Jim Henderson, author of From Arran to Canada, One Way, has begun new research, this time into the history of golf on Arran. It’s a story that goes back much further than you might think, and we at the Voice are finding it fascinating. Jim’s introduction to the subject follows, and he will add to the history in subsequent issues of the Voice.
The sport of golf has been part of the Scottish scene for over 600 years but on Arran it has only been played for around 125 years, partly because its hilly terrain was not easy to sculpt into golf courses. However, this very fact makes Arran’s golf particularly attractive, and over the past 60 years it has become one of the island’s main tourist attractions, a sport participated in by people of all abilities and ages.
There have been many claims about the origins of golf. Scholars and historians have argued about it for a long time, both here and in the Netherlands, which has a strong claim to have been in at the start. The name of it, at least, is clear. ‘Golf’ derives from the Scottish word, ‘gowff’ a verb meaning ‘to hit’. And golf as a Scottish institution was born on the dunes that form the machair of Fife near St Andrews. Before that, however, lies a long history.
In the late 14th century sailing craft were pursuing a regular trade between the East coast of Scotland and Holland. The Scots exported wool - the one commodity they had in abundance - usually through the port of Bruges, which was the centre of the medieval wool trade. There, raw wool was woven into fine cloth and luxurious tapestries. Many enterprising Scots, using gold and silver as their currency, settled in Holland, enjoying the fact that merchants from across Europe were beginning to ask for Melrose wool by name. Scottish exports expanded to include raw materials such as coal, salt, malt, hides, skins, tallow and salmon, but Scotland was still a place of primary products, and manufacturing had not started, and there was a strong demand for manufactured goods of luxuries of every kind. The Scottish traders were acutely aware of this, and rolled up their sleeves to supply it. The Bank of Scotland was founded as a branch of the Bank of Amsterdam, and the ships that went back to Scotland’s east coast catered for the growing demand for luxury goods. Stowed in the holds along with much else were barrels of small wooden balls, Golf was being played in Scotland, and the Dutch golf balls were a much better quality than the ones produced locally.
There was a lively exchange of people, too. People from the Low Countries had been settling in Scotland ever since the Dutch princess Mathilda married the Scottish king, David I, during the Dark Ages, and by the 15th century there was a sharing of customs and ideas - and sports. The Dutch, with their abundance of flat seaside land, had been playing a form of golf for many years, but it was the Scots, with their unstoppable tendency to think they could do things better, who started to improve the sport. Scottish craftsmen began making weighted clubs that could more accurately strike a ball towards a mark placed in the ground. It was not long before they replaced the marks with holes, and the equipment they designed helped to establish golf as we know the sport today.
In 1411 St Andrews University was founded. A form of ‘gowff’ had long been played among the local sand dunes, but lecturers and professors, we can presume, were quick to improve the crude old game, using improved clubs and balls. Between.1424 and 1437, records show that King James 1st of Scotland was spending a considerable amount of money on golf equipment.
Twenty years later, in 1457, King James 2nd, who was evidently not such a keen sportsman, banned ‘gowff’ because it was interfering with his troops’ archery practice, but the sport kept going. At first it was exclusively for men, but in 1567 Mary Queen of Scots changed all that, and was the first woman to have been recorded as playing the sport. Her English counterpart, Queen Elizabeth, probably did not know the sport existed, but after her death in 1603 James V1 of Scotland became James I of England, and he took the game of golf south. It caught on fast, no doubt because of its royal patronage, and the first club in England was formed at Blackheath only five years later, in 1608.
Golf has never been a cheap sport. Unlike football, which started as the competitive kicking of an inflated bladder down any handy village street, golf depends on good, well-made equipment. In the early years of the sport the number of people able to participate in it was limited by the cost. Clubs made with wooden shafts were easily broken, as were the expensive wooden balls. ‘Featherie’ or ‘feathery’ balls were invented in 1618 and used through the 17th century, but these, too, came at a price. They consisted of a hand-sewn round leather pouch stuffed with chicken or goose feathers and coated with paint, usually white in colour - a time-consuming business. Even the most experienced maker could only produce a few balls in one day, and so they were expensive. A single ball would cost between 2 shillings and 5 shillings, which would be £15 to £25 today.
Arran knew none of this, for golf did not become established on the island until 1889 - but it caught up quickly, and by the time the First World War broke out in 1914, there were 10 golf courses being played on the Island.