap', and 'The Skipper'. Muthill CC had 'The Bible', 'The Goose', and 'The Hen'. Markinch CC had 'The Doctor'. Newtyle CC had 'The Prince' and 'The Kebbuck'.

The table above lists the five Blairgowrie stones.

Kerr's book includes images of what these stones looked like. Top left is 'The Soo', and top right, 'The Baron'. 'The Egg' is in the middle. Bottom left is 'The Fluke' and 'Robbie Dow' is bottom right. All have looped, or double, handles.

The stone in the photo above, beside a modern stone for comparison, is now part of the Scottish Curling Trust's collection, see here. It is called 'The Egg' and is certainly the stone of that name which once belonged to the Blairgowrie CC.

The last stone that Kerr describes in his book is shown above. It was presented to the Royal Club in 1888 by John Wilson of Chapelhill, Cockburnspath, and we can assume that it had been used in that part of the country in years past. It may have had a name before 1888, but, as it was exhibited at the 50th Anniversary meeting of the Royal Club, it became known as 'The Jubilee Stone'. It weighs 117 lbs.

The stone had belonged to John Hood who had died at Townhead in January 1888. Kerr explains, "Mr Hood, it appears, had often seen his father play the stone, and he himself had played it occasionally before dressed stones were introduced. It was sent by Mr Wilson to be preserved in the archives of the Royal Club; and we are sure that generations of curlers will look upon it with interest and astonishment, if not with dismay."

It remains a prized possession of the Royal Club and has been brought out of retirement on occasion and played as the ceremonial 'opening stone' of major championships. 

If I had to pick my favourite named stone, it would be this one. It is undoubtedly from the Boulder Age, although it has been worked on by a mason to give it a triangular shape. Triangular shaped stones were not uncommon, although usually they were not as large as this, which weighs around 110 lbs. They were called 'whirlies', as because of their shape, when hit with another stone, they often just revolved on the spot rather than being driven out of the house! This one is in the care of the Scottish Curling Trust and has been catalogued here, where it is described as "A triangular hammer-dressed stone, weight 110 lbs, presented to the RCCC by Mr A Henderson Bishop in 1938. It was one of the Meigle Grannies and its neighbour was sent to the Montreal Curling Club by Mr Bishop."

This stone is described as 'one of the Meigle Grannies'. I was intrigued. Where had they come from? How had Henderson Bishop acquired them? Were the two 'Grannies' identical? They would not have been a pair, as at the time when they were in use it was 'one curler - one stone'. But if they had been used by members of the same team, they would have been serious weapons on the ice!

Andrew Henderson Bishop was a curling enthusiast, and an enthusiastic collector. I wrote about him here. He put together a collection of curling memorabilia which was exhibited in the Palace of History at the 1911 Scottish Exhibition in Glasgow. In the exhibition catalogue I found 'The Grannies'. They are listed in a collection of 'Curling Stones or Channel Stanes of the Boulder Type' and were desplayed on a platform along the North Wall. They are catalogued separately:

'No 84 Hammer-dressed Triangular curling stone from Meigle, known as 'Grannie'. Weight 101 lbs.

No 85 Hammer-dressed Triangular curling stone from Meigle, known as 'Grannie'. Weight 110 lbs. Nos 84 and 85 were called 'The Grannies'.'

Both stones were 'Lent by A Henderson Bishop'. From this we learn that the two stones were similar enough be be described together as 'The Grannies', although they were not identical, one being somewhat lighter than the other. The catlogue entries give no clue to how Henderson Bishop came to own the stones, other than they had come from Meigle, a village in Perthshire.

Which one went to Canada? And when and why did Henderson Bishop decide to give one away? And where is it now? I don't have the answer to these questions yet, but I am hopeful that the answers will be found!

Other named stones I've come across in books and articles are, 'The Old Cobbler', 'Sleeping Maggie',  'Creche', 'Tom Scott', 'Wellington', 'The Horse,' 'The Kirk', 'The Saddle', 'President', 'Soo', 'The Scone', and 'The Bannock'. No doubt there are others.

Such stones were last used in anger in the early years of the nineteenth century. By then, the size and shape of curling stones was being regulated, first by certain curling clubs themselves, and, from 1838, by the Grand (later Royal) Caledonian Curling Club, the sport's governing body. Rule V, shown above, was adopted by the Duddingston Curling Society in 1804. The introduction of 'circular curling stones' heralded the sport's 'Modern Era'.

The photo of David is from my archive, as is the photo of my hand with a loofie from the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum. Other images are from 35mm slides which date from 1979, when the stones photographed were in a display case at the Central Scotland Ice Rink, Perth. The table is from the History of Blairgowrie, online here. Images of the Blairgowrie stones from the History of Curling are scanned from page 41 of the large format edition. The Duddingston rule V is from An Account of the Game of Curling, by a member of the Duddington Curling Society, 1811. 


go360 said...

Thanks for sharing your research, a really fantastic post.

uinnseann said...

We have a boulder, known to have been retrieved from Carsebreck many years ago when our predecessors owned the farm there.... Its a muckle beast with a closed handle. More boulder than stone!