The Yuletide Games of Old

Football activity was significantly linked to winter festivals in Scotland. One such notable event was the festival of Yule, originally an ancient pagan celebration that marked the winter solstice. With the establishment of Christianity across northern Europe, this pagan festival was largely subsumed by the Christmas season. For many communities, football formed part of the festivities although it is unknown exactly how far back the connection goes. Another important event in Scotland was New Year’s Day and football again was a traditional feature of this notable day in different parts of the country. An often confusing point, however, when trying to pinpoint the actual day when many of these games were played is the variation between the “old-style” observance of Christmas Day and New Year’s Day and the “new-style” observance.

The old-style observance was based on the older Julian calendar (named after Julius Caesar) which was the main calendar used across Europe for over 1,600 years. In 1582 the Gregorian calendar (named after Pope Gregory XIII) was brought in to correct a deficiency in the accuracy of the Julian calendar which was increasingly becoming out of step with the solar year. The relatively simple tweak of adding a leap year every four years and correcting the “drift” from previous centuries aligned the Gregorian calendar with the solar year but inevitably led to the Julian calendar being significantly out of step. Scotland did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752 and even then, the use of the Julian calendar often continued when it came to observing festival days. By the start of the nineteenth century the difference in the span of days between the Julian and Gregorian calendars was 12 days. On the basis of using the Gregorian calendar, the “new-style” arrival of Christmas Day of course fell on 25th December but the “old-style” observation was not reached until 6th January (in some parts of Scotland 7th January was observed). Likewise, the 12-day span between both calendars meant that the old-style observance of New Year’s Day fell on 12th January.

Traditionally, there was a strong connection between football activity and Christmas Day celebrations in the north of Scotland. John Robertson in his excellent book, the Uppies and Doonies, lists many football games that were played on Christmas Day (old-style and new-style) across the Northern Isles. On top of this is evidence pointing to a pattern in other regions, suggesting that Christmas Day games were played across large parts of the north, including Caithness, Ross-shire, Inverness-shire, Nairnshire, Morayshire, Strathspey and Aberdeenshire.

An elevated view of Elgin Cathedral, traditionally referred to as the ‘Chanonrie Kirk’

The earliest recorded evidence of a Christmas Day game appears to be at Elgin Cathedral in Moray in 1600 while perhaps the most famous account of a Yuletide game can be found in a poem from 1738 entitled The Monymusk Christmas Ba’ing. This poem, penned by Reverend John Skinner, provides a long and detailed account of a football game in a little Aberdeenshire village and points to a rough affair which is perhaps best summed up by the final verse…

Has ne’er in Monymuss been seen

Sae mony weel-beft skins:

Of a’ the bawmen there was nane

But had twa bleedy shins.

Wi’ strenzied shouders mony ane

Dree’d penance for their sins;

And what was warst, scoup’d hame at ee’n,

May be to hungry inns,

And cauld that day.

Whilst New Year’s Day football games were widely played in the northern regions where Christmas Day football activity can be found, it appears to be the case that football on New Year’s Day was played in other parts of Scotland too. Additional examples range from Argyllshire in the Western Highlands to Perthshire, Stirlingshire, Lanarkshire, Inverclyde, Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders. For example, Alexander Carse’s painting of a football match involving the Doonies versus the Croonies on New Year’s Day, which dates from 1810, appears to be located somewhere along the Berwickshire coast. However, large parts of Scotland’s east coast do not appear to have any Yuletide connection with football activity, be it Christmas Day or New Year’s Day.

The numerous examples of football activity that fall under Christmas Day and New Year’s Day can be quite diverse. For many, these events were genuinely old annual customs which had been played since time immemorial. Others, however, appear to be more recent innovations. Some of the games were carefully managed affairs involving patronage from landowners but there are numerous games that were organised by local people and by youths with no obvious links to the landed classes. Finally, as will be seen, there are also examples of competitive football contests where teams competed for prizes.

