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The Controversial Origins of Curling
and Its Eventual Foothold in North America
The great Scottish curling historian Rev. John Kerr stated in his History of Curling that "there are no facts by which we can determine precisely the antiquity of the game or the manner in which it was first played." (p. 3) However, Kerr devoted the first chapter of his book to the origin of the game.
Some curling historians argue that a few paintings by Flemish artists in the 16th century show a game on ice similar to curling, most notably two paintings by Pietr Bruegel, Hunters in the Snow and Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap. However, other historians disagree and say that Scotland has the earliest hard evidence of curling with stones on ice. Many early curling stones have been found in Scotland, the earliest stone found so far being the Stirling stone, dated 1511. Some historians also note that many curling expressions seem to have originated in continental Europe. Kerr concluded that the number of such expressions has been over-estimated and that even if there were many, it doesn't necessarily follow that curling had its origin in the Low Countries.
Hunters in the Snow, by Pietr Bruegel (the elder), circa 1565
Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap, by Pietr Bruegel (the elder), circa 1565
In looking at the evidence, Kerr stated that "no game is proved to exist, or to have existed, in other countries, so much resembling curling as to imply that the game was borrowed into our country." (p. 3) Warren Hansen, in his book, Curling: The History, The Players, The Game, sums it up nicely: "Since in no other country have such stones been discovered, the game played on ice with stones must have originated in Scotland." (p. 20) Hansen also wrote that "the Scots clearly nurtured the game, improved it, established rules, turned it into a national pastime, and exported it to other countries." (p. 20-21) Scotland took ownership of the game and developed it over the centuries.
Curling author Warren Hansen believes that the evolution of curling was tied directly to changes in the equipment -- primarily the stones. In his History of Curling, John Kerr has a full chapter dealing with the study of stones and he identifies three types of stones:
The Kuting-Stone, Kutty-Stane, or Piltycock, or Loofie
These stones had no handles, but a kind of hollow or niche for the finger and thumb of the player. They were meant to be thrown, for at least part of the course, the rink being shorter than now. They were smaller than later stones of the handle type and weighed between 5 and 25 pounds each. These stones were in use from about 1500 to 1650. A well-known example of a stone of this type is that of a famous early curler, Rev. W. Guthrie.
The Rough Block
Many stones of this type have been preserved. They were channel stones with a handle and were bulkier and heavier than the first type. They were in use for about 150 years, from about 1650 to 1800. In those days curlers took stones from the bed of a stream or the hillside and fixed a bent piece of iron into them as a handle. These stones varied in weight from about 20 pounds to over 115 pounds. Fortunately, the rinks were not as long in those days, but curlers still must have been very strong to play the game.
The Circular Stone
Early circular stones were still quite heavy, many being over 70 pounds. The development of the circular stones led to less individualism and variety of shapes. This is the type of stone which is still in use today. John Stevenson, in Curling in Ontario, 1846-1946, comments that "the craftsmanship of skilled workers evolved the standard implement of modern curlers, a symmetrical stone, usually made of granite or whinstone, beautifully rounded, brilliantly polished and supplied with a suitable handle." (p. 20)
Rev. W. Guthrie's curling stone, 1645
Curling stone "Black Meg" from Coupar-Angus
Tam Samson's stone
References to Curling in Scotland
Kerr notes that Scottish historians or poets make no reference to curling prior to 1600. However, in 1976, a professor of Scottish history, John Durkan, found papers of a notary in Paisley, Scotland. They contained a record of a challenge by a monk, John Slater, to the Abbot's deputy, Gavin Hamilton, to a contest in February 1541 with stones thrown on ice. The challenge was accepted.
According to Kerr there are references to curling stones and to persons who were curlers, but no account of the game between the years 1600 and 1700. The first use of the actual word "curling" appeared in a poem written in 1620 by Henry Adamson.
As time went on, references to curling became more frequent. W.H. Murray, in The Curling Companion, notes (p. 41) that the first description of a curling match ever written was published in the Weekly Magazine of February 1771 by James Graeme, a 22-year-old divinity student.
There is no evidence that Robbie Burns ever curled but he wrote about his curling friend Tam Samson in "Tam Samson's Elegy":
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 of 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.
In Scotland there was a great lack of uniformity in the rules and in the equipment for curling. Curlers brought their own stones and there was no standardization in terms of size, shape or weight of stones. The rinks were of varying lengths and rules differed from club to club about how much sweeping curlers could do. The number of players on a team varied from four to nine or more, with some curlers throwing two stones and others only one. As communications and roads improved, teams wanted to compete more and there was a need for standardization to make games easier to play. In Kilmarnock and the Edinburgh area, teams were composed of four players and they each threw two stones. This became the standard with the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in 1938 and is now the norm throughout the world.
W.H. Murray, in The Curling Companion, describes the rise of the curling clubs. He claims that the evolution of curling had been through the development of the stone, until about 1800; after that it came largely through the development of the clubs. The clubs tried to promote the use of the round or circular stone and to get agreement on rules that would allow the competitive game to develop. The clubs brought together people from every walk of life, but there was a need for some discipline. In some clubs there was a fine for swearing, among other things. The Scots always remained practical and one club had a rule that whisky punch was to be the drink of the club in order to encourage the growth of barley. (p. 53-55)
Gerald Redmond, in his thesis entitled The Scots and Sport in Nineteenth Century Canada, notes that many clubs had a policy that no politics of church or state were to be discussed. Redmond believes that this is "another facet of the democracy of the game, which meant that political or religious opponents could enjoy curling without recourse to differences between them." (p. 181)
Curling was exported to Canada from Scotland and in 1807, The Montreal Curling Club was the first Curling Club outside of Scotland.
The establishment of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club as governing body in 1838 resulted in curling becoming a truly national sport in Scotland. The Royal Caledonian became the mother club for curling clubs in Canada and elsewhere. Information on this club and its origin can be found on the club's website at www.royalcaledoniancurlingclub.org/index.cfm.