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The History of Sanquhar
Chapter IX.—Curling


THE following is extracted from the “History of the Curling Society of Sanquhar,” written by the author at the Society’s request on the occasion of its centenary, in the year 1874 :—

The origin of the Society is given in a Minute of date 21st January, 1774—“On which day near sixty curlers met upon Sanquhar Loch, and had an agreeable game at curling. In the evening they dined together in the Duke of Queensberry’s Arms in Sanquhar. After dinner, it was proposed that they should form themselves into a Society, under the name of the Sanquhar Society of Curlers, and that a Master should be chosen annually; which proposal was agreed to, and several other regulations respecting the constitution and order of the Society were made. Accordingly one of the oldest curlers being chosen preses, appointed a Committee of the best qualified to examine all the rest concerning the Curler’s Word and Grip. Those who pretended to have these, and were found defective, were subjected to a fine; and those who made no pretensions were instructed. Then Mr Alexander Bradfute, in South Mains, was chosen Master for the present year. The terms and prices of admission to the Society were—Submission and Obedience to the Master, discretion and civility to all the Members, and Secrecy; Fourpence sterling to be paid by every one in the Parish, and Sixpence to be paid by any one without the Parish as their admission; and liberty was "ranted to the Clerk and some other members to add whatever new members were, and to report those to the Society at their next meeting.”

We do not doubt that the game was practised long before this period ; indeed, it is apparent from this very minute that this was so in Sanquhar; the fact that in 1774 so many as sixty curlers met on the ice proves that even then the practice of the game here had already become very general; and we believe Sanquhar possesses perhaps the oldest Society in Scotland, with a recognised Master or Preses and a regular constitution, by which the game was regularly and systematically practised, and having an unbroken history from the date of its organisation down to the present day.

The ninth article of the Constitution—that “at any play among the rinks the reckoning not to exceed sixpence each player”—points to a custom prevalent at one time of meeting in the evening, in a social capacity, at the end of an important play, such as for the parish medal. In connection with inter-parochial games again, this social entertainment took the shape of a dinner, with a liberal supply of toddy. These “Dinners and Drinks” were for a long time the stake played for between parishes, and were grand affairs, the ticket being five shillings. This is a rather startling figure, as money went in these days, considering that the members of the Society were for the most part working men, among whom it was regarded as a point of honour to attend these dinners. Many were reduced to the direst shifts; frequently borrowing had to be resorted to, by way of concealing the poor curler’s poverty from all but the lender.

There would appear to have been something akin to freemasonry in the Society’s constitution, for at a very early stage of its history a dispute arose among the members as to what was the true Curler Word and Grip, and the Society found it necessary to issue an authoritative declaration on the subject, which is in these terms:—In order to prevent all dispute concerning the Curler Word and Grip, the Master, who always is Preses during his office, and the rest of the Society, have agreed that the following shall be held and reputed the Curler Word and Grip of this Society for the future :—

The Curler Word.

If you’d be a Curler keen
Stand right, look even,
Sole well, shoot straight, and sweep clean.

The Curler’s Grip, with the Explanation.

Gripping hands in the common manner of shaking hands is the gripping the hand of the curling-stone. The thumb of the person instructed thrust in betwixt the thumb and forefinger of the examinator or instructor signifies “running a port.” The little finger of the person examined or instructed linked with the little finger of the examinator or instructor means an “in-ring.”

Each member at his admission to the Society was initiated in the mysteries of the Craft, being for this purpose conveyed upstairs to one of the upper rooms of the Town Hall. The fees exacted from the entrants were, according to the rules, to go to the funds of the Society. There is, however, a note-able instance in which this rule was departed from, when the proceeds had a very different destination. Of date 10th December, 1800, we have a minute:—“The following were admitted members of the Society (here follows a list of twenty names, which, however, we withhold, though we may mention that it includes the names of the Provost and the minister of the parish), all of whom paid fourpence each, making six shillings and eightpence, which was drunk at the desire of the company.” The questionableness of such a proceeding is somewhat condoned by the candour and honesty with which the fact is recorded.

The original playing strength of the Society was seven rinks of eight men each, and a corps-de-reserve, presided over by an officer appointed by the Society, who was styled commander of the corps-de-reserve. Through time the title commander was dropped, and he was styled shortly, though rather incorrectly, the corps-de-reserve. From this body drafts were constantly taken to fill up blanks in the regular rinks of those who had, in this probationary service, proved themselves most worthy of promotion, and by whom the promotion was regarded as a proud distinction. There has been no corps-de-reserve for many years.

