I knew there were some old photos of curling and curlers out there. But what was the earliest? I narrowed it down to two candidates. One, which showed curling on Smeaton Loch in East Lothian, had been printed in David Smith's book, Curling: an illustrated history, and the other of curling on Raith Lake, Kirkcaldy, was in The Curling Companion by W H Murray. Both these books were published in 1981, and the captions on both photographs suggested the original images had been taken circa 1860. I have been unable to find anything as yet to date these more precisely.
However, there is a third candidate - in fact two photos, different views but of the same occasion - on the ornamental pond(s) in the walled garden at Dunmore Park. Neither David Smith nor Bill Murray knew about these photos when they were writing their books. There is good evidence of exactly when they were taken, December 31, 1860! What is more, a passing reference in an old newspaper confirms that a photographer was present on the day.
The photo's history is that the original was lent to Falkirk Museums by a private individual in 1989, where it was photographed, and a copy then found its way to Robin Welsh, the Editor of the Scottish Curler magazine, who printed it in the September 1990 magazine, with the heading 'The earliest curling photograph'. Discovering this reference in the magazine led me to the Falkirk Archives, now in Callendar House, and to The Pineapple, the National Trust for Scotland's property here.
Here's the background to the players and the curling club involved in 1860.
The Airth and Bruce Castle Curling Club was founded in 1841, and admitted to the Royal Club in 1842. Airth is a village on the south bank of the River Forth (near the Kincardine Bridge), and the 'Bruce Castle' references the nearby ruins, see here. It was one of the first clubs to join the Grand Caledonian Curling Club. Its joint presidents were William Graham and Patrick Maxwell Stewart MP. The secretary was Robert Towers, who would remain in that post until 1856. Forty-four regular members are listed in the Grand Caledonian Curling Club Annual for 1842-43. Of particular note is that Dowager Lady Shaw Stewart, of Carnock, is the Patroness, and the Earl of Dunmore is listed as the Patron.
Incidentally, the Grand Caledonian Curling Club received its Royal patronage in 1843, to become the Royal Grand Caledonian Curling Club for one year (1843-44), and then the Royal Caledonian Curling Club thereafter, the 'Grand' being dropped.
The inclusion of a Patron and/or Patroness in a club's membership return in old Annuals often, but not always, means that the club's pond was on the Patron's or Patroness's estate. For a club to be a member of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club it had to have a place where they could play. Each club had to have 'a sheet of Ice for its operations', as stated in the General Regulations!
In the Annual for 1844-45, the following can be found, "On the 17th January 1843, our much-respected Patroness, Dowager Lady Shaw Stewart, presented to the Airth and Bruce Castle Curling Club a very handsome Silver Medal, to be annually competed for by our Members; which competition took place on Carnock Pond, on the 24th February 1844, when 20 Members appeared, and showed a dexterity in 'Scotia's ain game'."
So the curling pond on the lands of Carnock estate was used by the Airth and Bruce Castle Curling Club, and likely explains why Lady Shaw Stewart was the Patroness. It is in the Historical Curling Places database, as Place No 0548. This may well have been the club's home ice in the 1840s.
The Earl of Dunmore, the Airth and Bruce Castle CC Patron when it was founded, was Alexander Edward Murray, the 6th Earl. He died in 1845, and for the next three years (1845-48) the club only had Lady Shaw Stewart as a Patroness. She died in 1849. In the Annual for 1849-40, the Countess of Dunmore became the new Patroness of the Airth and Bruce Castle club. It was her husband who had died in 1845. They had four children. The third of these was born on March 24, 1841 - a son, Charles Adolphus Murray who would become the 7th Earl of Dunmore. He is the key to understanding the reason behind the old photograph, as we will see.
In 1853, John A Stewart Nicolson, the new owner of Carnock, became the club's Patron. The Countess of Dunmore continued to be Patroness alongside John Nicolson, until 1862.
But in 1859, the Earl of Dunmore became the club's President, and is listed as an 'Occasional Member'. Charles Adolphus Murray, the 7th Earl of Dunmore, had grown up! He had been four years old when his father died, and in 1859 would have celebrated his 18th birthday.
By the following year, 1860, the 7th Earl had become a keen curler. The Annual for 1860-61 records:
"PRESENTATION OF SILVER CUP.
The Earl of Dunmore, on the occasion of his joining the Airth and Bruce Castle Club, having most handsomely given a Massive Silver Challenge Cup for Annual Competition in the Club; on February 1st the Club met in force, on the Ornamental Pond in Dunmore Gardens, for the First Competition.
No less than 32 Members were present, and 8 skips being chosen, the rinks and order of play were decided by ballot. After a keen contest of three hours, the following result was obtained:
J A Shaw Stewart's Rink 29, John Turnbull's Rink, 17
Archibald Malcolm's 25, Earl of Dunmore's 20
William Carmichael's 24, Robert Bowie's 19
Thomas Callendar's 23, William Russell's 13.
