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History of Curling
Chapter IV. "The Mysteries"

EGEL must have been "uninitiated" when he laid down the dictum that "the things which cannot be uttered are the thins which are not worth uttering." The "mysteries" which from time immemorial have been associated with curling are of great practical value, and they shed considerable light on the origin and antiquity of the game. We might, therefore, with less doubtful motives, act the part of a Clodius, and reveal the arcana of the craft. The temptation is strong, but we resist. We shall, however, sail as near the wind as we can, and permit the profane to hear a few sounds from "the dark passage."


The Word and the Grip.—Even before the formation of curling societies curlers appear to have bound themselves together by the use of a certain password and grip. Johnny Guile in his young days used to hear old curlers mentioning the Rev. Mr John Witherspoon of Paisley as having been a keen curler, and as the first person that gave what is called the Heigh Linn curling word, which was about the year 1757 or 1758. [Cairnie's Essay, p. 81.]

From the account of the formation of the Sanquhar Society in 1774 (p. 126) it is apparent that a wor~l and grip had been in use before the society was formed. Two years later we have sonic,, indication of the nature of these in the following minute

"SANQUHAR, 16th January 1776.

"In order to prevent all disputes 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 grip, with the explanation:-

"Griping hands in the common manner of shaking hands is the griping the hand of the curling-stone. The thumb of the person examined or 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."'

Mr Brown, the historian of the Sanquhar Club, is evidently right in supposing that these are only fragments of the old forms—"all that was left upon which there was any general agreement." In a footnote to page 14 of the Kilmarnock Treatise on Curling (1828) we have a much simpler form of initiation, given as "a curious old custom in many parishes of Perthshire."

"The curler is initiated by receiving the grip, which consists in catching him by the thumb in the manner that the curling-stone is held, and in making him repeat the curling word: `I promise never to go to the ice without a broom; I will fit fair, sweep well, take all the brittle (angled) shots I can, and tangle (dispute) to a hair-breadth."'

In the Annual for 1842 (p. 60) we have this account of the origin of the Blairgowrie Club:-

"In the course of 1782 an inhabitant of Coupar-Angus, `white-headed Jamie Cammell,' having occasion to be in Edinburgh in the prosecution of his trade of cattle-dealer, went out to Duddingston Loch to see the play of the south country brethren. During the game a very difficult shot occurred, on which all the curlers present tried their skill and failed; and Mr Campbell having remarked that he thought he could take the shot, was invited to try it, which he did, and was successful. He afterwards continued to play during the remainder of the day with the Duddingstoin curlers, who were so well pleased with his skill in the game that they invited hint to dine with them, and initiated hint a member of the club by communicating to him the word and grip. On his return to Coupar-Angus he initiated the members of his own club, from whom the Blairgowrie Club received the Sign and secret in the following year."

The Duddingston Club of that date was the successor of the old Canonmills Club, from which it no doubt received the initiation which it is said to have thus transmitted to Blairgowrie. From Blairgowrie many other clubs received the "mystery." If the above statement be correct, it furnishes us with an interesting link of connection between the curling of Edinburgh and that of the north of Scotland. Like their brethren at Sanquhar, the members of the old Douglas St Bride Society reduced to writing the traditional mysteries, and on 14th February 1794 the following was brought up by the office-bearers and adopted as "the correct form":—

An improved version of the Douglas word was adopted by the oldest Canadian club—that formed at Montreal in 1807. It is prefixed to the minute-book, and reads thus:

"Foot fair: draw to a hair:
Your stone being well directed,
You'll hit your ain, and win the game
If you miss, be not dejected."

