Standing free; the ancient story of women’s football in Scotland (Part One)

On a warm and sunny day in August 2018 the little green at Carstairs village in South Lanarkshire became the centre of attention for representatives of Scotland’s sports media. They had been invited to attend an event which marked a significant milestone in the history of women’s football in Scotland. The 21st August 2018 marked the 390th anniversary of the first recorded evidence of women playing football in Scotland. It also marked the first record of women playing football anywhere in Europe. Supporting the event that day was Rose Reilly, a pioneer and superstar for the women’s game in Scotland, Vivienne MacLaren, Chair of Scottish Women’s Football, Aileen Campbell, the local constituency MSP, and Karen Fraser, a PhD student from the University of Stirling, who has devoted her academic studies to the history of women’s football in Scotland.

Vivienne MacLaren, Rose Reilly, Aileen Campbell and Karen Fraser mark the 390th anniversary at Carstairs village green

For the past twenty years or so the women’s game has gone through a significant degree of restructuring and expansion which has culminated in significant breakthroughs at club and national team level. A new generation of trailblazers have been created. And yet there is a much older and largely hidden history of the game which is just starting to emerge. Through the research of Dr Jessica MacBeth, Stuart Gibbs, Karen Fraser, Professor Jean Williams, Dr Fiona Skillen, Steve Bolton and many others, a wider understanding of the rich history of women’s football in Scotland, is being reached. Certainly, women played the association game in Scotland from the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century despite having to put up with systematic and institutional discrimination for much of that time. Women’s football was not recognised by the Scottish FA until 1974 and the women’s national team did not come under Scottish FA control until 1998.

As can be attested by the gathering at Carstairs in 2018, it is a story much older than what was once known and one that the current and future generations of devotees to the association and rugby code can look back on with pride. The story starts then on 21st August 1628 with the withering remarks of a kirk minister…

The same day, Mr John Lindsay, minister at Carstairs, having regretted the break of the Sabbath by the insolent behaviour of men and women in footballing, dancing and Barley Breaks, ordains every Brother [Minister] to labour to restrain the foresaid insolence and break of Sabbath, and to that effect to make intimation thereof into their several kirks next Sabbath day.

The minister’s ire was not so much raised by the fact that women were playing football. He appears to be equally concerned with the men. It is more the fact that they chose to play football and indulge in the other activities on the Sabbath day, a day which the Scottish Church of the early seventeenth century expected to be kept solemn and devoted solely to God. It is down to the refusal of the local people of Carstairs village to accept the restrictions placed on them by the kirk that we have this notable early reference.

Move forward 28 years and just a few miles to the south we find the next reference to women playing football. Once again we have the reference thanks to the anger of a local kirk minster. This time, however, it is not the breaking of the Sabbath that causes the upset, but the celebration of a pre reformation festival – ‘Fasting’s Even’ (Fastern’s E’en or Shrove Tuesday). The kirk session minutes from Lamington in Lanarkshire is dated 28th January 1656 and states the following…

The session considering one superstitious and abominable custom that has continued still in this parish, that men and women used promiscuously to play at foot-ball upon Fasting’s even; and also considering what evil and sad consequences has followed there upon, viz. uncleanness, drunkenness, and fighting, they do unanimously discharge and inhibit the sad old superstitious and abominable practice. And hereby makes and ordains, that whatsoever person or persons shall contravene this present act, they shall be censured with the censure of the kirk. And the minister be desired to publish their present act out of pulpit on next Lord’s day, that none pretend ignorance.

The old kirk at Lamington in South Lanarkshire

Whilst I will not pretend that there are lots of early references to women playing football, I do think that the close proximity of both dates (only 28 years apart) and the close proximity of both locations (less than 10 miles as the crow flies) combined with the references to men and women playing football together, may suggest a localised culture based around festivities. The first account takes place on the Sabbath but also happens to be during a period of harvest (the ‘barley break’ referenced in the account is a traditional game which formed part of harvest festivities). The second account links to the traditional Scottish festival of ‘Fasting’s Even’ (Fastern’s E’en).

