David Smith writes:
Throughout the late nineteenth century the English readers of cultural and sporting journals were from time to time entertained by sketches of the quaint and foreign doings of their northern neighbours.
They found articles about their weird customs and pastimes in journals such as Bell's Life in London, The Illustrated London News, The Graphic, The Country Gentleman, Sporting Gazette & Agricultural Journal. It is from the last of these that I have chosen to reproduce a piece about the strange game of curling. It takes the form of a letter written by 'Airchie McDougal' (note the spelling!) who lives at Torr Cross on Loch Lomond side. Airchie has already in two previous letters regaled the English with the pleasures of shooting game birds.
The letter was published in The Country Gentleman: Sporting Gazette & Agricultural Journal, Sat, Dec 4, 1880.
Keystane, Ayrshire, N.B.,
SIR., - Now, Sir, the adipose are about to pose in the front rank. You are all frozen out, and ye know it. There is a wheeze of the whooping-cough about your view-holloas, and your “who-whoop” is more like the crow of the child in croup than the lively, wakening, though death ominous shout, which rings through the welkin. Frozen-out poor fellows, I hope ye pitied me all left alone in the Torr of Cross. If ye did not, then I do not pity ye now.
John Frost is an old friend of mine; I have known him for years indeed. He is a wantom wag, though does as he likes – flirts, frolics, and flies like a seductive old sea captain who hoists the Blue Peter at the fore while he protests eternal constancy. But he has some good points, has John. He came over to the Torr of Cross last week, kissed the hazel branches, put his arm round the birk, and hugged the high imperious dame of a waterfall at Moorsmaid until she fell asleep. Even the loch he flung into a deep slumber, but the Queen of Scottish lakes is too warm to be frozen by a frosty king; at least she is above Inchmurrin.
We slipped down to the loch (Jack, Fred and I) through a gathering fog last Friday night on our way to the Keystane, which lies in the great centre of curling. Some flights of moorcock which Rory spoke about were temptations to remain, more especially so when he informed us that they would not stay in the neighbourhood more than a day or two before they would shift for the boring grounds near the sea; yet we all wanted to get to the curling. Beautifully lay the loch as we slowly slipped down 'midst the lovely islands, the blue slate quarries of Luss, and the brown bracken of which was chased with frosty silver work, that cold Saturday. Rossdhu sent out a faint peep from the beautiful tall Scotch fir shading the house of Colquhoun, and window after window began to shine in the little village ashore. With a silence unbroken save by the steady throb of the paddles, we steamed slowly into the sweet bay of Balmaha on “the Duke's side”.
Down under Boturich, with many a flock of ducks on either paddle-wings to tempt us to draw our guns from their cases, we sailed to Balloch, and then changed to the train for Glasgow, from when we shifted to the beautiful new station at St. Enoch's for Ayrshire. The dog-cart was waiting at Calnock when we arrived, and we were soon at the Keystane, a place, together with the genial Laird, I have well described in previous articles. He is brother to the Laird of Greystone in the last, with whom I played that interesting fairsome at golf a few weeks ago.
It was late ere we got to the familiar little spot on the river, but the lateness and the cold and the general disagreeableness were removed by a glass – a double glass I might say, or what in the north they call “a cauker” - of the very best whiskey. A jolly old bachelor, we were not bothered with what is called “the delightful companionship of ladies.” This, however, is a remark of one who is unfortunately a cynic from experience.
It was a grand Saturday night. Thaw set in about ten o'clock with the introduction of the hot water, and I am afraid we were well into Sunday forenoon before it began to freeze again.
The Sunday passed as people pass Sunday in Scotland, “doucely”, the Laird being a daecent, circumspect elder of the parish kirk, though a noted convivialist. Hard frost outside was relieved, as on Saturday, by a hot, strong thaw inside, and we retired in the evening with the frosty floral wreaths ornamenting the window pane.
Ugh! How cold it was on Monday! Still, the air was like champagne, sparkling and fizzing in one's mouth till it created a vacuum for breakfast quite as deep as a limestone pit.
I always think James Pigg's turning up for breakfast as hungry as a hawk after getting a big supper and getting blind drunk the night before the best picture of a lean Scotchman that ever was drawn. Still, it is only true as to character, not as to place. In England after a heavy night the atmosphere will throw you back in your bed when you rise in the morning as if you were a sack of corn; while in Scotland it will as soon as you open your eyes pitch you onto your legs, off them into a cold bath, out into your clothes, shave you, wash and ding you down before a big breakfast, which seems to jump down your throat in spite of yourself. That was my feeling at the Keystane last Monday morning.
