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

Two hundred and forty five years on from that first historic account at Carstairs, a happy scene played out on another Lanarkshire green, less than nine miles distant. The date was 26th August 1873 and a party of the Turfholm Industrial Female School, to the number of 125, enjoyed their annual summer excursion with a visit to Birkwood Castle near Lesmahagow. Birkwood was the residence of John Gregory McKirdy, whose father had purchased the estate after amassing his wealth as a merchant operating out of Demerara in British Guiana. As was common in the mid-Victorian era, the gates of grand estates like that of Birkwood were thrown open in the summer months to host a wide range of organised excursions, from Sabbath School pupils and juvenile abstainers to factory workers. As with many of these excursions the girls at Birkwood were treated to a picnic and enjoyed an afternoon of games. Significantly, one of the games is clearly listed in the Hamilton Advertiser as being football,

After devoting a short time to foot-ball and various games, the happy party were entertained to a substantial tea, set out on tables arranged on the lawn adjoining the castle. Games were then resumed, and kept up with much enthusiasm for a few hours.

The front edifice of Birkwood Castle, Lesmahagow, South Lanarkshire

When perusing the almost countless references to excursions across Scotland for much of this era it is useful, for the purpose of this article, to divide them into four categories. The first category relates to examples where girls are clearly excluded from playing football. These are quite numerous although far from universal. Typically, within this category, the boys and girls separate into distinctive groups for their games. For example, with a Sabbath School excursion to Pitreavie Castle near Dunfermline in 1861, one article writes of ‘the boys running races, playing at hand-ball, foot-ball, etc, and the girls finding plenty of amusement for themselves in their own peculiar games.’ In the age of ‘Muscular Christianity’ there were certainly prevalent views of football as a masculine activity which mirrors attitudes surrounding the codified game at the end of the century.

The second category relates to mixed games involving males and females and the third relates to female only games, like that of Birkwood. The fourth and final category, which is significant in number, relates to football activities at excursions where males and females are present but where no reference to the gender of the players is given. An example of this can be found with a Sabbath School visit to Kerse House at Grangemouth in 1868 where ‘refreshments were subsequently supplied to the children, and the afternoon was passed in a very pleasant manner by playing at football and various other sports.’ For the purpose of this article, I will primarily highlight examples that can be found relating to the second and third categories.

First, however, one potentially large body of references needs, in my opinion, to be acknowledged but discounted.  These are the annual excursions of the British League of Juvenile Abstainers. Organised by John Hope (founder of the first known football club in 1824), large groups of girls and boys enjoyed annual trips out to the estates of prominent landowners. The annual excursion for the girls was planned on a separate day from the boys and, as the memorandum for the visit of the girls to Dirleton Castle in 1863 suggests, the evidence, on the face of it, looks very promising as football appears to be on the list of activities…

10. A supply of footballs will be found at the League cart. The Assistants are requested to apply there for the same, and to do what they can to promote the games and the happiness of the children.

However, the printed programme of events from the same excursion tells a different story…

20. The games for the females will consist of hoops, skipping-ropes, ball &c.; and the games for the males will consist of foot-ball, hand-ball, leap-frog, cross-tig, races, drill, &c., &c…

My only explanation for this anomaly is that Hope, who was well known for his thrift, effectively used the same memorandum for both excursions. If so, this would relegate the football reference (including all of the other British League annual excursions) into the first category (exclusion). Certainly, for the opening of his playground at Stockbridge in 1854, Hope advocated football being one of the games recommended exclusively for boys with alternative games being advocated for girls. The reason for highlighting this discrepancy is simply to bring it to the attention of anyone looking to research the subject. I, of course, stand to be corrected if this is proved to be a wrong assumption.

Now back to some tangible examples of games. An excellent illustration of a specific game for girls can be found at the Grangemouth Band of Hope excursion to Kerse House in 1862. Like with other excursions, the boys and girls were split up for the games with a football being produced for the former to enjoy. However, as the article goes on to explain, the latter would also have an opportunity to enjoy a game…

Meanwhile the girls have doffed their cloaks and bloomers, and are amusing themselves in forming large rings… Here Mr Allan produced a handsome coloured ball, for the especial delectation of the girls, and they were at it immediately almost as frantically as the boys, skipping over the green lawn, here and there and everywhere – perhaps a chance kick sending the ball among the flower-beds, to the silent consternation of Mr Weir, who imagined his followers would receive small share of attention during the scramble that ensued to obtain possession.