The first recorded evidence in Scotland of an all-women’s football game can be found in 1786 at Lennel, Coldstream, in the Scottish Borders. An article appearing in the Berwickshire News and General Advertiser in 1889 quotes from an old edition of the Berwick Museum or Monthly Literary Intelligencer. Due to the significance of the information, I have reproduced the full article as it appears within the newspaper,

WOMEN PLAYING FOOTBALL – Football is one of the chief pastimes of the youth of the present day. From history we know that the game is not one of yesterday but has been a favourite out-door amusement for centuries. The general contests, which are still to be witnessed on Shrove Tuesday at Alnwick and elsewhere, enable us to realise very vividly the lively character of these struggles before either Rugby or Association regulations were thought of. But in olden times this game was not played by men alone, but as shared by the gentler sex. After reading the following extract from the Berwick Museum of 1786, we fancy all will admit that our sisters of the present day, “mannish” as they may be, are a great improvement upon those therein described. The extract is thus headed:-

“Petticoats Run Mad: or, The World Turned Topsey-turvey.” – A Real Story.

We are happy to inform the public, through the channel of the Berwick Museum, that the ancient game of football, which seems to be neglected by the men of the present age, is likely to be handed down to posterity by the women; a match at that athletic diversion having been played with uncommon keenness on Ash Wednesday by the jolly wives and buxom lasses of Lennel, Coldstream. Caps, handkerchiefs, petticoats, and every other article of female attire, suffered a general wreck in the hardy contest. Darkness prevented victory being declared on either side; but we are told the parties mean to retake the field on Easter Monday. Our heroines, when daylight no longer served them, retired to the ale-house, where they spent the evening over that exhilarating beverage commonly called a “hot-pot;” not, however, in broils and battles, as is the custom of their lordly masters on such occasions, but with that cordiality and glee so congenial with the gentle feelings of our fair help-mates. So that for that night at least petticoats may be said to have reigned supreme in Lennel.

Several points of interest can be gleaned from the passage from 1786. The first one is the comment that the game was in decline locally amongst the men and that football was ‘likely to be handed down to posterity by the women.’ There therefore appears to have been female pioneers promoting football centuries ago. The second point is that the game took place on a festival day. This time Ash Wednesday, which followed on from Fastern’s E’en. The reference to ‘wives’ and ‘lasses’ may suggest that the teams were divided into married women and single women. As will be seen, this method of dividing players was used in another all-women game from the late eighteenth century period and, for the men, ‘married v single’ contests were also a common sight at annual festivals. The enthusiasm of the players speaks volumes as they only stopped due to the approach of darkness. A final observation is that the 1786 commentary, whilst containing references to ‘Petticoats run mad’ and ‘buxom lasses,’ is actually positive around the staging of the game. There is no criticism of the match being played, and the description of the women collectively taking to the ale-house and deciding to play again on Easter Monday does not so much as raise an eyebrow.

The next example of a football game has been more widely quoted and is therefore better known. It can certainly be viewed in an equal light by way of importance to the game at Lennel. In the Old Statistical Account of Scotland, Reverend Dr Alexander Carlyle, writing in 1795 about the Parish of Inveresk in East Lothian, provides an illuminating account of the community of fish wives based in the coastal port of Fisherrow at Musselburgh. There is a whole section entitled ‘Occupations of Women’, which in the main is devoted to the fish wives. The commentary points to a strong and energetic workforce of women who command a great deal of authority within the wider community as well as within their households. The minister states that,

As they do the work of men, their manners are masculine, and their strength and activity is equal to their work. Their amusements are of the masculine kind. On holidays they frequently play at golf, and on Shrove Tuesday there is a standing match at foot-ball, between the married and unmarried women, in which the former are always victors.

Map of Musselburgh from 1824 detailing ‘Fisher row’ harbour and links
(Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland)

To bring the first part of the article to a close, it is interesting to note that only a matter of a few miles along the East Lothian coast from the port of Fisherrow there is an example of a young female member of the landed gentry enjoying football as an activity. The young girl in question was Mary Hamilton Nisbet, who was born in 1778 and grew up on the Archerfield Estate at Dirleton. Her father, William Hamilton Nisbet, was an important landowner and her mother, also called Mary, was daughter to Alexander Hamilton and heiress to several estates. As a child, Mary Hamilton Nisbet kept a diary and in the early 1790s records ‘foot ball’ as a favourite pastime alongside pony rides and taking a dip in the sea. Whilst this example is isolated and does not represent a wider trend within the upper levels of society it does perhaps, when viewed alongside the examples at Lennel and Fisherrow, point to a more tolerant view of football as an activity for girls and women within the south east corner of Scotland during the late eighteenth century. This is certainly in striking contrast to many of the views on women playing organised football 100 years later.

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