“What is the programme, Laird?” I said. “We've got to curl, but what is it to be? The points for the medals, meal and coals for the poor, or beef and greens for ourselves, or what?”
“Well,” he said, “I rather suspect we've got to play off that tie for Laird Wilson's kettle. You recollect Wilson and I promised to give a kettle; 'twere about to be played for at the close of last season. Wilson gave the first one you know over a toss.”
“Of course I know,” I said. “I was one of your rink, or rather your man Wattie's. We've got the last tie to play for it the first frost.”
“Well, that will be today,” he said. “They were having a points match on Saturday. Wattie won the silver medal, I believe, but the points game is a humbug at curling. There's nothing in it.”
“Well, then, I suppose we have to get to the Merkloch by ten o'clock.”
As he nodded assent I heard the rattle of wheels on the gravel outside, my host filled one little thimblefull from the blue-backed bottle, which we all drank off in turn - “it will keep out the cold,” he said – and in a few minutes we were whirling on to the Merkloch. Through woods, the beautiful frosty lace-work of which was shining in the sun and arbours of snow-laden branches, we whirled on through the keen, frosty atmosphere. The brackens were folded to the ground, and the cut underwood, which the careful keepers had laid down for covers,had been brought so low that only the well-kept run of the rabbit was visible. As we neared the pond the rising, reverberating noise of the stone became plainly heard, like the roar of the sea on some low-shelved beach open to the bare Atlantic. Carefully avoiding the icy parts of the road, Wattie, who was driving, brought us down a narrow bend amongst beautifully fringed larches, uprising spruce, and rebellious ashes, which, like ladies of temper, refused to acknowledge the suit of the frost King save by the most temper-revealing curls of the outer branches.
Steadying them on the hill with that farewell sweep of the drag, which, like the brilliant finish of jockeys, is the pride of coachmen, Wattie swept under the trees and over the bridge to the level in the loch, was at the door of the curlers' cottage before we could well discern the neat little cot in which all summer the stones, which had played merry parts in winter, had lain, the cobwebs spun over them by itinerant spiders. There were numerous greetings for the Laird. Farmers busy screwing the handles into the grey stones of Ailsa jumped forward, and men to whom he was not known in a rent-lifting capacity left the round blue blocks cut from the channels of Burnock Water, to welcome the Laird of Keystane as one of the most enthusiastic of curlers.
“Any friend of the Laird's,” was the quiet remark of a bucolic individual whose homespun uniform smelt of guano and sheepdip, “is welcome amongst oorsel's”, as Jack was introduced followed by the jocular Fred; “but Mr McDoogall we have seen before.”
It was not long before the curlers of the opposing side gathered out their stones, laid out their tees, and put down their crampits. The rink, after being closely swept, was then opened by the young tenant of Grissel, who was skip of what was known as Laird Grissel's rink. Be it known, however, that at curling there is no superiority, save it be in the skill of the game. The Laird of Grissel played only second to one of his poorest tenants, but not only that, the Laird of Keystane had to play third only, while Wattie, his keeper, acted as skip with full power to domineer over his master in all cases of bad play.
Sweeping away the snow, we soon formed some nice clean rinks, fixed our crampits, and began the roaring game. Wattie was skip and of course his relationship to Greystane was at once changed. He became master, and was not long of letting us know it. It is a queer game curling. There is no superiority acknowledged, except to the play. The Laird meets his coachman on common ground, and the poor frozen-out mason is on equal terms with the millionaire, perhaps for the time his superior. If you can't curl, then at curling you are nobody, no matter how long your pedigree or your purse. It is perhaps one of the oldest – and it certainly is one of the best – of Scottish games. Of course it can only be played when frost holds the ground, and so the rare opportunities in which it can be indulged give a great zest to it. The bracing air, the nice exciting exercise of sooping or sweeping together the varying, all combine, however, to make the sport most healthy and enjoyable. I think it is the Ettrick Sheperd who says:-
“I've played at quoiting mony a day,
And mony a day may dae't again;
But aye unto mysel' I say
This is no the channel stane.”
The chorus, I think, runs -
“Oh, for a channel stane!
The fell guid game the channel stane!
There's no a game that e'er I saw
Can match Auld Scotia's channel stane!”
