Monday, January 25, 2016

Robert Burns and Curling

Robert Burns was born on January 25, 1759. This may have been his curling stone ... but probably not. It certainly dates from the eighteenth century, but the date carved into the stone does not make much sense. Burns died in 1796. However, the Bard would have played with a stone like this one, single-soled, roughly shaped, with an iron handle. The stone in the photograph remains something of an enigma.

Yes, Burns WAS a curler, despite what it might say in older books, and some respected websites that have not been updated.

It had long been suspected that Burns played the game. His works include two mentions. Firstly, the opening lines of The Vision read:

The sun had clos’d the winter day,
The Curlers quat their roaring play…

Then, in Tam Samson’s Elegy, the poet shows that he knew the game well, when he writes:

When Winter muffles up his cloak,
And binds the mire like a rock;
When to the loughs the curlers flock,
Wi' gleesome speed,
Wha will they station at the cock?
Tam Samson's dead!

He was the king o' a' the core,
To guard, or draw, or wick a bore,
Or up the rink like Jehu roar,
In time o' need;
But now he lags on Death's hog-score,
Tam Samson's dead!

The evidence that Burns had played curling was brought to the public's attention in April 2006, when David Smith wrote an article for the Scottish Curler magazine entitled, 'The Evidence that the Bard was a Curler'. Later that year the story was retold in the Burns Chronicle of Autumn 2006 (a publication of the Robert Burns World Federation, see here). And we put the information online in July 2008, here, one of the early stories in that first year of the Curling History Blog.

The evidence that Burns curled comes from the Burns Chronicle of 1934 which included letters between two friends of Burns, John Syme and Alexander Cunningham. In a letter dated from Barcailzie, Kirkcudbrightshire, dated January 5, 1789, Syme writes, "I have been once or twice in company with Burns, and admire him much…   I missed a meeting with him last Friday at Dumfries, where he played a Bonespeel with the Curlers there, and enlivened their Beef and Kail and Tody till the small hours of Saturday morning. I was engaged in that Bonespeel, but an unlooked for occurrence called me out of Town, to my great mortification…"

So, Robbie Burns had played in a curling bonespeel (bonspiel) early in the year 1789.

January 5, 1789, was a Monday, so if Syme's reference to 'last Friday' refers to that day in the previous week, the bonspiel in Dumfries must have been held on January 2, 1789. At that time Burns was living at Ellisland Farm, some six miles to the north west of Dumfries (see here). But I wonder where the bonspiel took place?

The Vision was completed in 1785, and Tam Samson's Elegy in 1786. Both these poems then were written before Burns had been seen curling. It is not too big an assumption that he had been a curler long before 1789.

Read more about Tam Samson's Elegy here, and listen to it being read by Eileen McCallum. There's more about The Vision here.

Several aspiring curling 'poets' have parodied Robbie Burns works. This is from the Douglas CC website here:

Ours is a game for Duke or Lord
Lairds, tenants, kinds and a’ that
Oor Pastors too, wha’ preach the word
Whiles ply the broom for a’ that.

The village of Beith in Ayrshire had three curling clubs in the middle of the nineteenth century. One of these was the 'Beith Robert Burns Curling Club', formed in 1855 and admitted to the Royal Club the following year. It would be interesting to know why this group of curlers chose to name their club after the Bard. By 1866 they had a patron, John Fullarton Patrick of Grangehill, and played on a pond on his estate. A list of the club's members appears in each Annual until that of 1884-85, when it seems the club folded. I wonder why. However, in 1890, a new club called the 'Beith Rabbie Burns Curling Club' was established, with some of the same members. At this time Beith had four curling clubs! The Rabbie Burns club continued to be listed in the Annuals up to 1913, although the name reverted back to the 'Beith Robert Burns Curling Club' in 1901. Like many of Scotland's curling clubs it did not survive the Great War.

Today many groups of curlers throughout the world celebrate Burns' birthday. The Ayr Curling Club, which acts as an umbrella club for the more than 50 clubs which use the Ayr rink in Scotland, traditionally holds a Burns Supper. Go here to see photos of the 2014 event at which David Smith addressed the haggis.

From Ayr, Scotland, to Ayr, Ontario, Canada. The latter club, here, held a 'Robbie Burns Senior Men's Bonspiel' last Thursday. This was advertised as 'Two 8-end games, with the traditional Scottish trimmings'! 

This was the sign-up sheet! I trust that the event went off successfully and that all involved had a great time.

Above: The publishers of the Burns Chronicle commissioned from Colin Hunter McQueen, a cover illustration celebrating the sport, for the Autumn 2006 issue.

Top image is of a stone in the David B Smith collection, now in the care of the Scottish Curling Trust.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Escape Curling Cup

Over the years David Smith wrote many articles about curling history. Many of these appeared in printed publications, predating the Web. It is my intention to resurrect some of them for the Curling History Blog, as they deserve a wider readership, and hopefully through publication online, new information might be unearthed.

This article was first published in the January 1996 issue of the Scottish Curler magazine, entitled 'Wartime Curling for the Colditz Cup'. Its author: Sheriff David Smith.