It was the practice, as has been observed, for a long time —in all spiels between this and neighbouring parishes—to play for dinner and drink. The spiel consisted of two games of nine shots each—the one played for the dinner, and the other for the drink. In this way it happened sometimes that the dinner was won by the one parish, and the drink by the other, but frequently the Sanquhar curlers enjoyed both at their neighbours’ expense. The shortness of the games, too, accounts for the frequency with which certain rinks were soutered—that is, did not get a single shot. In a game with a certain parish, it is recorded “got not one game, and but very few shots. They were made souters in two rinks, and one shot only prevented the third from sharing the same fate.” This practice continued down to the year 1830, when, by a resolution of the Society, it was abolished. At the same time a motion was carried—“That henceforth all parish spiels be decided by shots.” Previously they were decided by the number of winning rinks, regardless of the aggregate number of shots gained by either.

A rather startling announcement is made in a minute of January, 1782, where we are informed that “Walter M'Turk, surgeon, was expelled from the Society for offering them a gross insult, in calling them a parcel of d d scoundrels.’’

A very serious offence, no doubt, and demanding, in vindication of their own self-respect, the condemnation of the Society ; but to shew that in their action they were not animated by vindictiveness, but by a regard to the interests of good order and public morality, and that they were not void of the grace of forgiveness—that they were willing to receive back to their bosom a weak and erring but repentant son—it is further recorded, under date 17tli December, 1788, “Mr Walter M'Turk, surgeon, was this day chosen preses.” Truly this was a literal fulfilment of the saying in the parable, “Bring forth the best robe and put it on him,” and is an honour to the Christian spirit of the Society.

The first game with a neighbouring parish was played with Kirkconnel on 19th January, 1776, followed by one on the 25th of the same month with Crawfordjohn. These two were the only parishes with which games were played down to 1784, when the first game with Morton was played. Then Penpont is added to the number in 1804, Durisdeer in 1830, and New Cumnock in 1844. Kirkconnel, Morton, Penpont, and New Cumnock are the parishes with which the great bulk of our curling intercourse has been held, and in them we have truly found “foemen worthy of our steel.” Indeed, it is a question whether there be in all Scotland a district of similar extent to Nithsdale where the same number of first-class curlers could be found. Many a time Sanquhar has had to lower her colours on a well-fought field, but when the balance of her gains and losses has been struck, she is found fairly entitled to claim the pre-eminence over all her rivals.

From the earliest period of their history the Societies of Sanquhar and Wanlockhead have been on terms of the closest friendship. Although Wanlockhead is situated within the parish of Sanquhar, the distance between the two places, eight miles, necessarily led to the formation of a separate society there, and, since 1831, games between the two have been of frequent occurrence. By way of cultivating the friendly feeling that existed between them, it became a rule that these matches should be played at Sanquhar and Wanlockhead alternately, contrary to the usual practice of the losers going back to the ice of the winners. The curlers of Sanquhar have a deep sense of obligation to those of Wanlockhead for the valuable aid they have always been ready to render in the games with the strong parish of New Cumnock. These games began in 1844. The wide extent of the latter, and her great command of players, rendered the possibility of Sanquhar competing with her at her full strength with any prospect of success extremely problematical, and New Cumnock declined to break her numbers. Sanquhar determined, however, to make a gallant attempt, and while her own enrolled strength was at the time only seven rinks of eight men each, she had to muster eighteen rinks of nine men each. Every available man who could be got who had ever thrown a stone, however slight his acquaintance with the art, was pressed into the service. So urgent, indeed, was the call that some who had never even pla^d a stone were taken on to the ice the previous evening, and, by the i>ght of the moon, received their first lesson. The want of stone* was no less severely felt than the want of men; and many a weaver's “pace” (stones which were hung on the beam to keep the web on the stretch, to which use old and disused curling-stones were frequently put), was unstrung, while others were hauled out from among the coals below the bed (a common place for the storage of coal in these days), their soles, it may well be conceived, being far from in a good condition. With such raw recruits and with such weapons, it required no gift of prophecy to predict the result. To extinguish the last ray of hope for Sanquhar, the ice proved to be covered with water, in consequance of which the game proved more a match of strength than of skill. The greater part of the Sanquhar curlers were “harried,” that is, could not reach the “tee.” The victory for New Cumnock was most complete, only three rinks from Sanquhar escaping the general wreck. One rink was soutered. Sanquhar lost by 168 shots. On the next occasion the aid of Wanlockhead was invoked, and the result was very different. The crushing majority of the previous match was reduced to twelve, aud in 1848 it was converted into a victory for Sanquhar by two shots, since which time down to 1867, when circumstances deprived her of the help of Wanlockhead, Sanquhar kept her honour untarnished.