A long but excellent description of a traditional Yule Day football game can be found on the Island of Unst, the most northerly part of the Shetland Isles. The game described below dates from the 1820s and was played on Yule Day, observed in this instance in the old-style (6th January)…

“Almost the only out-of-door game known, or at least practised, was football, in which boys and lads, and once in the year – on Yule day – many middle-aged men who had boys and lads of their own, engaged with splendid vigour and spirit… Another invariable and important preparation for Yule was the making of the football, Yule being always the inauguration day of the season. The bladder of the ‘mert,’ or pig, had been previously secured, carefully salted – very likely in an old brown teapot – and set away in the most remote corner of a cupboard. We shaped and sewed the leather covering ourselves; but to get the ‘quarters’ cut of the proper shape to secure a perfect sphere, which we considered a matter of the utmost importance, was an affair of great anxiety and study. We had certain rough rules for shaping the pattern, but were not always successful in giving it just the proper curve. The leather was not obtained from the shops, for two reasons: it cost us more than we could conveniently afford out of our slender pocket-money; and we found, or thought we found, that ‘Scotch’ shoe-leather – the only description procurable in the shops – was very spongy and too heavy; so the leather we used was native tanned – and, indeed, our boots and shoes were for the most part made of the same material… The thinnest parts of the tanned hide were always secured for our football…” After Yule breakfast… “Almost immediately thereafter, football commenced. Most of our masculine neighbours, boys and lads, and men up to well-nigh fifty years of age, were wont to be invited; and when all were assembled on the spacious lawn, my uncle appeared, made a little congratulatory speech, and distributed drams to the seniors, and cake to all comers. Healths were drunk, and hearty Yule greetings exchanged; and then two – perhaps three – sets of players were arranged; goals were set, and the play began. Our uncle and father looked on and watched with interest the progress of the game. When goals were changed, there was sure to be another round of drams, to keep up the spirit and energies of the players, and because, as my uncle would say to his well-pleased audience, ‘every day was not Yule day;’ and so the game went on fast and furious till close upon the dinner hour – three o’clock – when light failed… For a week the feasting continued – the football by day and dancing at night, with sometimes a rubber at whist; for, young as we were, we had learned the noble game, and were keen and by no means bad players…”

Relatively modern customs based around the patronage and goodwill of landowners can also be found. For example, a game at Lochgair in Argyllshire in 1857 which took place on Old New Year’s Day (12th January) was permitted on the lawn in front of Lochgair House. In 1873, at Springkell House in Dumfriesshire the New Year’s Day game organised for the tenants and cottars of the estate came off in the park in front of the mansion. It was referred to as a 26 year old custom.

The park in front of Springkell House, Dumfriesshire, annual venue of New Year’s Day football games

A large and well organised New Year’s Day football game took place at Newton Stewart in 1816, a little more than a month after the famous Carterhaugh game. Judging by the pageantry involved, Carterhaugh may have offered a degree of inspiration for the game which followed in Wigtownshire. Important patrons for the Newton Stewart game included Sir John Heron Maxwell who provided a field for the contest. Selected leaders, a committee and match judges were all involved. An account of the game states that,

“The players were formed in regular order, the march was directed by the advance of music and colours to the front, viz. the Orange and Blue flags. In a short time they were upon the field of contest, the most delightful road course of Kirrouchtree, the property of Sir John Heron Maxwell, Bart. The ground having been previously arranged, the different sides took their stations, decorated with the badge of the opposite leaders.”

Played over the best of three games [goals], the day was carried by the ‘Blues’ who triumphed by two goals to one. Similarly, the New Year’s Day game at Lanark racecourse in 1862 provides an example of a well organised game played in front of a large crowd…

“Great Game at Foot-Ball – At twelve o’clock noon on New Year’s Day, thousands had gathered on the Race Course to witness a foot-ball match played between sides chosen by two celebrated players, Mr Murray, superintendent of works to Mr Freeman, and Malcolm Macmillan, of Lanark. The latter having won the toss for choice of ground and kick off, the competitors stripped and went to work in right good earnest, each individual doing his very best for the honour of his side. At three pm three goals were gained, which, after a severe struggle resulted in favour of Mr Murray. All who witnessed this match, admit that it was one of the most exciting and keenest contests ever witnessed by them at this manly and exhilarating game. It would be invidious to particularise any one person in this match, where all did so well; but we feel sure that all will agree, without the least envy, that Messrs Murray and Macmillan were the heroes of the day. The kicking of Mr Murray was terrific, for at one time he sent the ball spinning through the air, far up and away, almost out of sight, which called forth tremendous cheering from the spectators; on the other hand, Macmillan, who is the bean ideal of a hardy Highlander, made some magnificent spurts at running, carrying away the ball from his opponents amid bursts of applause. At the finish an ample supply of refreshments were served, and given to the competitors, who regaled themselves most heartily. The best feeling and harmony prevailed throughout. The amusements wound up by Mr Lamb kindly undertaking to get up some foot races, for which prizes were liberally awarded by a collection made by gentlemen on the ground.”

