A history of women’s football in Scotland
In a historic year for Scottish women’s football, Dr Fiona Skillen explores ten key moments in the history of women’s football in Scotland
The 2019 Women’s Football World Cup is a historic one for Scotland, the first time a Scottish side has qualified. Managed by Shelley Kerr, a former player, the side will take on England, Japan and Argentina in the group stages. Writing for History Extra, Dr Fiona Skillen explores ten key moments in the history of women’s football in Scotland…
Earliest recording of female players in Scotland
The women’s game has a long and rich global history which is often overlooked when we talk about the contemporary women’s game, instead preferring to see it as modern phenomenon. Women’s football has been around as long as men’s, with evidence suggesting that women took part in variations of folk football hundreds of years ago. In Scotland we can trace women’s participation back to at least 1628. Football was often banned or restricted and we often see examples of people transgressing these rules, their names appearing in local kirk (church) or court records.
One such recording was on 21 August 1628, when Mr John Lindsay, a minister at Carstairs, noted in the kirk records (Presbytery of Lanark Registers): “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.”
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Folk football, a pre-codified version of the modern game, was often part of the fun events and celebrations which took place during local fair day holidays of pre-industrial society. We know that women took part in these type of activities and indeed, in football specifically. This was highlighted by Rev Dr Alexander Carlisle in 1795, when he described the lives of local fishwives in Inveresk:
“As [the fishwives] do the work of men, their manners are masculine and their strength and activity is equal to their work. Their amusements are more of the masculine kind. On holidays they frequently play golf; and on Shrove Tuesday there is a standing match at football between the married and unmarried women, at which the former are always victors.”
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Mary, Queen of Scots and football
In June 1568, whilst in protective custody Mary, Queen of Scots was recorded as having watched a game of football somewhere just over the Scottish border near Carlisle. The game, between members of her entourage, lasted for around two hours and was played "strongly, nimbly and skilfully, without any foul play offered". We do not know if Mary herself played football; however, rather intriguingly during renovation works at Stirling Castle in the 1970s, a football made of leather with a pig’s bladder interior was found in the roof space of the Queen’s Chamber. The ball has been dated to Mary’s time in the castle in the 1540s, and as such it has been claimed that it is the oldest known football in the world.
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The first women’s ‘international’ football matches
The first women’s match to be played using football association rules took place at Easter Road in Edinburgh on 7 May 1881. The teams called themselves ‘England’ and ‘Scotland’, probably in the hope of attracting larger crowds by playing on old rivalries, rather than due to any actual national selection process or endorsement from either the Football Association or Scottish Football Association.
The match was billed in the local press as an entertainment event, rather than a serious sporting match. None the less the match attracted around 1,000 spectators. The Glasgow Herald, reporting on the match on 9 May 1881, described the Scottish team as looking “smart in blue jerseys, white knickerbockers, red belts and high heeled boots”. Scotland won 3-0, with the first goal being scored by Lily St Clare. One week later a second match took place in Glasgow, attracting a crowd in excess of 5,000. The Nottinghamshire Guardian’s report of this match was less than favourable:
“What will probably be the first and last exhibition of a female football match in Glasgow took place on Monday evening at Shawfield Grounds… The meagre training of the teams did not augur much for proficiency of play, and if the display of football tactics was of a sorry description, it was only what might have been expected, and not much worse than some of the early efforts of our noted football clubs.”
The game descended into chaos as the crowd invaded the pitch, disrupting play and threatening the safety of the players.
A third planned match was cancelled as a result of this negative public reaction. Whilst the women’s game continued in England until the turn of the century there are few records to suggest that this was the case in Scotland. Instead the game seems to have gone into abeyance until the outbreak of the First World War.
Women’s football during the First World War
The outbreak of war brought with it a number of opportunities for women, who were encouraged to take up employment outside of the home and domestic service in larger numbers than ever before to replace the men who had gone off to fight. These new roles, a significant proportion of which were in factories, exposed women to new leisure pursuits, one of which was football.
While the sport itself was probably not new to women, it had been until this point seen as a masculine pursuit. However, in the factories women were encouraged to play in their breaks, in part to improve their general fitness, which was necessary for the heavy manual labour they were now expected to undertake. As a result of these localised ‘kick abouts’ teams began to form, and just as their male predecessors had done, these factories teams began to play against each other all across Scotland.
The most prolific factory provider of women’s teams in this period was William Beardmore’s, an engineering manufacturer who specialised in artillery shells, warships, aeroplanes and the like during this period, with several factories across Glasgow. A spate of munitionette competitions quickly developed across the country. The first formal large-scale Scottish competition amongst these ‘munitionette’ teams took place in August 1917 at Celtic Park in Glasgow. ‘International’ matches also took place, with a Scotland v England match taking place in March 1918 at Celtic Park. Scotland lost 4-0 but won the return leg in Barrow a couple of weeks later. The teams for these ‘international’ matches were recruited from the factory teams at Beardmore and Vickers-Maxim Munitions Factory.
