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Michael Flannery

Part VI: Scotland - End of the Odyssey


Portrait of a four-year old boy with a club and ball. Paulus Moreelse, c.1600.
Portrait of a four-year old boy with a club and ball. Paulus Moreelse, c.1600. Dutch kolf was a favourite prop in portraits of children of wealthy burghers, since it symbolised a sense of purpose and moving towards a goal.
(Art courtesy of Iziko Museums of South Africa, and Golf Through the Ages)
In the preceding chapter, based on the analysis of an extraordinary poem about golf on ice (IJskolf), a Latin-Dutch phrasebook containing etiquette and rules for popular ball games, and artwork spanning 50 years, we were able to show that, by 1625, an early variant of Scottish golf was alive and well in the Netherlands.

The wealth of detail in the documentation and artwork enabled us to form the picture of an already sophisticated sociable recreation played with equipment never before seen or described in European club and ball games. The prototype playing instrument at the heart of Dutch golf was known as a 'Scottish Cleek', but in reality was a long-nose wooden club very similar to those we encounter in collections of the earliest extant Scottish woods. This type of club, and its inseparable companion, the feather ball, would be basic staples of playing equipment until the mid-19th century, when the introduction of a new type of ball turned the centuries-old game on its ear.

Longnose Playclub by Andrew Dickson, showing the original lead weighting and long scare.

The robust, affordable gutta-percha ball, which appeared c.1842, brought seismic changes to golf, ranging from a shift in playing primacy from woods to irons, and a struck, rather than swept, shot to propel the ball. Since it was impervious to rain and damp, the introduction of the gutta-percha ball extended the season from a few dry, cold months, to year-round play.

At the same time, the relatively low cost of the gutty opened the game to tradesmen and workers, resulting in an exponential increase in the number of players. The hearty broth in the Petri dish of Victorian golf encouraged growth in all directions: new courses, clubs, and associations of working men, more public matches and tournaments, improvements in equipment and increased public interest. The gutty was at the heart of golf's 'Recreational Revolution', and the driving force in shaping golf, as we know it today.

Flemish Colf, detail showing putting to a hole on a green, perhaps near Bruges. Attributed to Simon Bening, c.1500.
Flemish Colf, detail showing putting to a hole on a green, perhaps near Bruges. Attributed to Simon Bening, c.1500. (Image courtesy Golf Through The Ages)

But, while golf from the mid-18th through the nineteenth century, is relatively well-documented, earlier evidence is sparse, and in most cases, interpretive. When we attempt to plumb the darkness that surrounds early Scottish golf, we are confronted with a total dearth of artwork, exacerbated by the lack of descriptions of how the game was played. Scotland's first picture showing golf, 'A View of St Andrews from the Old Course' dates to c.1750, whereas our earliest, precisely-detailed continental European artwork of a golf-like game is c. 1450.

Even putting to a hole, relentlessly reiterated by the Caledonian golf establishment as the distinguishing feature of their game, is illustrated in Flanders, as early as 1480.


We know that in 1460, the term 'gol(f)-staff' appeared in a Scottish translation of the Book of Alexander, but the game in question wasn't golf, but rather, the rough and tumble hockey-like game often played in churchyards, forbidden in 1457 by James II. The numerous Scottish interdictions of the churchyard games of 'golf' and shinty, appear to have addressed a single game, possibly played with two different types of clubs. Part of the problem confronting researchers is semantics. The word 'golf' encompassed two radically different types of games played at opposite ends of the social spectrum. One (the workers favourite), played in churchyards, was a mad dog, foaming with gratuitous violence. Accounts of deaths inflicted by 'golf' appear in Breeching (1508), Sterling (1561), and Kelso (1632). David Hamilton writes of a 1639 incident in Falkirk, in which the victim had been struck with a '...golfclub and bleding of him thairwith upone the face'.

