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The History of Stirlingshire
Chapter XLI – Sports and Games


Much has been said for and against gymnastic exercises. One folly committed arises from the conclusion, that if exercise is good for the health, the more violent and exhausting it is the more good is done. But, judiciously conducted, the practice of gymnastics is essential for shaping and moulding frames of manly grace and vigour. They fortify the general health, strengthen the nerves, and induce an address, a hardihood, and a presence of mind in danger, difficult of attainment without them. Their mental and moral influence is consequently great. They tend to equalise the spirits, invigorate the intellect, and calm the temper. Physical culture, in short, means the effectual training of the body in the offensive and defensive warfare of the battle of life.

At a time when national safety depended on the superiority of individual muscular exertion, rather than of refined strategies and polemical machinery, - when a battle resembled rather a scramble of wild beasts, in which the strongest took the best share of the booty, than a united, organised, and scientific system, - institutions tending to the development of the bodily powers began to be recognised among the Greeks as advantageous, if not necessary to their military success. But the champions of old, so renowned for strength of sinews, with their massy clubs and sevenfold shields, would at present make but a poor figure in a battle, or at a siege, against muskets and artillery; and, even in ancient times, Cicero remarks that though Ajax was much more robust than Nestor, yet the Grecian general says nothing of the former, but avows that if he had ten such as Nestor in his army he should soon demolish Troy. Setting aside the morality of the question, it is by no means certain that we should be at all the better off were we systematically to weed out all our weaker branches. Many of our most useful men – statesmen, merchants, manufacturers, poets, scientific workers, artists, and handicraftsmen – have been persons of weak or medium physique. Nay, even our own greatest soldiers are not always the strongest and stoutest of men. The Napier family, race of born warriors as they are, have always been noticeable for their ill health; and Moltke has a frame which he would hardly pass in one of his own corporals. It is thus that gymnastic excellence, considered by itself, is asserted to be of little use; that the occasions are few on which society requires us to leap over a five-barred gate, or to climb a pole, or to hang with our head downwards. Though this be true, it is apparent to every one that health is generally found in conjunction with strength, and that strength is without doubt increased by muscular exertion. The connection between life and health is too patent to be insisted on. For some other purpose, then, is the leaping-pole necessary than that of avoiding the necessity and delay of clambering over or unlocking gates; it is necessary – we speak generally – for our strength, and the prolongation of our health and existence. Life and health walk hand in hand; health is nothing but integrity of life; disease is nothing but an offence and abbreviation of it. Gymnastic exercise will not, under all circumstances, be successful, but, caeteris paribus, it will be in creating fine men. By which expression is not to be understood plump or fat men, for that fatness is the result rather of ease than of labour may be gathered from a visit to the cattle show. We have, however, at last discovered that Providence has made lambs to skip and kittens to play; and it has come to be pretty generally understood that boys and girls are not so unlike other small young creatures which make little foolish runs and rushes and bounds and summersaults, expressive of the simple truth that they find existence a joy.

But, first, as to the sports of the shire. During the later life of Mr. Ramsay of Barnton and Sauchie, some thirty years ago, horse-racing occurred annually on the course at Stirling. The animals that ran, were, as a rule, the finest and foremost in the country; but with the death of the leading spirit of the meetings their career also closed. This, however, was by no means a matter of general regret. The turf was then, as it still is, on the decline. And little wonder. Its speculations increase the cares of life – do not suspend them. A set of unprincipled miscreants, with their deep-laid stratagems as depredators, have sealed its doom. No doubt it is interesting and exciting to see displayed in perfection, the full powers of the race-horse; but there was a wide moral difference between the Olympia games of Greece and the modern Newmarket. At the ancient sports, honour was the reward of the winner, and no man lost either his character or his money.

The tournament, evidently derived from the Ludus Trojae, is now the subject of antiquarian research. James I. had used his influence to suppress the sanguinary tournament; but James II. revived it. In 1449, two noble Burgundians names Lalaine, one of them, Jacques, as celebrated a knight as Europe could boast, and the squire Meriadte, had challenged two of the Douglases and Halket, to fight with lance, battle-axe, sword, and dagger. Clad in complete mail, and having been solemnly knighted by his Majesty, they engaged in the valley of Stirling. Soon throwing away the lance, they had recourse to the axe, when one of the Douglases was felled outright, and the king, seeing the combat unequal, threw his baton down – the signal of cessation. James Douglas and De Lalaine had approached so close, that of all their weapons none remained save a dagger in the hand of the Scottish knight. De Lalaine seized him so firmly by the wrist of the hand which held the weapon, that Douglas could not use it. The other arm he held below the arm-pit, so that they turned each other round the lists for a considerable time. Simon de Lalaine and Halket were strong, but unskilled in warding the axe, and had soon crushed their visors, weapons, and armour. Meriadet’s antagonist, a Douglas, had attacked him with a lance. The butt end of Meriadet’s axe knocked it out of his hand, and, ere he could undo his own axe, he was felled to the ground. Regaining his feet, and renewing the assault, he was once more laid prostrate, never to rise.