The Challenge Cup was then presented in due form to Mr Shaw Stewart, the skip of the victorious rink, and its goodly proportions were oft replenished with genial libations, and as speedily quaffed in honour of the Noble and Generous Donor, the fortunate Possessor, the Club, and the Ladies who honoured the Match with their presence, amongst whom were the Countess of Dunmore, Patroness of the Club, and the Ladies Murray.
In honour of the occasion, the Members of the Club determined that in future the name of the Club should be changed to Airth, Bruce Castle, and Dunmore."
The ABC curling club was to become the ABCD curling club!
The Annual records formally that the decision to change the name was approved at the Annual Meeting of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, held in the Waterloo Rooms, Edinburgh, on July 25, 1860, the Airth and Bruce Castle CC being allowed to change its name to the Airth, Bruce Castle and Dunmore CC.
The Royal Caledonian Curling Club Annual for 1861-62 records the following match held on December 31, 1860. This is the occasion that has been photographed.
"AIRTH, BRUCE CASTLE, AND DUNMORE CURLING CLUB. Presentation of a Gold Medal.
The Members of the above Club, met on the 31st December 1860, on the Ornamental Pond in Dunmore Gardens and competed for a magnificent Gold Challenge Medal, bearing on the one side the following inscription: 'Presented to the Airth Bruce Castle and Dunmore Curling Club, by the Earl and Countess of Southesk, 1860'.
And on the edge: 'To be played for annually, till won three times successively by the same person, to whom it will then belong'. The other side being left blank for the names of the winners.
Thirty-two members entered the competition, divided into four Rinks. The following were the skips:
No 1 R Bowie 31 D M'Laren 26
No 2 W Russell 27 A Malcolm 14
No 3 Earl of Dunmore 13 W Carmichael 32
No 4 J Turnbull 32 T Callander 21
There was thus a tie between Messrs Turnbull and Carmichael, and the Umpire having appointed three ends to be played, Mr Turnbull scored 6, and Mr Carmichael 2. The former was therefore declared the winner of the Medal.
During the competition, the Earl and Countess of Southesk visited the Pond, and after its conclusion, the President of the Club, the Right Hon the Earl of Dunmore entertained the members to dinner at Dunmore Park. The Earl, who occupied the chair, was supported on the right by the Rev C Hinxman, and on the left by the winner of the Medal. The Earl of Southesk, A Malcolm, Vice-President, and John Turnbull, secretary, officiated as croupiers. After the usual loyal and patriotic toasts, the healths of the Countess and Earl of Dunmore, the Earl and Countess of Southesk, and the Ladies Murray, were given with all the honours. The remainder of the evening was spent with the utmost hilarity."
It is interesting to note that it was 'shots scored' rather than 'shots up' that decided the winning rinks.
Why had the Earl of Southesk presented a medal to be played for by the club? The answer most probably lies with the fact that he had married the Earl of Dunmore's oldest sister, the Lady Susan Catherine Mary Murray, on November 29, 1860.
Considering the two old photos together, with two games on each of the ponds, there should be thirty-two players on the ice, and that is indeed what the photographer has captured, plus some spectators. We know the names of the skips, and indeed it can be surmised that everyone on the ice will be listed in the membership of the Airth, Bruce Castle, and Dunmore curling club in the Annual for 1860-61. I think we can even pick out the Earl of Dunmore in one of the photographs.
Given that the Earl would have been just nineteen years old, this is the earliest known photo of a 'young curler'! There's a little more about his later life here.
As the original photos were not donated to Falkirk Museums back in 1989, only allowed to be copied, it is not possible to say exactly what the originals were like. Most probably the photographer used the wet plate collodian process, see here. For an idea of the sort of camera that might have been used, see here. I do not know if the originals have survived, or where they are now.
There may well be other older photographs of Scottish curling awaiting discovery. Do let me know of any other candidates. However, the two taken at Dunmore Park on December 31, 1860, are remarkable in that we know so much about why, where, and when they were taken, and the players depicted therein.
The Airth, Bruce Castle and Dunmore CC was to survive for many years. Willie Young, one of Scotland's greatest curlers - some would say 'The Greatest' - was a member. Willie skipped his team of third John Pearson, second Sandy Anderson, and lead Bobby Young, when they represented Scotland in the 1959 and 1962 Scotch Cup matches. They curled out of the Airth, Bruce Castle, and Dunmore Curling Club. The notice of the club's resignation from the Royal Club can be found in the Annual for 1998-99. I wonder what has happened to the club's trophies and medals, and if the Earl of Southesk's gold medal, for which the photographs at Dunmore record a match, has survived anywhere?
My thanks go to the helpful staff at the Falkirk Archives at Callendar House, especially Jean Jamieson. The two photographs are reproduced here courtesy of Falkirk Archives. The newspaper clippings are as noted, courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive, and the map clippings are from the National Library of Scotland's online maps website, here. The two photographs of the Dunmore pond today are my own. It was Lindsay Scotland who set me off on the trail of both these old photos after I had assumed there was just one. Thanks Lindsay!