While blood flowed on churchyard stones, the royalty, aristocracy and eventually, merchants, professionals, clerics and army officers, had taken up the Golden Lab variant, a social game played without physical opposition. We can only guess at its exact nature, but documentation suggests a short game, possibly played with soft balls and shinty sticks, and a long game with artisan-made equipment, which Hamilton labels, 'Noble Golf'.


Our research into the origins and nature of early Scottish golf reveals a tentative evolution of an unopposed club and ball game - profoundly influenced by pall-mall, but busy developing its own quite distinct character. Until the 20th century, golf was in a constant state of flux, punctuated by major changes in equipment, courses and swing technique.

From the earliest documentation of a Scottish golf-like game around 1500, until the mid-18th century, there was never a 'smoking gun' moment when the observer could say, 'There it is! That's finally golf!' On the contrary, the game inched its way towards an unidentified goal, gradually coalescing as, with the help of historical and contemporary models, it adopted, changed and discarded equipment; modified the manner in which it was played and fiddled with its structure until a satisfying sport emerged that was compatible with the local landscape, climate, laws and customs, technological competence, economics and recreational tastes of the Scots.

Our difficulty is that we have to define exactly what makes golf. Would golf have been golf when played to a stone or stick stuck in the ground or a mark on a tree trunk? Did the scoring shot have to be a rolled putt, or could it have been the chip of Dutch IJskolf, or the scooped and hurled 'putt' of pall-mall? When contested by eight or more on a side, was it golf? If only played over two holes, or as many as 22, was that golf? Did the game require multi-clubs to receive its appellation, or was a single club enough? Were either the early short variant or long-driving contests, truly golf? Can the nebulous, ad hoc game, played until 1744 without commonly agreed rules, be considered golf?

A Game of Boules, Northern France, early 16th century, Ms. Douce 275.
A Game of Boules, Northern France, early 16th century, Ms. Douce 275. Note the feather used as a target goal, a practice documented in golf at Westward Ho!, England, 350 years later. (Artwork courtesy Bodleian Library, Oxford University, and Golf Through the Ages)

The questions outnumber the answers. Most of Scottish golf's historic watersheds are simply un-recorded. At the time they occurred, innovations were no more than new twists to make an established game more enjoyable or to confront some aspect of play which hadn't been encountered before. Imagine an eight-ball match, outward bound towards the Eden Estuary, suddenly discovering that a favourite target tree had been cut down for firewood. In the absence of other physical features to serve as the 'hole', wouldn't they - in the manner of the Dutch in ball throwing contests - simply decide to cut a hole in the ground with a knife and play to it?

The next problem would have been how to mark the hole so that it could be seen when playing an approach shot. On the beaches of Westward Ho! Devon, historic accounts refer to the use of gull feathers to mark holes, a target known to have been used in medieval boules.

Flag sticks or something similar, would have been the next stage in that particular evolution. As in the development of other club and ball games we have studied, particularly in the hands of the people, golf would, out of necessity, become a game of innovation with an elastic structure. It had to be affordable, accessible and enjoyable. Elements not meeting these criteria would have been ruthlessly eliminated, replaced with others that did. Today, we are only aware of those features that survived the passage of time to become integrated into the structure of the game. Even these, such as the stymie rule - the highlight of countless matches - was, to the great regret of many traditionalists, deleted in 1951.

In today's commercial atmosphere, even the ancient, traditional, characteristics of golf are vulnerable to the whims of big business.


Exactly when the hole appeared as the target goal of Scottish golf is unknown. First evidence of play to a hole is found in a Latin text for Aberdeen school boys, published in 1636. Even the origin of the verb 'putt' is unclear. Writers who have argued Dutch origins for the word are simply dabbling in historical sophistry. The word 'putt' was not used in any ball game played in the Netherlands. In fact, for years, the Scottish game used the verb, 'tip' to describe putting. We are equally ignorant about the emergence of the first purpose-built course, where it was and how many holes it may have had. The first appearance of man-made hazards is another mystery, as is the beginning of multi-club play. Even the date of the introduction of the feather ball, which dominated play for at least two centuries, is unknown.