"On 30th November 1993, the Imperial War Museum in London received a most unusual donation, a curling trophy in the form of a cup. The donor was Mrs Jane Reid, widow of the soldier who, inter alia, wrote The Colditz Story, the saga of escapes from that supposedly escape-proof German fortress.

Correspondence with the Museum produced a photocopy of the cup's discovery from a Swiss newspaper, Anseiger von Saanen. According to the newspaper, the cup had been knocked up in four hours by two articifers from the Royal Navy, Tubby Lister and Wally Hammond, as a trophy for play between some local Swiss curlers from Saanenmoser and some Colditz escapers who had reached Switzerland on their way home to 'Blighty'.

The report continued, 'After the war the cup remained, along with other trophies, in a showcase in one of the village's hotels, but it was lost sight of when the hotel was demolished and rebuilt in 1984.'

The mother of the present owner of the hotel found it in a barn, and, putting two and two together, got in touch with Mrs Reid, who now lives in Zurich.

Through the good offices of the Imperial War Museum, I eventually got in touch with Lt. Commander Billie Stephens, one of the curling-escapers. This is what he wrote. 'I am sorry not to have replied more quickly to your letter re the curling cup made for the competition in February '43 between Saanenmoser team and the 'ex-Colditz lub'. Tubby and Wally were (although not officers) in Colditz for a short time and when the Germans found out their mistake they were returned to their Stalag Camp - from which - armed with all the sophisticated escape 'know-how' learnt in Colditz - they arrived in Switzerland without much trouble, and were waiting with my three companions and myself who had been lucky enough to get out of Colditz on 14/10/42, for a suitable French Resistance group to help us through France and across the frontier into Spain.'

Tubby and Wally volunteered to make a suitable cup out of old tin cans thus proving the skills they had learned in prison - which also I may add included lock-picking! The Saanen people were too good for us but as far as I can remember a very good time was had by all. Alas, I am now the only one of our party still alive."

The above was what David wrote in the 1996 Scottish Curler article. Some new information can now be added. The trophy described in the article above remains in the care of the Imperial War Museum, see here.

It has been re-photographed well.

But the surprising find is that it was actually called 'The Escape Curling Cup'. The notes accompanying the photos in the Imperial War Museum's online collection simply say that it was 'Made by escaped POWs while awaiting repatriation'.

It is described, 'Handmade trophy cup inscribed THE ESCAPE CURLING CUP. Red, white and blue ribbons are tied to each handle and there is a gold-coloured cutout of a figure curling on the reverse. Appears to be made from food tins.'

Billie Stephens died in 1997, aged 86. His obituary is online here. Some of his wartime memorabilia was sold at auction in 2012, and there are a number of articles online about the sale, see here, and here. I was excited to find that a photo of the 'Colditz Team' on the ice in Switzerland has survived and has been used in these articles!

L-R: Lieutenant-Commander 'Billie' Stephens, Captain Pat Reid, Flight Lieutenant 'Hank' Wardle, and Lietenant-Colonel 'Ronnie' Littledale.

What a remarkable photograph!

Pat Reid, who appears in the photo above and whose wife donated the Colditz Cup to the Imperial War Museum, wrote The Colditz Story in 1952, and The Latter Days in 1953. A third book, Colditz: The Full Story, was published in 1984, is still in print, above, and also available in digital form as an ebook. It can be purchased here. More about Pat Reid's life can be found here.

Hank Wardle was a Canadian pilot in the Royal Air Force. Read about him here.

Ronnie Littledale is described here,  After his escape, he returned to the front line but was killed in action in France on September 1, 1944, whilst in command of the 2nd Battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps, see here.

Who were Tubby Lister and Wally Hammond who made the Escape Curling Cup, and what happened to them? They had both been submariners and were taken prisoner in 1940. Part of their story can be found in this newsletter here, and there's more here

For another WW2 curling story, see here.

The photo of the Colditz Cup graced the cover of the Scottish Curler in January 1996. The photographer or source is not stated in the magazine. I assume that the original of the photo of the Colditz Team on the ice in Switzerland was among the documents sold at auction in 2012. I found it here. The original photographer and source is not stated.

The photos of the trophy from the Imperial War Museum are shared under the terms of the IWM Non Commercial Licence.

Monday, January 04, 2016

The Largest Fragment

by Bob Cowan

I have this little book in my curling library. 'Robbie of the Kirkhaven Team' was written by Florence Wightman Rowland, and illustrated by Brian David. It was published in 1973 by Ginn and Company and is a primary school book - Magic Circle Books Reading 360 series, Level 9, Unit 2 - written in a way to appeal to, say, an eight year old.

It looks as if my copy originated from the O'Hara Catholic School in Eugene Oregon, and came to Scotland by way of a bookshop in Reno, Nevada.

"Snow had fallen in the Scottish Highlands during the night. As soon as he awoke, Robbie jumped out of bed and ran to the window to look out. The moors and hills in the distance were white with snow. Above them, the sky was the color of a bluebell - not a cloud in sight. Robbie grinned. What a perfect day for a curling game!"

