Monday, November 17, 2008

Curling spirits

This from David B Smith:

Charles Doyle, the father of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was an accomplished artist, member of a family of accomplished artists. His father was a hard-headed political cartoonist, John Doyle, each of whose publications was eagerly awaited by queues of devotees in the street outside his London publisher’s.

Charles and his brother Dickie drew and painted in a wide variety of styles. For some reason both brothers developed a penchant for depicting fairies. Although Charles created quite a number of lively curling scenes he was not always successful in keeping fairies away from them. In John Kerr’s History of Curling there is an end piece by Charles which consists of a fey young lassie speeding over the ice, her diaphanous stole billowing behind her, apparently standing barefoot on the handle of a curling stone. She is said to be The Spirit of Curling.

The same young lady appears on a New Year card by him in water colour.

Against this background I thought it might be apposite to place a couple of mentions of actual fairy curling.

Robert Heron, in his Observations made in a Journey through the Western Counties of Scotland in the Autumn of MDCCXCII, which was published in Perth in 1793, writes of the beliefs of the people around Gatehouse of Fleet: “The Fairies are little beings of a doubtful character, sometimes benevolent, sometimes mischievous: On Hallowe’n and on some other evenings, they and the Gyar-Carlins are sure to be abroad, and to stap those they meet and are displeased with, Full of butter and bear awns; In winter nights they are heard curling on every sheet of ice…”

The next comes from the pen of James Hogg, The Ettrick Shepherd, friend of Scott and Christopher North, and very keen curler. I have mentioned it in a former Scottish Curler.

In 1807 he published The Mountain Bard, a small book of Borders stories and legends, turned into ballad form by himself, and accompanied by notes. From a note on the ballad, Willie Wilken, a famous warlock, comes the following:

Willie Wilkin’s funeral procession was interrupted by the arrival of two dreadful bulls, each of which “put each of them one of their horns into the (ropes) of the coffin, and run off with the corpse... and when after many miles, they came to Loch Ettrick, on the heights of Closeburn, the bulls were seen to plunge into the lake with the corpse.”

“He was, when alive, very fond of the game of curling on the ice, at which no mortal man could beat him; nor has his passion for it ceased with death; for he and his hellish confederates continue to amuse themselves with this game during the long winter nights, to the great terror and annoyance of the neighbourhood, not much regarding whether the loch be frozen or not. I have heard sundry of the neighbouring inhabitants declare, with the most serious countenances, that they have heard them talking, and the sound of the stones running alongst the ice and hitting each other, as distinctly as ever they did when present at a real and substantial curling.”

The spirit of curling had another and perhaps final outing in a poem composed by W A Creelman for his book, Curling Past and Present, published in 1950. The author was a member of Sydney Curling Club, Nova Scotia, a Canadian, who nonetheless wrote his wee poem in quite broad Scots.

The title of the poem is, curiously, The Spirit of Curling.

On the sheen o' THE GRIP a wee sprite frae the air
Rides awa down THE ICE wi' her hear a' aflame
In the path o' the wind gleams the goud o' her hair
Wha is she? Mon, Mon, she's the SOUL O' THE GAME.

She sway and she swings on her gossamer wings
Her twa een intent on the braw arms that SWEEP
Fore the front o' THE STANE as it enters THE RINGS
Thru' a narrow bit PORT like a ship frae the deep.

She kens ilka laddie o' CURLING maun learn
How to play on THE BROOM wi' the hand and the ee;
How to lay doun A GUARD wi an OOT - or IN TURN;
How to WICK and curl in on the face o' THE TEE.

In a rollicking vein the spunkie wein stands
On her curling ROCK speeding another to greet;
Tho the CHAPPIN' ha hurled her a doun on her hands,
In a twinking she's back on the tips of her feet.