The earliest account of Scottish golf comes from a Lord High Treasurer entry dated, September 21, 1502, detailing disbursements for the athletic, 29-year-old King James IV: 'Item the xxi day of September to the bower (bowmaker) of Sanct Johnstoun (Perth) for clubbes xiiij (14) shillings.' Unfortunately, the Treasurer's accounts provide neither details of how the game was played nor its equipment. The use of the word 'clubbes' neither confirms nor refutes the possibility that the king was playing a multi-club game. Perhaps early clubs were fragile and subject to breakage. Maybe James ran a rental service for his noble guests.

It is most likely that the inspiration for a long variety of golf came directly from the Flemish single-club game of colf, illustrated as a cross-country game from about 1505. As well as a substantial migration of Flemings to Scotland - in particular, St Andrews - Scottish diplomats, merchants, agents and bankers all maintained ties to their counterparts across the 'German Sea', and would have been aware of the popular recreations of their amiable, ballgame-mad trading partners. Flanders was, as well, a traditional exporter of finished goods to Scotland. 'Noble Golf', the antithesis of the game played by the poorer class, may simply have been colf, adapted to Scottish soil.

Further entries in 1503, less than a year after the king's first recorded purchase of clubs, reveal the continuation of an ancient French tradition of playing a peaceful club and ball game as an adjunct to Candlemas, the celebration of the purification of the Virgin Mary. February 3, James on a visit to Falkland Castle, is recorded to have played a game of golf with the Earl of Bothwell in which he lost 'iij Franch crounis' (three French crowns, or forty-two shillings). A later entry confirms that as in France, the game was played to celebrate the arrival of spring and Candlemas.

Only two days later on February 5, royal accounts record, 'an item, for golf clubbes and balles to the King that he played with', which cost nine shillings. James, no doubt, was already hooked and convinced that if only he had the right equipment his permanent companion off the tee - a life-threatening slice - would disappear. And, that so-and-so Bothwell, was hitting 'em 100 ells down the middle, as straight as a falcon's dive. A new custom-made clubbe was the only answer. We can only guess at the bower's sales pitch:

'See here your Majesty, I just bought a fine auld batch of St Rules yew saplings for shafts (the only thing whippier is a River Dee lamprey) and a bale of baby peacock down for stuffing the featheries. High compression? Drop one on an oak floor and it'll still be bouncing when you finish your port and join the ladies. Trust me, Jimmy, you'll hit it a league.'

It is unlikely that Falkland, the vacation resort of the Stuart kings, had a golf course per se, but it would surely have had adequate parkland to permit an ad hoc game, perhaps played in the manner of mail à la chicane, with selected trees and stones as target goals. The major step needed to transform early target golf into the game we know today - the establishment of permanent courses broken down into stages, each terminating in a scoring shot - was still a good two centuries away.

There is no record that any purpose-built course existed in Scotland earlier than the eighteenth century. Rather, play as at Falkland Castle, was on private parkland or estates, or surfaces such as the common land set aside near all towns for recreation - sometimes on the low, sandy land separated from the sea by dunes, known as links. St Andrews University conserves a parchment manuscript dated January 25, 1552, signed 'Jhon Archybyshop' (John [Hamilton] Archbishop), incorporating a concept of common property reserved for, among other activities, the practice of sport by the citizens of St Andrews, ultimately to be manifested in golf and the Old Course. A diary kept by a James Melville, a student at the university from 1569-1574, shows that he and his classmates played golf there.

Pall Mall à la Chicane. Detail from a painting by Paul Bril, 1624. Note the caddie with a reserve of balls and long lève, which performed the functions of 'putter', indicating the line, and marking a ball. The player is clearly teeing his boule.
(Artwork courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Fine Arts, and Golf Through the Ages)


More important to our hypothesis of what early Scottish golf may have been, is a document in which Mary Queen of Scots is cited by her half-brother, James Stewart, the Earl of Moray, to have played ball games a few days after the death of her husband, Lord Darnley - claiming that she 'indulged in sports that were clearly unsuitable to women'. Moray specified in the Articles he put before the Westminster Commissioners on 6 December 1658 (here translated into modern English) 'Staying at Holyroodhouse for a few days after the murder, she then went to Seton, taking exercise one day right openly in the fields with pall-mall and golf, and at night clearly dallying ('abusing her body') with Bothwell'.