When we remember that the secrecy of the "mysteries" was carefully protected, we are not surprised that we hear so little about them in the old records, but in the majority of ancient societies we can infer from the records that they were observed. No one was bothered or entered till he had got the word : the entry-money was generally spoken of as payment therefore and once in possession of the precious sesame, all the privileges of his own and other clubs were open to him ; lie was a fully-equipped K.B., or knight of the broom, and one of the noble brotherhood of keen, keen, keen curlers. It was the custom to inflict a severe fine on any one who betrayed the secrets. Thus, in the Douglas Society, while the word itself could be had for 6d., a fine of Is. was imposed on any one who divulged it. The purity of the word was of the greatest importance. It was it smaller offence in the eyes of the Sanquhar curlers to be ignorant of it altogether than to pretend to have it and be found defective. In the one case they gave instruction, in the other they inflicted a fine. An entry in the Hamilton record, of date 19th December 1796, skews how the offender was treated there:

"A complaint was made by Robert Pender against Robert Purdie, who gave a new grip to Mr Sands, one of the new members, never known before to the society; he was accordingly fined of 2s. 6d. to the society and 6d. to the officer, which he refused to pay, and appealed to a general meeting."

To preserve the knowledge and purity of the word, it was usual at the annual meetings of ancient clubs to examine all who had been initiated. Rusts or rustys were condemned and fined. In the early days these fines were invariably devoted to the bowl. Drouthy members were tempted to take advantage of this custom to " vet their whistle" at the expense of their rusty brethren, and the following from the Hamilton minutes shews how such abuse was dealt with:-

"HAMILTON, 10th March 1789.

"The meeting having taken into their serious consideration the many irregularities that occur from meetings and members of the society trying and examining individuals respecting the word, and bringing them in for rusty pints: they, therefore, to prevent any such irregular behaviour for the future, hereby agree to enact it as a regulation that no member who has got the word and entered in the book as a member shaII ever be tried for the word afterwards."

The later and more famous Duddingston Society did not follow its predecessor in having a word and grip. Its initiation ceremony was simply the payment of entry-money, and its only "mystery" was a silver medal "to distinguish the members from any other gentlemen." Curling ceremonies, thus ignored by the Duddingston Society, suffered even more than the laws of curling in the confusion which prevailed in the transition period. If they had a common origin, they had in the course of transmission from club to club been so altered as to prove a cause of division rather than a bond of union among clubs. The Lasswade and Roslin Clubs, after a match on December 28, 1829, met in the evening, and when it was decided to increase the supply of liquor by trying the rusts, [In 1865 the Roslin Club had to alter their custom, and resolve, "That rusts should be tried in the morning before competing for the medal, instead of being tried in the evening, as this appeared to have a tendency to interfere with the harmony of the evening."] it was found that the words were slightly different in the clubs, and the rusts escaped. At an after meeting,

"The difference was found to be so small that it was referred to the toss of a penny, when fortune favoured the Lasswade Club, and it was agreed that instead of the word stand, it should now for both clubs be star'."

This was a small difference and easily adjusted. but in other districts the difference was so great and the variety in the form of the word of initiation so confusing that Dr Arnott suggested a "convention of the principal initiated clubs in Scotland" to deal with the subject. his suggestion, as we have seen, led to the formation of the Grand Club. The scope of this club was very soon widened. Its founders included therein the whole subject of curling. This was a wise afterthought, for which the curling world may be thankful. There is, however, no doubt that the primary purpose of those who first moved in the matter did not extend beyond the institution of a kind of Grand Lodge to govern the Freemasonry of the ancient gauze. In the constitution of the Grand Club, initiation had an important place. It was decided that there should be:

"(1.) A fixed word of initiation which no one, as an individual, is to commit to writing without special permission from the G.C.C.C. or the Representative Committee. Each club was to be furnished with cyphers, to be inserted in the minute-book, by which the word would be understood by the brethren.

"(2.) A grip.

"(3.) A pass and counter-word."

Without committing the same to writing, we may permit the uninitiated to enjoy as much of the forbidden fruit as he can taste without the "cypher key." [Dr Arnott invented a set of "magic rods" for reading the word. This, which is simply an ingenious adjustment of the twelve columns, is in the possession of the Orwell Club, and is enclosed in a neat case made by Alexander Forfar in 1849.] Here is:

The founders of the Grand Club appear to have arrived at this long; word by comparing the various forms submitted to them, and then framing a form of word which should comprehend them all. According to the report of the Kinross deputation inserted in that club's minutes, 20th August 1838,

"The various clubs rave a general detail of their regulations, and also their `words,' which, though in many very imperfect, yet the general resemblance and similarity of the whole was gratifying to all present as sheaving that the institution of curling in Scotland proceeded from one common root or origin."

