۞ World
  North America
  South America
The Game Curling Organizations Curling Clubs and Rinks Event Calendars Archives
    CURLING: The Game For All Ages and Abilities


It is difficult to describe the history of curling without using the word 'evolution'. The game has evolved over many hundreds of years. It continues to change. Curling is not the same game as it was even twenty years ago. The sliding delivery and the takeout game have been the important developments in recent years, and these new trends and styles of play, together with improvements in equipment and in making ice, emphasise that the sport is still in the process of evolution!

It is likely that curling has its origins in Scotland, in the early part of the sixteenth century, as a primitive game of quoits on ice. Major events such as the introduction of rounded stones, of artificial ice, of playing four-aside, and the discovery of the "curl' or the 'twist', can be chronicled in Scottish curling records. At the same time, one can relate the evolution of the game to improved organisation; from early inter-parish bonspiels to the formation of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club and, more recently, to the establishment of the International Curling Federation and modern world championship play.

But how, and where, did it all start? Research continues to turn up major discoveries about curling's origins to stimulate fresh interest and controversy.

In 1976, some old documents, including certain protocol books, were discovered in the safe-keeping of a long-established law firm and were deposited in the Scottish Records Office. John Durkan, Research Fellow in the Department of Scottish History of the University of Glasgow, used them to glean new information about the pre-Reformation Paisley Abbey and the lifestyle of the Abbey's inhabitants in the sixteenth century. One of the protocol books, that of notary John McQuhin, contained an unusual entry. It was, apparently, a record of a 'curling challenge' put up by one of the monks, John Sclater, to Gavin Hamilton, who had recently arrived as lay governor of the Abbey. So unusual was this information that it quickly came to the attention of Sheriff David Smith - Scotland's principal curling historian. David brought the new evidence of curling's antiquity to the public attention in an article in the Scotsman in December 1977.

The protocol books are hand-written in Latin and it is perhaps fortunate that our Scottish historian is also a classical scholar and expert at deciphering old hand-written manuscripts. David translates McQuhin's entries as follows:

    February 6, 1540-41, Sclater went to the ice which was between the orchard and the
    late Abbot's room and there threw a stone along the ice three times, asserting that
    he was ready to carry out what had been promised on the first day of Gavin's arrival
    concerning a contest of throwing this sort of stone over the ice ... Hamilton, a
    short while later, responded by intimating to Sclater that he would go to the ice
    in the appointed place and that they would there have a contest with stones thrown
    over the ice.

The old protocol books contain no further reference to the challenge. The result is not recorded.

David suggests that the notary's choice of the word cos, cotis for the stones used is of special significance. It is not the usual word for stone and he suggests that perhaps this Latin term was the nearest in sound to the Scots 'coit' (quoit) which was a word used to describe early curling stones, and may have been used in sixteenth-century Paisley.

John Durkan points out that the first recorded curling match was not a friendly game. It was a legally recorded challenge - a means of settling some argument or dispute. He points out that other evidence suggests that Gavin Hamilton was not popular. But a monk could hardly challenge his Abbot's representative to a duel.

The game of 'kuting' or 'coiting' with 'kuting stanes' or 'coits' were Scottish terms synonymous with 'curling' and 'curling stones' for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Yet it is the latter, modern words which are found in the first literary mention of the game in a work by Henry Adamson called The Muses Threnodie, or, Mirthful Mournings on the Death of Master Gall, published in 1639. Adamson had written a two-part poem in 1620 after a young merchant friend, James Gall, had died of tuberculosis. Although 'curling stones' are mentioned twice in the text, 'curling' features as one of Gall's accomplishments in Adamson's preface. This important part of the reference escaped the notice of curling historians for many years, presumably because of the scarcity of the original work.

    James Gall ... was much given to pastime, as golf, archerie, CURLING; and
    Joviall companie.

A hundred and fifty years pass before we can read anything of how the game of curling was played. During this time curling stones changed from small 'loofies' with just a niche for the fingers to grasp; to large boulders taken from the river to which were affixed crude iron handles; to rounded stones which had seen the mason's attentions. The game was evolving!

That first description of a game of curling is in a poem by James Graeme in 1773. Sweeping played a part in the game even then!

    The goals are marked out; the centre each
    Of a large random circle; distance scores
    Are drawn between, the dread of weakly arms
    Firm on his cramp-bits stands the steady youth
    Who leads the game: low o'er the weighty stone
    He bends incumbent, and with nicest eye
    Surveys the further goal, and in his mind
    Measures the distance; careful to bestow
    Just force enough; then, balanc'd in his hand
    he flings it on direct; it glides along
    Hoarse murmuring, while, plying hard before,
    Full many a besom sweeps away the snow
    Or icicle, that might obstruct its course ....

By the beginning of the nineteenth century the game had become extremely popular in Scotland. In 1811, the Reverend John Ramsay of Gladsmuir wrote the first history of curling. It's entitled An Account of the Game of Curling, and the author does not refer to himself by name, but only as a 'member of the Duddingston Curling Society'. It is Ramsay who first suggests that curling might not have had its origins in Scotland!