Well, in Scotland pall-mall (and dallying) may have been considered unsuitable for women, but in France, where Mary was raised in the household of King Henri II and his wife, Catherine de Medicis, it certainly wasn't. Henri had malls constructed at their various residences and both he and his queen (a break-neck horsewoman) were passionate players of the game of mallet and ball. Linking the two games is proof that this 'golf' variant would have been suitable for a Queen. Since Mary was seen playing both games, they must have had specific characteristics that lent them a distinct identity and made them equally appealing. Both were played in the fields near Seton Castle, which tells us that the pall-mall variant was mail à la chicane (the cross-country game), and the golf variant, long, or 'Noble Golf'.

The fundamental differences between the two games lay in the playing equipment. Pall-Mall used a mallet and heavy wooden ball to produce a skimming shot where roll was the determinant of distance. Golf moved away from this to a light club and complimentary ball that produced a long, high shot, where carry determined distance. The swing technique and the concept of playing without opposition to a pre-determined goal in the fewest number of strokes were common to both games. When the first set of written rules for golf was published in Edinburgh in 1744, they clearly reflected their source, the pre-1650 Les Loix de Paillemail (The Laws of Pall-Mall), and adopted many clauses almost literally.

We don't know when the concept of multiple clubs was introduced into Scottish golf, but since pall-mall mallets had different lofts at each end of the clubhead, and a separate lofter (lève) for scoring shots, it wouldn't have taken long for the bawbee to drop. Perhaps they were already on hand in 1624, when King James I/VI, in the best of family tradition, played golf at Royston and dropped a bundle to his opponent, Sir Robert Deale at 'Goff'. On December 7 in the same year, Sackville Crowe of Braested, Kent, keeper of the Duke of Buckingham's Privy Purse, recorded, 'Paid to the Goffman for Balles and Battes, £1 5s 0d'. The term 'Goffman' is indicative of an artisan club and ball maker/cum professional, or perhaps, in the mould of pall-mall, an attendant responsible for playing equipment. The term 'battes' for clubs, was in vogue in the eighteenth century.


A spur Iron from about 1690.During the 17th century, we find the first mention of an iron rescue club - a crude, sturdy tool used for recoveries from rock and shingle - often fatal lies for the longnose, with its slender, spliced neck. The first such clubs, known as a spur irons, were blacksmith-made with long hosels, massive iron heads and a squared off toe. The decision to use the rescue club must have been pure torment for the frugal Scots, since striking a feathery on its cover with an iron meant the end of an expensive ball. Worse yet, the ball had to be holed out before it could be replaced. Still the concept of multiple clubs had arrived. A manuscript entry in 1627, records, 'Bunker clubis, a irone club, and twa play clubis (drivers) of my awin', and in 1663, 'For mending bunker club 1s 6d'.

Frontispiece of Vocabula by David Wedderburn, Edinburgh 1713.
Frontispiece of Vocabula by David Wedderburn, Edinburgh 1713. Although first published in 1636, there are no copies extant of the original edition.
(Courtesy National Library of Scotland, and Golf Through the Ages)

In 1636, a lively Latin-English phrase book modelled on Pieter van Afferden's Tyrocinium linguae Latinae (1552), was published in Aberdeen. To make Latin more palatable to his wards, the author and schoolmaster, David Wedderburn, created dialogues about ball games, including golf. One passage reads:
Immissa est pila in Foveam - the ball is goated (possibly in a ditch).
Cedo baculum ferreum - let's have the bunkard club (probably a heavy iron with a concave face, or a spur iron, both made by armourers or blacksmiths).

In the vocabulary of early golf, a bunker did not mean sand-filled bunkers or traps, but, rather was a generic term to describe all features of the course except for the 'hole green' (putting green) and the 'fair green' (fairway).