Wrestling, long a favourite athletic exercise, for the discontinuance of which in the gymnasia we see no reason other than the mutability of fashion, is generally falling into contempt. Hawking has disappeared. Shooting, while still common where game abounds, has lost the wild sportsman-like character of earlier days; though, all credit to the pluck of our young aristocracy, when with the early autumn they take to the heather and stubble as young ducks to water, and with cutting winds full in their face, under driving rain and sleet, stalk the deer on the bleak highland hills. Fox-hunting, no doubt, stands its ground; but fears are entertained even for the king of sports. It is difficult to determine when the first regularly appointed pack of fox-hounds appeared among us. Dan Chaucer gives us the thing in embryo: -

"Aha, the fox! and after him they ran;
And eke with staves many another man,
Ran Coll, our dogge, and Talbot, and Garlond,
And Malkin with her distaff in her hond."

At the next stage, neighbouring farmers, probably, kept one or two hounds each, and on stated days met for the purpose of destroying the sneaking vermin that had been doing damage in their poultry yards. Bye-and-bye, a few couples of strong hounds seem to have been kept by small country squires, who, on occasions, joined packs. Such were called trencher hounds, implying that they ran loose about the house, and were not confined in kennel. For several years, the Stirling and Linlithgowshire fox-hounds have met regularly for sport, and many a lively day has been enjoyed "through bush through briar." Ladies, too, were won to unsex themselves for the run. With scarlet riding-dress, masculine head-gear, flushed countenance, and disheveled locks, the huntress came bounding to the covert side. Undismayed by showers of mud from horses’ hoofs, by hedge and fence, gate and stile, she scoured the country, screeching forth a tally-ho! at reynard’s departure, and a whoo-hoo-hoop! at his death.

The games, past and present, of the county are endless in their variety. Bullet-throwing on the public highway has happily been discontinued through the action of the police; pitching the quoit is confined to agricolous persons after their day’s toil; and the ball is too generally, and without cause, despised. The latter would hardly, perhaps, at the present day be considered worthy of a place amongst gymnastic exercises; but that it is an exercise of the greatest advantage there can be little doubt, and more dignity may be imparted to it by mentioning it under other names, as football or cricket, which, says Johnson, is a sport in which the contenders drive a ball with sticks in opposition to each other. This definition would, in fact, apply equally well or better to hockey; but, on reflection, we may discover, with the aid of the lexicographer, that cricket, our national pastime, of which we are so justly proud, is essentially and primarily a game at ball. For a sport, however, which can be enjoyed at any time of the year, in any weather, and without any of the trouble that is incidental to so many of the other kindred pastimes, commend us first of all the game of rounders. There are few, perhaps, who cannot recall the luxury of an occasional relaxation in that way, after the fatigue and ennui of a long and tedious outing at cricket. We can picture, as if it were but yesterday, the jollity that reigned supreme in the cricket-field when rounders were proclaimed as the sport next on the programme; and it seemed like a waif from the great ocean of the past, when, last summer, we had a chance of renewing our old intimacy with the game, at the invitation of a posse of mirth-loving schoolboys, as we passed across the airy tryst-ground at Larbert. The bowling-green is another popular place of resort for recreation. And it has this advantage that it suits the old as the middle-aged. It has been imagined that gymnastic exercise is exclusively profitable to the young. It is not so; it is of advantage, of great advantage, likewise to the old. With our seniors, the increasing weight of the body, and the loss of the so-called "animal spirits," induces the desire of repose, and they need an increase of exercise beyond that which inclination enjoins on them. Thus they are brought within the province of the gymnastic code. Though the pastime mentioned has not the magical effect of beauty –

"A withered hermit, fourscore winters worn,
Might shake off fifty, looking in her eye."

some perceptible advantage may yet be obtained by any old man who will be childish enough to play even at ball. Military ardour, combined with a love of their country, has formed our youths into various rifle companies, in which the exercises prescribed are advantageous for the same reason, viz., general muscular development, though perhaps to a lesser extent than with those of the golf, cricket, or foot-ball fields. And this fusing together of civil and military life is a matter of which to be proud. We have it on reliable authority that many of these Volunteers manoeuvre with as much apparent facility, and perform not only battalion but divisional movements with as great precision and accuracy, as if soldiering were the business of their lives. Few even of its bitterest enemies longer dare to call our "cheap defence of nations" a mere myth; or have the boldness to deny its prestige as a moral and physical power in the land.