    We have, indeed, no direct evidence that it (curling) ever existed on the continent,
    but we have all the evidence which etymology can give in favour of its continental
    origin. The terms being all Dutch or German, point to the Low Countries as the place
    in which it most probably originated, or, at least, from whence it was conveyed to us.

It was Ramsay's contention that the game of curling had been introduced into Scotland by the Flemings in the late fifteenth century. Indeed, there had been a considerable Flemish immigration at that time.

Ramsay's etymological evidence is not very convincing. The Reverend John Kerr had no doubts in his major text on the subject, The History of Curling, in 1890. He concluded, firstly, that the proportion of words of Teutonic origin in the curling vocabulary had been overestimated and secondly, that even if a great many were Teutonic, it did not follow that the game of curling must have had its origin in the Low Countries.

Ramsay and Kerr might have reacted differently had they known of the existence of 'direct evidence' that a game like curling was played in the Low Countries in the sixteenth century.

The paintings of Pieter Brueghel (c1528-1569) were over-looked by curling historians for many years. "Hunters in the Snow' and 'Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap', both dated 1565, show little figures playing a game on ice that could be a form of 'curling'. And there is another painting which contains a curling-like scene. It is by Jacob Grimmer, one of a small group of landscape painters who followed Brueghel. In his pictures he depicted the country-side and villages around his native Antwerp. "Winter' was painted in 1575 and is on display in the Museaum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary. In contrast to the Brueghel works, which each show five figures engaged in throwing some form of object over the ice, Grimmer's painting has ten figures involved in the game! One is gesticulating, and some of the 'stones' lie on the ice in front of him. Some distance away another figure appears ready to slide an object over the ice. A group of spectators watch the action.

Further evidence for curling in the Low Countries of Europe comes from an engraving by C. van Wieringen (1580-1635). This clearly shows some form of game on ice, apparently with wooden blocks, and besoms or brooms are very much in evidence!

We are left with the inescapable conclusion that in the sixteenth century, people in the countries are now Holland and Belgium did play a game on ice with some similarity to 'curling'. But for some reason, this game did not continue to flourish there as it did in Scotland. Our 'evolutionary' anology becomes appropriate again. The species of curling in the Low Countries of Europe could not adapt to changing conditions .... and became extinct!

At the beginning of the nineteeth century, many curling clubs were formed in different parts of Scotland. Rules were made, and as communications improved, matches between clubs from different districts became more common. This caused problems, too, as in different areas of the country the game had evolved differently - in some places it was customary to play eight-a side, each player having one stone; whereas in others, the format was for four players withntwo stones apiece. In some areas, sweeping by one's team-mates was only allowed after the stone had crossed the far hog, while in other parts of the country one could sweep the stone for the whole length of the rink.

Scottish settlers took the game to Canada in the eighteenth century. The first Canadian curling club was founded in Montreal in 1807. It was almost a hundred years later that Scots curlers took up the challenge to visit Canada and match themselves against the Canadian players. The Reverend John Kerr led a party of 24 Scots on the first transatlantic tour in the winter of 1902-03, and in his record of the tour, Curling in Canada and the United States, many of the Scottish curlers described how differently the game was played in these countries. For a start, the ice was generally good, keen and it was 'pebbled'. The Canadians all played from the hack, whereas the majority of the Scots played off the crampit. Curlers in Canada mostly played the delicate drawing game compared with the 'strong play' of the Scots (!). The vigorous, effective sweeping of the Canadians was often commented upon. It was not long before Scottish curling had adopted these Canadian characteristics.

Even in Canada, two different styles of play had developed. The curlers of Eastern Canada used heavy metal curling stones called 'irons' and were not easily persuaded to the 'granite'. They held on to their game until well into the twentieth century.

But even in the twentieth century, curling continued to evolve separately in Canada and in Scotland. The sliding delivery and the takeout game developed in Canada.

The old met the new in the first Scotch Cup series of matches in 1959. Controversy there was aplenty in Scotland, as the exponents of the new game vanquished the best of the old guard. The conservatives mounted resistance to any rule changes which would assist the development of the new-style play. But such resistance was overcome, and these early Scotch Cup games heralded a modern era of international play. Now, each year, the state of the science is on view in the Silver Broom.

With the International Curling Federation now firmly established, there is little chance that a 'divergent species' of curling will arise. No doubt the game will still continue to change. Such change will arise partly from technological advances, partly from the introduction of new techniques, strategies, and rules, and partly from the improvement of shot-making ability of individual players who strive for perfection in their chosen game.

One thing, hopefully, will remain constant. Let it be that the good sportsmanship, for which curling is renowned, will never be left behind in the sport's continued evolution.

    * Excerpt from ..

      Cowan, Bob. CURLING and the SILVER BROOM.
      Glasgow, Scotland: Richard Drew Publishing Limited, 1985.

Home Page | Terms & Conditions | Contact Us
Copyright Policy | Website Disclaimer | Privacy Policy

Copyright 1996-2014. All Rights Reserved