Battles Lost But A Game Won The Illustrious History of Scottish Golf

By Malcolm Campbell,

The Royal and Ancient game had been flourishing on the links of Scotland long before Mary Queen of Scots found herself severely rebuked for playing golf at Seton House disrespectfully soon after the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley, in 1567.

It is known that golf was played at St. Andrews before the founding of the University there in 1411, and there is sufficient evidence to make a safe assumption that it was being played there in one form or another maybe even a century before that.

"jeu de mail"


The history of the game as we know it today is therefore contained within the record of Scottish golf. There have been counter-evolutionary claims in Europe, principally by the French and the Dutch but the cases are essentially flawed.
The Dutch cite the club and ball game of "kolven" as evidence of their claim; the French "jeu de mail". They stand as nothing but imposters for both lacked the single, simple element which makes golf unique - the hole.

Golf stands alone in that the object of the exercise is to propel a ball across a course liberally littered with obstacles designed to prevent that accomplishment, from a starting point where the ball is balanced in mid-air to another point at which it finishes below ground.

The hole is the vital factor in separating golf from the other club and ball games, and it was the Scots who introduced it.

As such, it was national pastime more than 400 years before Bonnie Prince Charlie fled in defeat from Culloden in 1746 and long, too, before another ignominious Scots' defeat at the hands of the English in 1513, when they lost their king and the flower of their noble families at the Battle of Flodden Field.

Indeed, it is not difficult to make a case that golf was a contributing factor in the latter of these two merciless reverses.

At Flodden, the Scots were no match for the English archers in the first assault and were eventually routed. It was only a matter of 50 years earlier that King James II of Scotland had been so concerned that golf was adversely interfering with archery practice that he banned the game in the Scottish Act of Parliament of 1457 - the first documented reference to today's game. Golf was also banned by James III in 1471.

James III Banned golf for the second time by Royal Decree.

Marquis of Montrose A keen player, is credited with bringing golf to his town.

There is every evidence the Scots took no notice whatsoever of the ban and that archery practice continued to decline. Subsequent bans were introduce only to be just as widely ignored. And on Flodden Field the ability to hit the long running draw was simply no substitute for prowesss with bow and arrow. The nation's collective ability to play golf had clearly grown in equal proportion to the decline in its ability as marksmen.

How golf actually originated will remain a mystery. It is a subject which has taxed the brains and research of eminent and learned men, but no irrefutable evidence has been found. One theory, and it is as good as any other so far put forward, is that fishermen on the east coast of Scotland invented the game to amuse themselves as they returned home from their boats.

What would be more natural than for a young fisherman, making his way across the rolling stretches of fine turf among the sand dunes, to pick up a crooked stick of driftwood and aim a blow at a pebble? If he knocked the pebble forward, the competitive instinct in man would demand that he hit it again to see if he could send it further.

If the pebble rolled into a sandy hollow where sheep had huddled for shelter against the icy blast, he would have been playing from the first bunker. It then requires no great leap of the imagination to develop that scene into a game between competing fishermen played across the links from boat to village, finishing at the same point each time, perhaps close to the local hostelry. If the pebble when last struck fell into a rabbit hole, then the game of golf would certainly have been "invented" and the forerunner of the 19th hole along with it.

As to where the game was first played in Scotland, there can only be conjecture. Much of the early evidence of golf in Scotland is found in Kirk Session (church court) records in the 16th and 17th centuries. In many parts of Scotland's east coast, parishioners were being punished for playing golf "at the time of the preaching of the Sermon". At St. Andrews in 1599, miscreants were fined small sums for the first two offenses before the use of "the repentance pillar". After that the culprits were "deprived of office" - excommunicated!

During the 16th century the game became firmly established on the east coast of Scotland and began to spread further afield. By this time the game had gained respectability among the highest levels of society in the land and was certainly played by James VI of Scotland before he acceded to the English throne as James I in 1603.

His mother, Mary Queen of Scots, as we have already seen, was a committed player. We know that she played golf with one of her attendants, Mary Seton, because the queen lost a match against her and presented her conqueror with a still famous necklace.

Mary Queen of Scots on her way to the first tee.

But royal interest in the game goes back further even than that. Golf was played as far north as Montrose and had moved inland to Perth by the beginning of the 16th century, probably taken there by King James IV, grandson of the Scottish King who had tried to ban the game.