At a later meeting, November 16, 1838, the same deputation reports:-

"That the word of the Kinross Court might be said to form the basis of the one now adopted by the Grand Club, some small additions from those of certain other clubs being made to it; a grip also was agreed on, identical with that used at Kinross, with one slight addition."

It appears that the "ancient mysteries" had from time immemorial been carefully observed at the old country town of Kinross. Other clubs were in the habit of repairing thither to receive in their "pristine purity" the word and the grip. When the Grand Club was formed the Kinross brethren gladly communicated these to the cornmittee to assist them in drafting the constitution. At the formation of the club J. W. Williamson of Kinross, to whose good work as a curler we have already referred, is said to have initiated upwards of thirty-six individuals from different clubs. Mr Williamson was for a long time the high priest of the temple of curling mysteries, presiding over the solemn ceremonies of "the dark passage" in such pomp and pride as became his office. No traveller returned from the mysterious bourne to tell his experience—the lips of the initiated were sealed. Cave canem was all that was said to trembling candidates. From which, and from certain shrieks that now and then reached the uninitiated outer world, it was generally supposed that the master only gave the word when Cerberus immediately gave the grip, which transformed the calf of a. common mortal into that of a keen, keen., keen curler. The committee which prepared the constitution of the Grand Club gave a laudable reason for adopting a word and grip. The club was "intended to unite the whole kingdom into one brotherhood of the rink," and a form of initiation was accordingly designed:

"To enable members to recognise each other as such, although personally unknown, and thereby to ensure diem, when visiting distant. clubs, a participation in their game, which, owing to the numbers who resort to the ice (particularly hear large towns), it would be impossible to extend to strangers indiscriminately."

This the committee distinctly stated was "the only purpose" they had in view. They seem to have felt that their action required some apology. They disowned the spirit of exclusiveness, and did not commit themselves to the approval of many uses to which "initiation" had been or alight be put. In so far as the representative meeting of the Royal Club has been concerned, the law as at first laid down has been faithfully obeyed. New clubs on their affiliation have had the "mysteries" communicated to them. It is otherwise with the majority of our affiliated clubs.

The law is virtually set aside. Many members object altogether to the shibboleth of initiation, and the tendency seems to be to neglect "the mysteries" altogether. Indications of this tendency are distinctly visible in the history of the Royal Club. In the year 1850 an additional "mystery" was invented. This was a curling uniform, in which the bodies of the "initiated" were to be enswathed and distinguished from the vulgar crowd. It was to consist of "coat, vest, and trousers of one pattern and quality, the groundwork of the cloth to be as nearly as possible of a granite colour, checked with blue and green bars, the blue being the royal colour, and the green emblematic of the broom." For this "mystery" curlers were to pay Mr John Piper—who was appointed clothier to the Royal Club - 4s. 6d. a yard, and for making up—coat, 14s.; vest, 6s. 6d.; trousers, 4s. 6d.; while "the very buttons" were to be paid for at 5s. 6d. per set for the coat, and 1s. 6d. for the vest. But it would not do. Mr John Piper and the club uniform very soon had to disappear from the scene.

By the original rule "none but initiated curlers were allowed to be present at the business or the convivial meetings of the Royal Club." This was found to interfere with the development of sociality, and a relaxation of the rule had to be made by the addition of the words while curling ceremonies or mysteries are being practised. To enforce a stricter observance of the law of initiation, a representative member at the annual meeting in 1883 moved:-

"That no names be printed in the Annual but those of initiated curlers."

Only three were found to support this motion, Mr Rouet (representative of Frederickton, New Brunswick) remarking that "in Canada not one in twenty was initiated, and if the motion was carried, it would sweep the whole of the Canadian names out of the Annual."

These are sufficient indications of the tendency to which we have referred, and which is not unlikely in the long run to lead to the total abolition of the ceremony.