Lanark race course, scene of the New Year’s Day game in 1862

Competitive contests were certainly evident at the Redhall Christmas Games which took place on Old Christmas Day at Redhall House in Aberdeenshire in 1851. Teams picked at 10 a side (or 12 a side depending on the source) representing Fordoun and Lawrencekirk competed for a “satisfactory prize.” Lawrencekirk took the honours, winning the contest by two goals to nil. In 1856 the little coastal town of Lossiemouth in Morayshire was the scene of animated football contests. A newspaper article gives some background to the activity…

“With the view of affording amusement to the Public upon Old Christmas and New-Year Day Holidays, a Committee of Gentlemen connected with the National Sports’ Association have resolved to have Individual and Party [team based] Games of football at Lossiemouth, on those days.”

The individual games took place at the Stotfield Links and the committee noted distinctions between amateur competitors and those willing to play for remuneration. The amateurs therefore were not to receive a cash prize for taking part. The rules for the individual competition as reported in the local newspaper was straight forward…

“Any two individuals may start against each other from a given point, and at a given signal, each finding his way as he best can to the winning post; and the party whose ball shall first cross a line to be drawn at the winning-post, will be declared the winner.”

The team based or “party” games took place on sands to the east of Lossiemouth harbour to the following rules…

“Any two individuals may start as leaders or Captains, and will have the power of choosing from among those assembled, alternatively, individuals willing to enlist in the contest, to any number not exceeding on each side. The Combatants being mustered in rank and file, the field of contest will be marked out and fixed by the judges, and the winning posts at each end put up. The Captains will toss up upon the centre of the field for the first kick of the ball; and fifty yards of clear space in front shall be allowed for his exercising this privilege. Prizes will be awarded to successful parties according to the period of time within which the Games shall be won…”

Lossiemouth, as viewed from the sands to the east of the harbour

Another fascinating example of a competitive game can be found at Loch Rannoch in Perthshire in 1871 and the newspaper article is quoted in full below…

“RANNOCH – FOOT BALL – On old New Year’s Day and exciting match at “foot ball” was played betwixt twenty four men from the north side of the Rannoch, and the same number from the south side.  The bet was £4 and a gallon of whisky – a good part of the money being for the benefit of the poor of the district. A large number of the inhabitants turned out, well knowing that the contest would be a keen one, and few doubted but the “Bratach” would, as in former years, become victorious. The umpires were the Hon. G. J. Eliphinstone, Inverchadden, and Mr Cameron, merchant, Kinloch. At half-past two Mr M’Donald, captain for the north side, led his men against Mr M. McGregor, farmer, Tempar, captain for the south side and his men. A severe contest then ensued, “Bratach ne mocan” gained a slight advantage with the first run or two; yet the north side soon recovered their lost position, and the ball was driven towards the south side hale where it mostly remained during the match. It now became evident to all present that the north would win; and after an obstinate resistance the ball was happily kicked through between the poles, and a loud cheers was given for the north. The best of three had now to be won, and both sides entered for the second game as eagerly as for the first. The ball was kicked hale in about five minutes time by the north side, and consequently they became the victors. After receiving the decision of the umpires a good deal of cheering was given for the north side men, who then marched four deep, headed by a piper, to the village hotel, where they had a bumper of the “mountain dew”.

A picturesque view of Loch Rannoch from Kinloch Rannoch village

This article is intended to provide a brief insight into the important football activities of old that were enjoyed over the Yuletide season. Admittedly a time of celebration for many, we should perhaps finish with a note of sympathy for Mr Fraser who in 1871 was compelled to contact his local newspaper in Inverness to thwart attempts to organise a game on his land…

Source: Saturday Inverness Advertiser, 30/12/1871. Image courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive.

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