The channel stane is just the stone cut from the channel or stream. They are of different varieties; those of Ayrshire are generally got from Burnock Water. In the parish of Kilwinning, and from Ailsa Craig, the latter being very keen on the ice, while they are exceedingly handsome to look at when well polished.
Besides Hogg several of our Scottish poets give very good accounts of the game, Burns in his “Tam Samson” giving a very graphic description of the noted Ayrshire sportsman, of whom he says:-
“He was the king o' a' the core
To gaird, or draw, or wick a bore,
Or up the rink like Jehu roar
In time o' need;
But noo he lays at death's hog score -
Tam Samson's deid.”
The late Sir Alexander Boswell, a noted Ayrshire laird and poet, ably describes the game in colloquial in a song which I think is intitled, “When snaw lies white on every knowe.”
But to the game. Laird Wilson's rink was skipped by his gadener Dugald, who, like Wattie, was very fond of showing that he was chief for the day.
The game commenced in the usual style. Wattie stands on the tee-head end, and p[ointing with his broom a few feet in front of him, “Noo, Mr McDoogal,” he shouted; “I'm staunin' on the patlid. Jist play a nice canny shot to my broom; dinna be ower strong, and we'll soop ye up.”
I swept my stone carefully with my broom and adjusted the crampit, took a good look ahead, put down my stone carefully and well 'soled' - it is the expression - and it was soon whirling up the rink with that peculiar reverberating sound which every frosty day in Scotland is to be found echoing among the hills.
“Weel played, weel played! Are ye no ower strong? Dinna touch him, men; he's well laid doon; not a cowe, not a cowe!” were his excited cries to the sweepers, who stood ready to clean the ice with their brooms. Suddenly the stone began to lag, when his cautions changed to a roar of “Bring him on, bring him on; up wi' him every inch, on wi' him, my lads, on wi' him!” as the Laird was sweeping as if his very life depended on it. I was exceedingly gratified to hear him say, “Weel played, Mr McDoogal, weel played,” while the laird was no doubt proud to hear the complimentary remark and “weel soopit tae.” But my exultation was of short duration for my opponent, a rough-handed son of the soil, sent it birling away, while his stone lay in its place.
“Just play tae the face o' this wi' eneuch tae lift him and nae mair.”
I tried my best, but was off the mark and extra strong, was told that I was “roarin', ragin' altogether” as it bowled away behind the directing skips.
And so the game went on merrily, Wattie finding a very worthy match in Dugald, the gardener. A dram now and then, and some hot Irish stew, kept us able for our work, and we ne'er knew the time was passing. On several occasions I was complimented on my play, but just as often I was rebuked for my carelessness. Sometimes it was, “Weel played , mon, you're a rale bonnie, are you, for a curler, Mr McDoogal;” and just as often it was, “What's wrang wi' ye, mon? You're through a' ice, ragin' and roarin'; and toots, maun, ye're no up tae the hog score, what's wrang wi' ye? Ye maun take a dram or pit butter in ye're brose.”
The Lairds came in for a good share of abuse at times. Wattie declared he was fairly affronted “tae see him playin' like that”, and threatened to give up his situation. But Laird Wilson faired much worse with Dugald, who told him that after that day he would have “tae seek a new place in some other rink, he wad na' allow him to spoil his ane.” All of this they took in good part.
It was not till the sun was dipping behind the wood that the last head came on to be played, and then we were one shot down. I played well, but my shots were lifted by my opponent. Carefully the Laird guarded the stones of the second hand (the gamekeeper, who followed), but Dugald found a port and then lay shot, and in a most awkward position. Could we lift it we lay game with two seconds.
Wattie came up and took a careful view of the situation, and then retired to throw up his last stone. “Now,” he says. “stand by the soop. I jist see the cheek through that port, but I'll try him.”
With a roar the stone came down the ice, the handle whirling.
“Is he on the gaird?” cried the Laird.
“He is!” shouted Laird Gibson.
“He's not!” cried Keystane, who was down on his knees. “He's got him!” - as the stone struck its object and caused a general whirl.
“Well done. Wattie, well done”, he shouted; “we lie two. Well done, we've won the kettle.”
We parted good friends after drinking healths and the game, and at night, I need not inform ye, dined on a curlers' dinner, beef and greens, while we mixed our toddy with watter from the Laird's Kettle.
see here. The kettle was used for boiling water, which was added to whisky to make the nineteenth century curler's favourite dram, toddy. Many clubs have similar kettles among their trophies. Photo © Bob Cowan.