A curious and fascinating reference comes from a football club established at Spa in Belgium in 1863. Created primarily by two wealthy Scottish families, the Hunter-Blairs and the Fairlies, while on a holiday stay in the town, the club appears to have involved many members of both families. At the top of the document, underneath the illustration of a football is the following Latin inscription, IN PEDE VIS VIRTUS (which translates as In Foot, Power and Strength). The original document detailing the membership of the club, is displayed at Blairquhan Castle (the home of the Hunter-Blairs) in Maybole, Ayrshire.

I have taken care not to overplay the significance of this discovery, interesting though it may be. The creation of the club as part of an extended family activity suggests that it was not something more formal in standing or long lasting. In the document, Sir Edward Hunter Blair is listed as Patron with Lady Hunter Blair, a Mrs Fairlie and a Miss Fairlie listed as Patronesses. Intriguingly Miss Fairlie is listed as Treasurer. There is a list of four Honorary Members (all female) and 10 Members (all male). Although the 10 members (presumably the players) are male, the wider testimony contained within the page provides an interesting early connection between women and the organisation and patronage of recreational football. Although I have issued a cautionary note when highlighting the existence of the document, I do appreciate that for others the listing of a female football official from such an early period, could be argued as being something of much greater significance.

Document detailing the Foot Ball Club of Spa, Belgium, 1863

Moving back to Scotland, we have an example at Bonskied House near Pitlochry in 1868 of a game where the boys are matched against the girls. The excursion involved the scholars attending the Day and Sabbath Schools connected to the Free Church in Pitlochry. In this case,

The most exciting game was football, where the girls, supported by Mr Alex. M’Laren – a thorough enthusiast among the children – opposed the boys. The ground was very much in favour of the former.

The following year a mixed game was observed during the excursion of the Hutcheson Band of Hope to Langbank in Renfrewshire. A sizeable group of children estimated to be upwards of 400, headed by the Thistle Flute Band, were brought to a large field beside the village where ‘all over the field an endless variety of games were being prosecuted by the boys and girls – such as foot-ball, cricket, rounders, leap-frog, etc.’

Similarly mixed games were evidenced at Roseneath in Argyll (1870) and St Brycedale in Kirkcaldy (1871). The first example was an excursion involving around 200 children from the Govan Sabbath School where ‘Football, races, and other “jolly” games, equally shared in and relished by boys and girls, filled up the remainder of the day.’ The second example was an excursion to the policies of St Brycedale held by the local Links Mutual Improvement Society with an estimated turnout of 250 members. At this event, ‘Football was carried on with the utmost vigour not only by the young men but even by the young women.’

These examples are most certainly the tip of the iceberg and the case of the St Brycedale game which took place in May 1871 is a good example of the importance of detail in the observation. The above article, taken from the Fife Free Press and Kirkcaldy Guardian gives clear reference to young women playing football (as well as the young men). However, a report in the same newspaper of an excursion involving the same organisation to the same place a few months later (August 1871) does not provide specific details as to the players, but simply states that ‘between three and four hundred individuals took part in the amusements, which comprised foot-ball, jingo-ring, dancing, &c.’ On the basis of the previous excursion, one might assume that women as well as men would have been involved in the football activity but the lack of detail is not helpful.

A couple of months before the visit of the Turfholm Industrial Female School to Birkwood Castle, an excursion of Arbroath’s High Street Free Church Choir to Gannochy Bridge near Edzell, provided another example of football activity. The report in the Arbroath Guide states that,

After doing ample justice to the repast, games were commenced – swings, football, &c., which were heartily gone into by both sexes. The latter half of the day was occupied in visiting the gardens and beautiful surroundings of the Burn estate.

The story of women’s and girl’s football, from the first account of 1628 to the end point of my research in 1873, still largely remains hidden but enough examples have already emerged to demonstrate that it did exist and at times even thrived. Much work needs to be done on the subject and without doubt there will be new discoveries along the way. Hopefully these two articles, brief though they may be, serve as an introduction to a long and proud tradition.

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