James IV, in his turn, tried to stop the Scots playing golf, but eventually he was converted to the game. By 1501 his treasurer had paid 14 shilling to a bowmaker in Perth to supply clubs. From then onwards there was a series of bills paid from the royal coffers for golf balls, and even for his lost bets. There is one account of the royal treasurer having to pay the Earl of Bothwell 14 shillings the King had lost in a wager on golfing combat somewhere out on the links.

It was the royal influence that helped the spread of the game throughout the country and, ultimately, to its export further afield. The earliest centres of golf all had associations with royalty or, in the case of St. Andrews, the two other influential pillars of Scots society - education and the Chruch. St. Andrews is Scotland's oldest seat of learning and it was also a powerful Church stronghold.

Scotland's capital, Edinburgh, was the headquarters of the court and golf blossomed around the city aided by royal patronage. There were roayl palaces also at Dunfermline and Perth and they, too, developed strong golf connections.

The Bishop of Galloway is credited with the spread of the game to the south-west of the country, probably through court connections. The Marquis of Montrose was another keen player, which may well account for the town having its early links with golf.

By the start of the 17th century, golf was actively pursued from the south-east of the country to as far north as the remote and windswept Orkney Islands.

Despites its popularity, it was another 150 years before efforts were made to bring organisation to the game of golf. The first stirring of this desire for a formal structure was seen during the 17th century when the development of a universally accepted set of rules were formed.

The earliest club for which there documented proof is the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith, later to become the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, instituted in 1744, when the first ball was attached to a silver club donated by the Edinburgh City Council. The first winner, John Rattray, was declared Captain of the Golf and it became tradition for the winner of the silver club to be Captain the next year.

That is why today the Captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, who is now elected by a committee of former captains, has to "play himself in" at the start of the club's autumn medal competition in September. To preserve the tradition of the winner being captain for the year, he is the only competitor in the event and once he has struck his first stroke he automatically becomes the winner. A cannon sounds to mark the start of the medal and with it the Captain's victory, and the caddie who retrieves the captain's ball after his drive is presented with a gold sovereign.

The R & A purchased its silver club in 1754 as the Society of St. Andrews Golfers but was granted the title Royal and Ancient by King William IV in 1834.

The latter part of the 19th century saw the major development of the game in Scotland, with the construction of many new courses. The development of the rail network, was a contributing factor, but it was the arrival of the gutta percha ball, around 1880, that was the single major factor in the explosion of the popularity of the game both in Scotland and further afield.

The feathery consisted of a horse or bull-hide cover stuffed with feathers.

Early clubs were as much a place to drink vast quantities of claret. It is no surprise then that the Open Championship Trophy is a claret jug. Early caddies carried their player's clubs in their arms. Later crude bags were fashioned, making the caddie's job a lot easier.

Until then a leather pouch laboriously filled with boiled goose feathers had served as the ball. They were expensive to make, easily damaged and very few could afford them. The arrival of the gutty ball, made from rubber which could be heated and formed into a ball, revolutionized the game and allowed its spread to the masses. The early clubs were as much a place to eat and drink vast quantities of claret as they were for the more healthful pursuit of golf. It is no coincidence that the Open Championship trophy is a claret jug, and it would be hard to find an exception to the rule that the majority of golf clubs were formed by small groups of like-minded souls brought together in drinking and eating establishments of one sort or another.

Once the clubs were formed, members could more easily combine their appetites for all three activities.

Perhaps little has substantially changed in the last 250 years.

Reprinted with permission from Scotland Golf.

July 16, 1999

Comments Leave a comment
  • Cadet Mary of the Scots

    Daniela wrote on: Oct 8, 2011

    It is possible that golf pointed the collar gift of Mary of the Scots to start the Order ...Thistle! the later copy of More »


  • Mary of the Scots guard and Cadet

    Daniela wrote on: Oct 8, 2011

    If remember good Mary of the Scots lived for a while in France and later married there and not sure when after her More »


  • Malcolm Campbell, Golf Writer

    Michael Vallenari wrote on: Jul 18, 2010

    Hello: I had the pleasure of playing St Andrews and being the guest of Malcolm for lunch at the R&A about 5yrs ago. More »


  • hole on the putting green

    Rena Orlando wrote on: Sep 17, 2009

    I would like to know how the size of the putting hole was determined. Your article was very good. Thank you


  • Oldest Club in the World

    Paul Whittaker wrote on: Jul 13, 2009

    The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers is NOT the oldest club in the world. This accolade belongs to the Royal More »


      • RE: European claims

        geert nijs wrote on: Nov 5, 2010

        Campbell is distorting the truth of golf history.
        Looking on his bookshelves, he will find Anglo-Saxon authors , not More »