In addition to the ceremony of initiation, some of the ancient curling societies, after the usual dinner of beef and greens, were accustomed to hold what was called a curling court. Sir Richard Broun, in his Memorabilia (p. 67), gives a brief account of this court, which he describes as "a sort of game of high finks, or mock heroic tribunal," but we are not aware that it was customary to hold it iii the south of Scotland. The author of the Kilmarnock Treatise speaks of the court as "a curious old custom in Perthshire," from which we infer that it was not common in the west of Scotland. [Cairnie, in his Essay (p. 35), has an account of the nature of the word in the Largs Club, and says that "curling courts are generally held where clubs are formed," but no court seems to have been held under his auspices.] It is to Kinross that we are again indebted for the preservation of this " mystery " in its most complete form. In view of the formation of the Grand Club, the curlers of Kinross drew up a description of the court as it had been Dandled down orally from generation to generation, and transmitted this by the hands of their delegates to the meeting. With the ceremony of initiation the Grand Club did not associate the more elaborate ceremony of the court, as was the custom at Kinross, but left it to clubs to "communicate the mysteries in their own way. The Grand Club, however, awarded the custom a certificate of antiquity. It "had been held for upwards of 200 years." Clubs might wish to revive it. The Kinross Court, with a, few slight alterations, was therefore entered in the club minute-book, and copies printed for the use of such clubs as applied for them. At the dinner after the first meeting of the Grand Club a court was held, which was fenced "in Auld style " by J. W. Williamson, to the great satisfaction of all present."


"The first requisite is to elect a President, termed 'My Lord;' he is usually the Proeses of the club for the time, but any other brother may be chosen. 'My Lord,' on taking; the chair, immediately appoints one of the brethren present to be his officer, whom he directs to fence the court. This is done as follows:-

"A pewter stoup, varying from a mutchkin to a pint (Scottish measure) is procured, which the officer presents to `My Lord;' and he, in order to make a noise, drops therein some silver, or a few pence, according to his pleasure. The officer, after rattling the money in the stoup three times, and repeating alternately with each shake, `Oyez,' `oyez,' `oyez,' fences the court thus:—

"'I defend and I forbid, in her (or his) Majesty's name and authority of 'My Lord ' presently in the chair - (1) that there shall be no legs cer em; (2) no hands a-bosy, or across; (3) no supports on your neigh-hour's chair, or on the table; (4) no private committees; (5) no rising up, or sitting down, or going to the door, without leave asked and granted by 'My Lord;' (6) no touching the cup or glass but with the curler's right hand, which is understood to be every ordinary Man's left; (7) every man his name and surname; (8) every breach of these articles a halfpenny, and every oath a penny.'

"The officer then points out and gives in an audible voice the name and surname of every brother present, commencing on 'My Lord's' left hand, and going regularly round the whole company, thus: 'A. R. is A. B.; C. D. is C. D.; E. F. is E. F.; G. H. is G. H.; (and on coming to 'My Lord'), 'My Lord's' 'My Lord,' and I am his officer—both absolute. God save the Queen (or King).' The officer usually stands opposite to the person named, at the other side of the table, when this can be conveniently done.

"If any individuals are present not yet brethren, as is the case with those to be initiated that evening, the officer passes them over, and these are not subject to the fines and regulations of the court till after initiation.

"The proceedings of the court then go on; and it is the special duty of the officer, who remains on his feet rattling the stoup occasionally, to observe and detect all breaches of the regulations, and to collect the fines in the stoup, rattling it at the ear of the offender till the fine is paid.

"The decision of 'My Lord,' and, through him, of his officer in fining, is perfectly absolute, and must be obeyed. Any one member has a right to report the breaches of another to 'My Lord,' or his officer; but if the person complained against conceives himself aggrieved by the report he may protest and appeal, which is done by depositing a penny on the table, to be forfeited to the stoup in case of being decided against, vvhich generally happens when an appeal is made. `'My Lord ' very shortly hears the protester, and gives an absolute decision.