A Denny archers’ club was instituted in 1828, which competed annually for the captaincy, at a distance of 100 yards, the captain being preses for the year; for two poisoned arrows from the island of Mombase, at the distance of 160 yards; for a silver medal, at 50 yards; for three prizes of arrows, at 30 yards; and for a silver arrow, at the same distance – the successful competitors being vice-presidents. The medal and arrows remain in the possession of the successful competitors; while the others were shot for annually. Many picturesque proverbial expressions belong to the bow. "An archer is known by his aim, not by his arrows." "Draw not thy bow before thy arrow be fixed." "He hath twice or thrice cut Cupid’s bow," says Don Pedro in the comedy of Much Ado About Nothing; "and the little hangman dare not shoot him." "A word spoken is an arrow let fly." The maiden who kept a lover in reserve, lest her admirer should prove faithless, was said to have two strings to her bow – an expression which arose from the military archers having used a double string in the field, to prevent delay in refitting the bow in case of accident. "Even the holy man of God will be better with his bow and arrow about him." Homer says –

"the string let fly
Sounds shrill and sharp like the swift swallow’s cry."

but though the Illiad has frequent allusions to this sport, the most finished picture of Grecian archery occurs in the Odyssey. Gibbon, the Roman historian, exclaims, "Methinks I see the attitudes of the archer – I hear the twang of his bow." Many of our early poets indulge in this favourite species of illustration; yet none have so happily applied the technicalities of his craft as Shakespeare, himself a practised bowman from his midnight visitations to Sir Thomas Lucy’s deer park. Even at the present day, we "kill two birds with one shaft;" and "get the shaft hand of our adversaries." When familiar with the foibles of a friend or foe, we have "found the measure of his shaft." The triumph of making an enemy’s machinations recoil upon himself is "to outshoot a man in his own bow." Our ancestors of every rank and profession practised archery, regarding it as an important branch of manly education. Of Henry VIII, Paulus Jovius says, "no man in his dominions knew the great English bow more vigorously than Henry himself; no man shot further, or with more unerring aim." And the present Queen has given a proof of real British feeling by the appointment of a master of archery among her household officers. But while the example of the noble and the wealthy had, no doubt, considerable influence on the spread of modern archery, its own intrinsic excellencies were its chief recommendations. Requiring no excessive corporeal exertion, and associated, as a rule, with refined and polished society, the bow, of all amusements, appears specifically adapted for dissipating the ennui of the fair. The piano and embroidery frame are both good enough in their way, but

"In the good greenwode,
Among the lilie flower,"

Health and vivacity can be got, which the pure breath of nature can alone bestow.

In 1835, a curling club was also started in Denny. Mr. John Carnie, of Curling Hall, Largs, received here the rudiments of his skill as a curler. John was the second son of Mr. Neil Carnie – a principal partner in the firm of Messrs. Thomas Sheils & Co., of Herbertshire printfield. On the Carron and the reservoirs of the establishment, John first shone in the game, and acquired that knowledge which enabled him to write a standard work on curling, and to invent a rink which, on any morning, when there was a little frost, might, by a slight suffusion of water over its surface, present in four hours, (the thermometer at 28 degrees) the finest and firmest ice a curler could desire. But now every parish throughout the county has it senior and junior clubs. And one or two of the late winters have afforded rare opportunities for the enjoyment of the "roaring game." Though men talk sadly of the good old years when they could count confidently on so many weeks of black frost, with dams and "dubs" bound in iron, few, we presume, will now date to repeat the slander that old winter has well-nigh got all his wonted energy and grip drained out of him. He is, we see, when he cares to show his piercing "ivories," still the powerful potentate of the past. Not for some forty years have we had winter storms so protracted and intense. The snow fell generally to a depth of several feet; and many were its deep drifts in nook and by-way. Such seasonable weather brought forcibly to mind the great snow storm of ’23, the flakes of which, as we have been told, began to fall on a Sabbath afternoon in February of that year, when the principal thoroughfares had all to be "cast," and even for weeks after the thaw set in, our seniors speak of having walked to kirk and market between great walls of congelated snow. Another heavy storm fell three years later; and a third in October of ’36, when the cereal stooks stood buried in the warm winding-sheet in which mountain, moor, and field were so prematurely wrapped. And when the winter so braces itself up, and thus grandly displays its sparkling ensigns, there is much to interest and even charm the eye. The usual harsh industrial din comes muffled to the ear. Horse-hoofs strike no sound from the crusted causeway, and street vehicles softly spin along. Then, what in art can match the frostal tracery of rime penciled on the humblest window pane; the eave-array of icicles; and the myriad plumes and pearls of tree and hedge? Beautiful, too, beyond all rivalry, the ice-drapery of the rocks, where the water-springs, trickling down their ragged face, give form to the pendant pillar. And as we pass farm-yards which the snow has turned into vignettes for winter idylls, we thank God for the fall and the warmth it gives the fields, on whose fertility we so much depend for sustenance.

