This is my blog, intended to provide information relevant to the history of Edinburgh in the Georgian period. I would love to hear any comments you may have.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Leith Links Golfers

Scotland is generally regarded as the home of golf, a game which has enthused Scots for centuries, sometimes to the point of obsession. The origins of golf are obscure, but the game was certainly played in the 15th century. King James IV was a keen golfer, and it is recorded that in 1502 he paid 13 shillings (Scots) for a set of clubs. There are further records throughout the 16th century which show that the first golf courses were on the sandy links sites close to the sea in eastern Scotland, and of course this remains the classic golfing territory today.

It was at Leith Links that Edinburgh golfers indulged their passion. A record of 1522 mentions the "gouff ball makers of North Leith", implying the use of a stitched ball; it is thought that in early versions of the game wooden balls were used. In 1593 the Edinburgh Burgh Records condemned the citizens of the town for playing golf at Leith on Sunday mornings rather than attending church, a criticism that was often heard in later years, and it has been claimed that Charles I was playing on Leith Links when he had news of the Irish Rebellion of 1641. It is not known if the king finished his round!

Perhaps the most notable claim of Leith in golfing history, however, is that it was here that the first rules of the game were set down. On 2nd April 1744 the first ever golf tournament took place in Leith, officiated by the Gentleman Golfers of Leith, with the prize of a silver club donated by the city of Edinburgh. This became an annual competition, with the winner becoming the Company's captain for the following year. he also had his name engraved upon a silver golf ball which was attached to the club. The image below depicts this trophy being taken to Leith in 1788:

The rules were set down as follows:

Articles & Laws in Playing at Golf - 7th March 1744. 
  1. You must Tee your Ball within a Club's length of the Hole.
  2. Your Tee must be upon the Ground.
  3. You are not to change the Ball which you Strike off the Tee.
  4. You are not to remove, Stones, Bones or any Break Club, for the sake of playing your Ball, Except upon the fair Green & that only within a Club's length of your Ball.
  5. If your Ball comes among Watter or any wattery filth, you are at liberty to take out your Ball & bringing it behind the hazard and Teeing it you may play it with any Club and allow your Adversary a Stroke for so getting out your Ball.
  6. If your Balls be found any where touching one another, You are to lift the first Ball, till you play the last.
  7. At Holling, you are to play your Ball honestly for the Hole, and, not to play upon your Adversary's Ball not lying in your way to the Hole.
  8. If you should lose your Ball, by it's being taken up, or any other way, you are to go back to the Spot where you struck last, & drop another Ball, And allow your adversary a Stroke for the misfortune.
  9. No man at Holling his Ball, is to be allowed, to mark his way to the Hole with his Club, or anything else.
  10. If a Ball be stopp'd by any person, Horse, Dog, or any thing else, The Ball so stop'd must be play'd, where it lyes.
  11. If you draw your Club in order to Strike & proceed so far in the Stroke as to be bringing down your Club; If then, your Club shall, break, in any way, it is to be Accounted a Stroke.
  12. He, whose Ball lyes farthest from the Hole is obliged to play first.
  13. Neither Trench, Ditch or Dyke, made for the Preservation of the Links, nor the Scholar's Holes or the Soldier's Lines, shall be accounted a Hazard; But the Ball is to be taken out / Teed / and play'd with any Iron Club.
John Rattray, Capt

The course consisted of five holes only, and a plaque on display at Leith records the design:

As well as being the place where rules of the game were first set down, Leith is the home of the golf caddie. The name derives from the French 'le cadet' , meaning a boy or youth, and like many other French words became current in Edinburgh for the young men who acted as porters and messengers. During the eighteenth century these lads found frequent employment at Leith Links. Golf bags seem not to have been in use:

In 1768 the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (as they were now known) built a clubhouse, the first in the world and known as the Golf house, on the site of the old Leith Academy building in Duke Street, and they remained at the Links until 1831, when the area became too crowded. Thereafter they removed to Musselburgh, and finally to Muirfield where they exist to this day. Their website contains some interesting notes on the history of the club and the course: http://www.muirfield.org.uk/page/The_History.aspx

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