"When candidates for the brotherhood are present, 'My Lord' (after the court has sat a reasonable time) directs the business of initiation to proceed.

"The candidate thereupon respectfully approaches `My Lord,' with a curler's besom in his baud, holding it over his right shoulder, and craves to be admitted a member of the honourable court and club. 'My Lord' now appoints one of the brethren to give him the `word' and 'grip,' and two others (one or both of whom must be masters of the whole secrets), to be reporters as to whether these have been given correctly. The three then conduct the candidate to an adjoining room, which has been previously prepared for the purpose, and after a careful examination that no intruders are present, and shutting the door, the initiation commences by the person appointed by 'My Lord' first giving the `word' and then the `grip.' If the reporters find that he is unable to give these correctly, they return with him to the court, and report him to `My Lord' as deficient, who immediately appoints somc other to the office. The same proceeding is repeated, and appointments made, till a brother is found sufficiently qualified.

"`My Lord' often fixes at first on some one to give the secrets whom lie suspects to be deficient; and all who fail in this duty are fined, before the close of the court, at the option of the company--a penny, or twopence, or threepence. When a brother is so appointed, he may decline, and come under the mercy of the court, by saying, 'I submit;' but he is generally fined in a larger sum than those who make the attempt, but fail.

"The reporters, after the candidate receives the secrets, introduce him to 'My Lord' in court, as `brother of the broom, and a keen, keen, keen curler.' He then goes forward to 'My Lord,' and holding his hand under the table, out of view, gives `My Lord' the grip; after which he goes to the brother on 'My Lord's' left, and holding his hand also below the table, requests that member to give him the `grip.' The newly admitted member must on no account give the grip to any one except 'My Lord,' but himself receive it; and if the brother, through inattention or otherwise, does not give it to him correctly, he notes the circumstance, and when he has gone round the company in this way (or until `My Lord' says he may stop), he reports to 'My Lord' all those who were deficient, and they are fined at the discretion of `My Lord.'

"When there are more candidates than one, the sane proceedings take place with each separately. The court is then fenced anew by the officer, the names of the new brothers being of course included.

"During the sitting of the court 'My Lord' says, `I give a toast not to be repeated;' and he immediately proposes one, of which he and the other officer keep note, and generally write down for accuracy. Any member who repeats the toast before being specially requested to do so is immediately fined a halfpenny to the stoup. Sometime afterwards, and when the toast may be supposed to be forgotten by many, `My Lord' directs the officer to go round the company and ask each individually what it was: each must whisper it to the officer, so that the person next him cannot hear: if he fail to mention the toast to the very last letter, the officer rattles the stoup at his ear, as an intimation that he has failed, and proceeds to the next person, and so on. When he has gone round the whole, he reports to 'My Lord' those who failed, and his lordship directs a fine to be levied from each—generally one penny. Any person conceiving himself aggrieved may protest and appeal in the manner already mentioned.

When `Mv Lord' thinks that the court has continued a sufficient length of time (usually from half-an-hour to an hour), he directs the officer to `roup the stoup,' which is done by him in the character of an auctioneer, descanting all the time on the great, weight and value of the stoup: offers are made for the contents in the way of an ordinary auction or roup; and after it is knocked down to the highest bidder, trifling bets are sometimes taken as to whether the Purchaser has gained or lost, two reporters being appointed to count the proceeds in another room. While the reporters are absent for this purpose, the court goes on, another stoup being used; and any fines collected during that time, and also during the roup of the stoup, are added to the original amount, and belong to the purchaser. `My Lord' then declares the court closed.

"The purchase money is either applied towards defraying the expense of the social glass, or added to the club funds, according to the general regulations of the club.

"It is obvious that, as one brother is required for `My Lord,' another for the officer, and three to perform the ceremony of initiation, the court cannot well proceed unless seven be present, and this only provides for two sitting in court during the absence of the initiators; but there is little amusement if there be not from fifteen to twenty in company."