Of all recreations for the unbending of mental strain, curling is, no doubt, the chief. Jovial and jolly are all the frantic groups that form the pitted players. What a wild flourishing of "cowes!" What airy, eager, "soopings," as the missioned stone runs along the rink from tee to tee! The ice may be "bauch," hence the occasional necessity of warmly welcoming up the shot. Let us here give a few of the characteristic phrases of the curliana brotherhood. Social equality is the order of the day: - "O man, Laird, that’s a bonnie curl! That’s grand work! Come on, my laddie; Earl, hand up that cowe. Leave her tae hersel’. She’s a stane that kens the tee. There she gangs, roarin’ in, straucht as a craw’s flicht. Weel played, Laird! You for a curler!" Or hear skip No. 2 as the Doctor lifts his stone: - "Noo, Doctor, I want ye tae pit a lang guard on that. Dae ye see my cowe? Weel, jist play till’t cautiously, my man. Dinna attempt the tee; the port’s stret. There she comes rowin’ and spinnin’. O Geordie, soop her! soop her! She’s a howg! she’s a howg! Dag on’t, Doctor, ye’ve spoilt a’. But let her come hame. There she curls – a bonnie laid-down stane. Leuk at that, Cauldhame. Touch’t if ye can. That’s what I ca’ weedin’ the moot tae some purpose. A bonnie curl, Doctor. Come owre and gie’s a grup o’ your hand. It was a feather i’ the kep o’ oor club that nicht we brithered ye." And so right merrily goes the match, contested ever with the kindliest feeling, and closed – no matter who wins, for one side or other must – with the friendliest congratulations. But, as we have indicated, it is also keenly contested. Not only "honour" depends on the result, but the dinner of beef and greens that has to be defrayed by the losers.

Skating is another exciting amusement on the ice. Peculiarly enlivening, even for mere spectator, is the sight of disporting crowds shooting hither and thither in the most graceful groups and gyrations. And the skating part now generally played by the ladies, renders such exhibitions all the more picturesque. Need we say that many of the fair skate with exquisite ease and skill –skim, in fact, over the glassy surface like swallows on the wing, and seem quite as familiar with the modus operandi as any of the sterner sex. Here and there, it is true, a mere learner is to be seen snatching, as she toils and staggers along, at the empty and tangible air; but such ludicrous appearances are as common with Tom and Harry as with Berta and Nell. The best lady skaters in the world are probably to be found in the great cities of Lower Canada, Monreal, Quebec, or Ottawa, where balls, carnivals, and other ice parties are matters of regular occurrence, and the skating rink is a national institution. Two of the finest figure pictures in groups that were ever done in photography were those of the "Fancy Ball" and the "Carnival" given at Montreal, on the Victoria Rink in honour of Prince Albert, H.R.H. Duke of Connaught. They were executed by command of Her Majesty, every figure in them, some hundreds in number, being portraits taken separately, and afterwards grouped by the celebrated photographer, Notman. All the figures in both pictures are on skates, the range of costumes adopted being very wide – Turkish sultanas, gypsies, Indians, fairies, and historical characters alike careering along in dizzy waltzes or stately quadrilles.

The only fishing club in the shire is connected with the county town. This year’s competition took place on Loch Leven, at which there was a strong muster, 33 members being out in 17 boats. The united takes of the club amounted to 353 trout, weighing about 274 pounds. The heaviest single fish caught was 2 lb. 2 oz. Inland sport is every day becoming more restricted, owing to causes too obvious to require specification, and sportsmen will be driven, in spite of choice or preference, to the open coasts and sheltered bays to find that enjoyment in fishing or shooting which is to them the salt of life.

To our more youthful readers we would say, on parting – cultivate early, familiar intercourse with the book of nature, and the landmarks of history. Perhaps no study could be found more beneficial for health, and, at the same time, so fraught with mental benefit and pleasure, as the so-called "hobby" of the topographer. And in this world there is need for acquiring sources of enjoyment apart from society and its various spheres of recreation. Let these lines be deeply engraven on the tablet of every juvenile mind: -

"Life is a thorny beaten track,
Where man works out his busy day,
And passes joys upon the way,
For which he fain would travel back."


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