So reads the first paragraph. Did I say it was a fictional story?

Nine year old Robbie tells his Canadian cousin Katy, 7, all about curling, and he goes off to compete in a match on outside ice against a team from 'Glencove'.

The story has a happy ending!

Spoiler Alert! An important twist in the story involves the breakage of a curling stone, as pictured above by Brian David, whose illustrations make this little book such a treasure.

That got me thinking. How old is the rule which governs a stone breaking during play?

The above is from 'An Account of the Game of Curling', published in 1811. This book contains the first printed reference to curling's rules, as practised at the time by the Duddingston Curling Society of Edinburgh. There are only twelve rules written down, and these had 'received the approbation and sanction' of the club at a meeting on January 6, 1804. The second sentence of Rule 5 illustrates what should be done if a stone broke. If, after breakage, parts of the stone were still 'in play', then the 'largest fragment' should count when it came to assessing the score at the end of the end. And another stone could be used thereafter.

The inclusion of the rule, in the earliest printed set of rules, does suggest that breakage was not uncommon. How often did the rule have to be invoked, I wonder?

Of course, the stones being played with at the beginning of the nineteenth century, were not of Ailsa or Trefor granite, but were mostly of whinstone, that term used to describe any hard dark-coloured rock commonly found in many places in Scotland.

When the Grand Caledonian Curling Club was formed in 1838, it adopted the Duddingston rules. The first Annual for 1838-39 has this as Rule 9, "All Curling Stones shall be of a circular shape. No stone must be changed throughout the game, unless it happen to be broken, and then the largest fragment to count, without any necessity of playing with it more. If a stone rolls and stops upon its side or top, it shall not be counted, but put off the ice. Should the handle quit the stone in the delivery, the player must keep hold of it, otherwise he will not be entitled to replay the shot."

Although the wording is just a little different, the sense is the same.

There was a minor change from 1854, "No stone, or side of a stone, shall be changed after a game has been begun, nor during its continuance, unless it happen to be broken, and then the largest fragment to count, without any necessity for playing with it more."

Twenty years later, in 1874, the Constitution of the Royal Club and the Rules of Play underwent a considerable revision. The occurrence of a stone breaking now had its own separate entry in the Rules, "Should a Stone happen to be broken, the largest fragment shall be considered in the Game for that end — the player being entitled to use another Stone, or another pair, during the remainder of the Game."

The sense of this rule, and the reference to the 'largest fragment', has continued right up to the present day. For the 2015-16 season, the rules can be found on the Royal Club website here, and you can read at R2 (c), "If a stone is broken in play a replacement stone shall be placed where the largest fragment came to rest. The end in play, and the game, shall be completed using the replacement stone."

Curling Canada's Rules of Curling for General Play 2014-18 (see here) contain, "4. (4) If a stone is broken in play, a replacement stone shall be placed where the largest  fragment comes to rest. The inside edge of the replacement stone shall be placed in the same position as the inside edge of the largest fragment with the assistance of a measuring stick."

For many years, the World Curling Federation had a similarly worded rule in place should a stone break during an international event.

But fragments are no more! The World Federation now eschews any mention of 'fragments'! The most recent WCF Rules of Curling can be found here. WCF rule R2 (c) reads, "If a stone is broken in play, the teams use the 'Spirit of Curling' to decide where the stone(s) should be placed. If agreement cannot be reached, the end will be replayed." This wording can also be found in the Rules of Curling: Club and Bonspiel Use, from the USA Curling website here.

This double soled stone will be at least 100 years old, and remarkably still has the remains of a handle. Broken stones like this may find a use as garden 'ornaments', as above.

No-one likes to see modern curling stones in pieces, least of all the manufacturer. But breakages do occasionally happen. Norway's Torger Nergard with a big and a small 'fragment'!

But the biggest danger to curling stones is heat! The Fife Herald in 1856 ran a story about an expensive lesson learned by Selkirk CC members back in 1856. Don't put your stones on the fire.

Sadly, vandalism has been the ruin of many stones. I know of two examples where a club's curling hut has been set ablaze, with the stones (and other contents) destroyed as a consequence. The photo above is the aftermath of vandalism at the Vale of Alford CC's curling house last year. It really is sad to see. The good news is that there is every hope that the house will be rebuilt, see here.

No discussion of breaking stones would be complete without mention of this advert for the Benson and Hedges Championship at Aberdeen in 1985. 'Exploding rocks' was certainly a novel idea for a promotional image. Back in 1985, pre-Photoshop, it would not have been easy to create such an image. I wonder how it was done.

Happy New Year, and may all your stones remain intact!

Robbie and the Kirkhaven Team photos are scans from the original book. The Duddingston rule is a scan from an original copy of 'An Account of the Game of Curling'.

The Fife Herald clipping is reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive. The image is © The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved.
Thomas Nergard's photo was found here.

The Vale of Alford's photo is from the club's Facebook page here. The Benson and Hedges advert is from the author's archive. Other photos are © the author.