Another set of rules for the curling court, as practised throughout Strathallan, from Auchterarder to Stirling and Doune, is said to have been in writing as far back as 1711. Dr Walker Arnott had a copy inserted in the minutes of Orwell Club, where it is stated that:-

"These rules had been introduced into the district by Lord Strathallan previous to the first rebellion, but it is not known whether lie obtained them from among his ancestors' papers or introduced them from other districts; the current belief is that he received the copy from some of the Scotch then in Paris."

The StrathaIlan rules are also inserted in the old minute-book of Dunblane, by which club they were used in the beginning of this century. They differ a little from the Kinross set, but the latter is simpler and more comprehensive.

The high jinks of the curling court have been carried on by the older clubs in which they have been handed down. A few younger clubs have also revived the proceedings of the court in other districts, adding some "jinkses" of their own. Inverness, of course, carries Ye Palladium in solemn state and places it, like the mace, before "My Lord." "Ye stoup " is an old tin kettle, which a rink of the club, "by the assistance of a drunken porter from Perth," won at the Grand Match and brought as a trophy to the capital of the Highlands. The kettle is silvered o'er (in the inside) with shilling fines: the chairman makes the highest bid at the "roupin"' and loses a crown: while Paul (the bagpiper) is presented with a sovereign. Where courts were held the old practice was to apply the stoup to the payment of the bill. This, according to Dr Arnott, "occasionally induced a sederunt too long for modern customs," and some clubs began to apply the contents to the funds of the club, so that "all practical curlers were benefited by those who loved bowls." The Abdie Club, under the licence of the court, actually made up the most of its funds by court fines of the most hanky-panky description, inflicted on all and sundry without rhyme or reason. We give a few specimens:

"February 1, 1841.—Dr L. was fined is. for shooting at a hare in her seat, the offence being aggravated by the fact that the hare had been dead for some days previous.

"January 31, 1844.—Mr Russel, without consent of the club, having purchased an estate, was fined 2s. 6d.

"February 1859.—A. W. R., `for having, to the great danger of the digestion and bodily health of the members present, supplied hard, tough beef for this day's dinner, was fined 1s.'

"Mr Pitcairn was fined `for being the first member of the club who had condescended to the use of chloroform in having a tooth extracted.'"

The Belfast Club at their annual meetings had much "exhilarating and side-splitting mirth" under the court. On one occasion (January 9, 1880) a live donkey, which had, unknown to most of the members, been placed in a large press in the banqueting-hall, gave a loud bray in the middle of an eloquent speech by the chaplain Rev. W. C. M'Cullagh), and "brought down the house." The "noble steed" was afterwards trotted out, and each candidate for initiation had to approach "My Lord" on the donkey's back, with his face to the tail and a broom kowe over his right shoulder. Dulce est desipere in loco. "Weel-timed daffin'" is very enjoyable, and the quaint custom of the curling court may have a place among the diversions that help

"To cheer us through the weary widdle
O' wai'Iy cares."

Any practical value it may have must, however, be lessened by the neglect of those initiation ceremonies with which in the Kinross form it is so closely connected. The "Royal" rules and regulations under which curlers now play have made the old court quite unnecessary as a forum for deciding disputes, or a tribunal "before which it is competent to try, fine, and punish curlers for all trifling offences and misdemeanours committed upon the ice." Fining is one of the lost arts among curling clubs, and few of them carry on the practice. A club which depended on the precarious revenue of the "stoup" would in these days soon come to grief ; and in the permit-me-to-prevent-you-period on which we are entering we must make a virtue out of a necessity, and cease to replenish the bowl. It is still left to those who would uphold this ancient ceremony to plead with curlers to continue it on the ground that:

"It was chiefly intended to diffuse around the festive board the same free, unconstrained, and jovial familiarity and feeling of rough equality and brotherhood which curling never fails to create on the ice."

There is something in this plea. if by this means we can break down the dividing; walls, let us invoke "My Lord" and "his officer" and honour their "court" to the end. But have they not in their very foolishness been preparing the way for a recognition—wider, freer, and less constrained—of the truth expressed in the American mottoes, "E pluribus unum," and "We're brithers a"'?

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