By 1691, multi-club play seemed to be well-established. Olive Geddes, drawing on National Library archives, writes that on April 27, 1691, John Mackenzie received a letter from his friend, Alexander Monro, a Regent at St Andrews University, informing him that he had dispatched to him 'ane Sett of Golfe-Clubs'. A century later, Hoyle defined the standard set: '...the Common Club used when the ball lies on good Ground; the Scraper and Half Scraper, when in long Grass; the Spoon, when in the hollow; the Heavy Iron Club, when it lies deep among Stones or Mud; and the Light Iron ditto, when in the Surface of chingle or sandy'.

The golfers' search for suitable courses was rarely as successful as at Aberdeen. A 1661 account by Parson James Gordon describes the idyllic ground reserved for Aberdeen players: 'Upon the east syd of the citie and of Futtie' (today, 'Footdie' or 'Fittie" is an old fishing village at the east end of Aberdeen Harbour) ther lyes many fair fields near the sea side called the Lynks. Thes are marched by the feilds near the sea side called the Lynks. The most remarkable among thes is the fair plaine called the Queens Lynks, the reason for the name unknown. The Lynks extend themselves almost between the two rivers Done and Dee. Heer the inhabitants recreat themselves with severall kinds of exercise, such as foot ball, Goffe, bowling and archerie'.

It didn't take long for men (with the exception of the 19th century fisherwives of Musselburgh, golf was a masculine preserve) to band together in clubs and play matches with like-minded souls - often meeting in taverns near the links, where the round could be celebrated and wagers laid on future challenges. The hearty, often boisterous atmosphere did much to foster the spirit of golf. Tobias Smollett wrote of the Leith Links Old Guard: 'Among others I was shewn one particular set of golfers, the youngest of whom was turned of fourscore: they were all gentlemen of independent fortunes, who had amused themselves with this pastime for the best part of a century without having ever felt the least alarm from sickness or disgust; and they never went to bed without having each the best part of a gallon of claret in his belly.' Despite the quantity of claret consumed, club spirit (and eternal optimism) was captured in the toast proposed by the Captain of Muirfield Golf Club: "Stiff shafts and hard ba's".

Putting on a mid-19th-century green. Attended by fashionably dressed caddies, three men putt on a green that would, today, be considered heavy rough.
(Photos courtesy of Grant Books, Worcestershire, and Golf Through the Ages)

Clubs, until the mid-19th century, the preserve of 'gentlemen', provided an ideal venue for men with a passion for golf. Their members - all from the same social caste - nurtured ideas, refined rules, and encouraged competition (within their peer group) through regular contests; the winners often rewarded with splendid trophies. They also exchanged tips on technique such as high approach shots with a spoon. David Stirk notes the player had to 'baff' the ball, striking the ground just behind it causing the lofted clubhead to bounce up and forward sending the ball into flight. Poetry of the 'Roial Society O'Gowffers', at North Berwick in 1831, gives us a taste of early golfers' skills: 'The next stroke - a prime ane! - the ba' deeply doon/Is lifted out nately by help o' the spoon'.


In 1744, the urge to measure their mettle against the rest of the golfing world led Leith Golfing Society, later known as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, to stage a Scottish amateur open tournament restricted to 'Noblemen or Gentlemen, or other golfers from any part of Great Britain or Ireland'. There was, however, a problem that first had to be solved. Despite some 200 years of play, golfers still lacked a code of rules to govern the rigorous and infinitely varied long game contested on the links, where lost and damaged balls, broken clubs, grazing animals and their dung, burns and whins, sticks and stones, rabbit holes and scrapes, all influenced the outcome of scores and matches. The Honourable Gentlemen hastily hammered together 'The Thirteen Articles', rules which provided a common base for contesting the game. This was a vital step forward; one that provided the legitimacy and structure necessary to move golf from the realms of an interpretive ad hoc fringe sport, to an established recreation capable of being contested not just on a regional basis, but, even internationally.