Her youth is eternal, and auld is her fame;
She's lithesome, she's bonnie, she's canty, she's gleg,
She lo'es ilka move that belongs to the game,

So toast HER ye sons o' THE STANE and THE BROOM!
She a poem in motion as swaying and swirling
She rides on undaunted to victory or doom

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Glasgow Stones

This feature appeared in the October 2008 Scottish Curler magazine. David B Smith tells the story:

Late last year I got a phone call from a dealer in Perthshire about a pair of curling stones which were about to appear in the catalogue of a Perth saleroom. Nothing unusual about that, I hear you say. They were in their original box. Again, nothing very unusual about that. The box was lined throughout in crimson velvet; the circular holes into which the stones were placed were also lined in velvet. It was beginning to sound as if these were rather special stones. The handles were of a most unusual design and were cast from solid silver and the grips were made of horn. These were really special stones.

I had to wait until the description of the stones appeared in the sale-room catalogue. When I looked there was more. There was a plaque attached to the box, which bore this inscription:
‘OAK, Original Old Stockwell Bridge, Founded above the year 1335’ And the handles bore this inscription. ‘RESPECTFULLY PRESENTED To the Right Honourable Robert Stewart, LORD PROVOST OF THE CITY OF GLASGOW, This Pair of Curling Stones Chiseled out of the Boulders Found IN THE FORMATION OF Kelvin Grove Park By John Murray Contractor, 1853’

At this point I decided that a closer look was necessary and I applied to the auction house for photographs. The stones were indeed particularly splendid. The estimated price, however, was daunting: £800-£1000. I decided that the best course would be for me to be sure that the National Museums of Scotland and Glasgow Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery knew about them, for they were of museum quality.

In the meantime I sought out more information about Robert Stewart. It was clear from the inscription that he had been a Lord Provost of Glasgow. I discovered that he was born in 1810, had inherited and expanded the business of iron and coal master of Omoa in the parish of Cleland, and had joined the town council in 1842. He became Lord Provost in 1851 and became responsible for the purchase by the council in 1852 of the estate of Kelvin Grove, from the grounds of which the West End Park was created to provide recreational space for the citizens of the city which was rapidly expanding to the west away from the only other green space, The Green. The old bridge referred to in the plaque was demolished in 1851. He also led the successful campaign for the provision by the city of fresh water for the city from Loch Katrine in opposition to the plan of the Glasgow Water Company to supply it privately from Loch Lubnaig.

Robert Stewart is commemorated in the Kelvingrove Park by a vast ornate fountain (which, ironically, is not now permitted to run because it is fed by the public water supply). See here.

It appears that the curling stones were the result of the West End Park venture. Since it seems reasonable to suppose that the recipient of a gift of curling stones was himself a curler, further research in that area was necessary. The Annuals of the Royal Club provided only one Robert Stewart in the whole of Lanarkshire at the correct dates, and he was Robert Stewart, member and latterly secretary of Chryston Curling Club. The president of this club was Mark Sprot, advocate and ironmaster, and it may well be that their community of business caused them to be members of the same club.

The sale came and went. I saw on the internet that the stones had been sold for a hammer price of £3000! To this, of course, falls to be added buyer’s commission and VAT on the commission. I contacted the dealer who had first spoken to me about the stones. He was the under-bidder but did not know who had bought them. In vain I asked other dealers whom I knew.

On my way to Perth in February 2008 I looked in at an antique shop in Auchterarder. The owner said at once: “The stones you’re looking for are at Scone Palace today; there’s an antiques fair there.” And so, having looked in at Dewar’s Rinks I sped off to Scone and discovered the stones in their box at the stall of Nicholas Shaw, a dealer from Petworth, West Sussex. They were every bit as magnificent as their description had suggested them to be but by then even more expensive. Nick Shaw promised to send me good photographs and this he did, along with permission to use them for this article.

Whether I have found the correct Robert Stewart in Chryston CC or not, the recipient of these stones might as well have been a non-curler for all the play they have seen. The striking band, which is of a very unusual sort of stippled pattern, shows no sign of use whatever. The stones are in their pristine state.

The handles, made in Glasgow, are indeed cast from silver and hall-marked accordingly. They are of a unique design. The base of the goose neck is decorated with acanthus and vine leaf; and the entire edge is embellished.

This pair of stones is not only important from the point of view of design and execution but from their association with a very important citizen of Glasgow.

The photos are courtesy of Nicholas Shaw