Like a number of sports, the origins of curling are up for some debate. After all, who can say which person or people group were the first to enjoy skimming stones across frozen water? Because of the conditions needed, it seems a sure bet that it originated in a northern European country. Wherever it began, few will dispute the fact that the pastime developed into a modern sport in Scotland.
The first evidence of such a game in Scotland was uncovered when an old pond was drained in Dunblane. Two curling stones were found bearing the years 1511 and 1551 on them. Written evidence from 1540 records what seems to be a legal dispute that was settled on the ice between John Sclater, a monk in Paisley Abbey and Gavin Hamilton, a representative of the Abbot. The word curling appears in the work of Scottish poet and historian Henry Adamson. In his most notable poem about the death of a young merchant friend, written in 1620, it reads “James Gall…was much given to pastime, as golf, archery, curling, and jovial company.” Some years later, an entry in the Glasgow Assembly records details a local bishop, Graham of Orkney, being accused by his assembly of Presbyterians of a terrible act: “He was a curler on the ice on the Sabbath.”
Curling was enjoyed informally on Scotland’s frozen ponds during the 17th and 18th centuries, and is documented in the literature of the time. In 1773, Scottish poet James Graeme gives one of the first formal descriptions of the game: the steady youth / Who leads the game: low o’er the weighty stone / He bends incumbent, and with nicest eye / Surveys the further goal, and in his mind / Measures the distance; careful to bestow / Just force enough; then, balanc’d in his hand / he flings it on direct; it glides along / Hoarse murmuring, while plying hard before, / Full many a besom sweeps away the snow / Or icicle, that might obstruct its course…”
In Scottish poet Allan Ramsay’s verse, we get a sense of the excitement of the sport: “From ice, with pleasure, he can brush the snow,/ And run, rejoicing, with his curling throw…” The games would often continue until the daylight ran out, as Robert Burns reminds us in his 1786 poem Vision: “The sun had clos’d the winter-day / The Curlers quat their roaring play.” Indeed, due to the distinct sound of the granite curling stones traveling over the ice, curling is also known as the “roaring game.”
The world’s first curling club was organized in Kilsyth, Scotland, in 1716, also home to the oldest purpose-build curling pond. Other clubs began springing up in Scotland and around the world as Scots exported the game of curling wherever they settled, including Canada, the United States, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, and New Zealand. In 1838, the Grand Caledonian Curling Club was established in Edinburgh and the first rules of curling were drawn up. Queen Victoria was given a demonstration of curling in 1842 at Scone Palace and was so fascinated by the game, she gave permission for the grand club to change its name to the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. By this time, the game was gaining momentum as a popular winter sport around the world.
So how do you play the game? And how did it become an Olympic sport? Tune in to part 3 of our Sport in Scotland series on Simply Scottish for more!