Increasingly, the gentry realised that the caddies who carried for them - the first professionals - were often talented players in their own right, in fact, a damn sight better than they themselves and their peer group. Within a short time, high-stake wagers on matches between caddies were established, with the winner, while not sharing the purse, was still rewarded - sometimes handsomely - for his victory. Having established that the caddie/professional was not only a superior golfer, but sometimes exhibited signs of human behaviour and traits of intelligence that gentlemen believed were a monopoly of their class invested by a Divine Power, noblemen took another audacious step and arranged Pro-Am, best ball matches within their clubs, in which the professional partner shared the purse.

The timing was right. Not only had Victorian prosperity (despite all attempts by their betters) trickled down to the working class, but tradesmen, proud of their skills and their vital role in the Industrial Revolution, asserted their rights to a lifestyle and institutions that emulated those of their betters, albeit, on a far more modest scale. One of these, fundamental to the development of the game and its exportation, was the golf club. September 29, 1843, the most famous of them all, St Andrews Golf Club, was founded. As Eric Clark tells us, its 11 original members, mostly tradesmen, '...included a Dancing Master and a Butler (George Morris, brother of Tom). At that time, a feather ball cost around 2/- (10p) and a day labourer might earn 1/6. Golf was not a poor man's game and our first members were men of some substance'.

Portrait of John Whyte-Melville by Sir Francis Grant, captain of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club. The St Andrews Swing, first illustrated in Horace Hutchinson, Golf, The Badminton Library of Sports, 1890.
Portrait of John Whyte-Melville by Sir Francis Grant, captain of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, painted 1874, with Swilcan Burn and the R&A clubhouse in the background. Note the twoman action cleaning the burn, then still fed by tides.

(Art courtesy the R&A, and Golf Through the Ages)
The St Andrews Swing, first illustrated in Horace Hutchinson, Golf, The Badminton Library of Sports, 1890. The swing was characterised by a dipped left knee, crooked left, and flying right, elbows. Designed for playing a low draw on Scottish links, it was hopelessly at sea abroad. Still, it was all the Scottish pros knew, thus it became dogma.
(Courtesy of Golf Through The Ages)

The founder members were soon joined by Allan Robertson, the finest golfer in the first half of the 19th century, and his friend and successor, Tom Morris. Allan's inspiration and fiery competitiveness set the club on the path to championship dominance, while Old Tom's example (four Open titles) and guidance saw to it that players associated with St Andrews Golf Club would win 20 Open Championships between 1860 and 1902.

Scots, and particularly St Andrews professionals, became a watchword wherever golf was played - even if their instructions could rarely be understood by their eager pupils. The game and its popularity spread rapidly. By the late-19th century, golf's beachhead in Canada and the United States, became a full fledged invasion, fervently adopted by high society.

Two feather-filled balls, or featheries, somewhat the worse for wear.
Two feather-filled balls, or featheries, somewhat the worse for wear.
(Photo courtesy of Harry Valérian. Published inGolf, Fazination eines Weltsports and Golf Through The Ages)

Despite the best effort of the magnates who sought a monopoly on early golf in America, the fertile, meritocratic soil saw the gates stormed and the game wrenched from the hands of a wealthy few, to become truly a sport of the people.

By the beginning of the 20th century, America had developed the best golf ball the game had ever seen, while mass producing first-class clubs - some of which were shipped back to the Cradle of Golf. Within another decade, there were more players in the United States than the United Kingdom. By the 1920s, the former colony had even begun to dominate matches with their golfing ancestors from Britain.

In many ways, it was an astonishing denouement to golf's centuries-long Odyssey. But today, wherever golf is played, its soul remains in Scotland. We smell the faint salty tang of links flowers and grasses; hear the skirl of pipes; sense gulls hovering over wind-swept dunes and the muted click of golden beech on pristine featheries.

Michael Flannery is the author of 'Golf Through The Ages • 600 Years of Golfing Art' and a member of St Andrews Golf Club


Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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