This “foreign spiel,” as it was called at Wanlockhead, was an event which caused great excitement in the village, and does still. Up betimes in the morning, and well breakfasted, with a comforter from “Noble’s” in the pocket, well-trimmed besom in hand, and curling-stone handles slung around their necks, they set forth, and from the summit of Sanquhar Muir, the usual place of rendezvous, on a hard crisp morning, the mist creeping gradually up the hillside and disappearing before the rising sun, which was appearing like a ball of fire above the horizon, to see them come in sight over the distant hill top, or come pouring down Glendyne and Mennock, reminded one of the scenes so graphically described by our late townsman, Dr Simpson, of the days when the Covenanters were wont to wend their way over these same hills to the Conventicles in some quiet moorland spot. Arrived on the ground, their opponents singled out, and the game fairly started, they were not long in shewing of what stuff they were made. Almost without exception tall, strapping, young men, strong and hardy, they were trained to curling from their youth up. Their discipline, too, was perfect. At that time, when there were eight men in a rink, this was most noticeable. Arranged three and three on the two sides of the rink, they waited with the greatest attention till the stone was delivered, following it closely and eagerly in its course, till, at the call of the skip, “soop,” down came the besoms like lightning, hands were clasped, the feet kept time to the rapid strokes, aud no exertion was spared till the stone was landed at the desired spot, when the party, having drawn a long breath, rewarded the player with the shout— “Weel played, mon.”

In Kinglake’s “History of the Crimean War,” observation is made upon the different sounds that proceed from the soldiers of different nations when engaged in battle. It is said, too, that in the British army, the roar or cry of regiments belonging to the different nationalities of which it is composed—English, Scotch, and Irish—is as distinctly marked as the characteristics of the different races. So, the sound proceeding from a rink of Wanlockhead curlers was unmistakable, and not to be confounded for a moment with any other. Better curlers than those of Wanlockhead can nowhere be found, and one of their old veterans was quite justified when, on learning that those of a neighbouring parish, which had been carrying all before them, despaired of finding their equals on this lower sphere, and had threatened to challenge the moon, he drily remarked—“Tell them to ca’ at Wanlockhead on the road up.” It is probable that they would have been saved the farther journey.

There was a group of great curlers, now “a’ wede awa’,’’ who in their day were the mainstay of the Sanquhar club, and whose names are still frequently mentioned for their prowess on the ice. Each excelled in his own particular way. Bailie Hair was peerless for beautiful drawing on keen ice; Blackley, father and son, were distinguished for their dashing spirited play; George Fingland shewed a very graceful style; while for skilful and crafty management of his game, Murdoch rarely met his match. Gaines in these days were contested in a spirit of fierce determination, more after the manner of a deadly feud than of a friendly rivalry. The honour of the parish was warmly cherished, and the result of the day’s struggle was awaited with interest and concern, by the whole body of the townspeople. It was the custom of the late Mr John Halliday to offer a shilling to the first who should bring from the loch intelligence of the result. On a certain occasion the Sanquhar curlers had sustained a crushing defeat, and the fatal news was transmitted by telegraph. So indignant were the populace that they were received on their arrival with a perfect storm of groans and hisses, and next morning each skip found that the number of shots he had got, in most cases a disgracefully small number, had overnight been chalked in huge characters on his doorpost; while the number of shots by which the spiel had been lost was conspicuous on the front door of the Town Hall.

Many good curling stories are still told, some of them, however, too rough to bear recording. One, however, of a descriptive character ma}7 be given. It was told to the author with great pride by the hero of the tale, the late Mr George Fingland, and had best be given in his own -words. Referring to the first great and disastrous game with New Cumnock, above alluded to, “I was,” said George, “in ane of the three rinks that vvasna beat. I played seventh stane to auld Black. We stood 20—20, and New Cumnock lay shot afore the tee, but no very close, only it was guarded. It was my turn to play, and Black, after looking a’ roun’ the tee, put doon his besom on a spot exactly opposite the tee, and cried—‘George, d’ye see my besom?’ ‘Yes,’ I answered. ‘Then,’ said Black, ‘if ye lie juist there, ye’ll be shot.’ Noo it was water frae tee tae tee, and gey deep at the ends. I had an eight-and-thirty pun’ stane, a hidden grey, and gey dour. Craigdarroch was playing wi’ us, and he had a big birk besom. Juist when I wasgaun to play he said—‘Wait a wee, George, and I’ll break the water for ye.’ He started frae the hog, and cam’ doon the middle o’ the rink, dashing the water tae richt and left, and I stood ready. When he cam’ near he cried—‘Noo, George,’ and in a moment I threw the stane ahint me, got a gran’ delivery, and sent it away a’ my miclit. It gaed scouring up through the water, and landed exactly opposite the tee, aichteen inches gleyt—shot —and game, for no’ ane o’ them could pit it oot.”


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