These matches were played to raise money for war charities. The Glasgow Bulletin records that the 1918 ‘international’ at Celtic Park match raised £200 for war relief.
The ban of women’s football
The increased participation in women’s football continued into the interwar period across Britain. We don’t know exact numbers of women playing football during this period, as records are fragmentary, however there were enough for local teams and even leagues to be formed. Many of these factory teams played public matches to crowds in the thousands, to raise money for war relief charities. Dick, Kerr’s famous women’s factory team played several times in Scotland against local teams and in front of large crowds of spectators during 1920–21.
It was however these charity matches which have been cited as part of the game’s downfall. In 1921, the Football Association withdrew all support for women’s football (as reported by the Herald on 6 December 1921) and the subsequent informal adoption of the policy by the Scottish Football Association (the SFA would not formally ban the women’s game until 1949) ensured that women’s football in Scotland was severely curtailed. Women could no longer play on any pitches of SFA clubs or use SFA registered referees. The football authorities justified their ban on the basis of two arguments. Firstly, on the basis that they believed that some of the money from these charity matches was being mis-appropriated. (There is no evidence to substantiate these claims.)
Secondly, that they “consider[ed] the game unsuitable for females”. This attitude reflected the wider desire to re-establish the societal status quo of the pre-war period which saw the sexes having clearly demarked roles. Women were therefore expected to return to theirpre-war roles and occupations. Many of the criticisms levelled at women’s early participation in other sports during the 19th century were re-asserted in relation to football in this period. It was viewed by some, including members of the medical profession, as too physically demanding, physically dangerous and unfeminine. This ban, representing official disapproval of women’s participation in football, ensured that pressure was put on local clubs to withdraw access to pitches and changing facilities, undermining the ability of many teams to play.
Historian Margot McCaig has argued that the problems of access and lack of support, brought about in large part because of these new policies, retarded the development of women’s football in Scotland and it was not until the end of the 1930s that many women’s clubs reformed and sought out non-SFA affiliated pitches to play on.
Following two unofficial women’s World Cups in 1970 and 1971, there was a growing recognition by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) that the women’s game needed to be formally recognised and an international structure developed. At a vote in 1971 31 of UEFA’s member associations supported the decision to formally recognise the women’s game. Scotland was the only nation which voted against this motion. Undaunted by the attitude of the SFA, the established women’s teams in Scotland pressed ahead with the forming of their own organisation, the Scottish Women’s Football Association (SWFA).
The first international match, 1972
The Scotland women’s team, captained by Margaret McAuley Rae, and featuring international stars Rose Reilly and Edna Neillis, played their first official international match against a well-organised England team at Ravenscraig Park in Greenock in 1972. It was November, bitterly cold and half the game took place in a snowstorm. England’s Sylvia Gore scored the first goal of the match, quickly followed by two Scotland goals from Mary Carr and Rose Reilly. It wasn’t enough unfortunately, as England surged ahead with a further two goals from Lynda Hale and Jeannie Allott, winning the game 3-2.
Because the Scottish team was not recognised officially by the SFA, players had to wait until 2019 to receive Caps for their participation.
The ban is lifted, 1974
In 1974, a combination of factors finally forced the SFA’s hand and they grudgingly gave formal recognition to the women’s game. The SWFA had become well-established in a relatively short period of time, fielding a team for the first international match in 1972 and with two of its member teams making the finals of the English FA Women’s Cup in 1972 and 1973.
Attitudes in wider society were also changing in this period. There was an increasing demand for equality of the sexes, which culminated in the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act by the British government in 1975.
Euro Championships, 2017
Women’s teams from Scotland have participated in international competition from 1972 onwards. Having reached the play-off stages for qualification to the European Championships in 2009 and 2013 they finally succeeded in 2017, having won seven of their eight qualifying matches. The team, coached by Anna Signeul, competed well in the Netherlands but was knocked out in the early stages of the competition.
Scotland qualified for FIFA World Cup, 2019
After a tough but determined qualifying campaign the Scottish team qualified for their first World Cup in 2019. Managed by Shelley Kerr, herself a former Scotland captain, the team are poised to take on challenging opponents in France in June in the group stage, England, Japan and Argentina. The team’s qualification represented a significant point in Scottish football history, as a Scottish team had not qualified for a World Cup for 20 years, but perhaps more significantly, regardless of the outcome of the competition, the fact that the team have qualified represents the pinnacle, thus far, of women’s football in Scotland. First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, summed upthe wider significance of the moment:“There is no doubt that young girls across the country now have footballing role models in the way that their male peers have had for generations.”
The records of the women’s game are fragmentary so it is difficult to write a definitive account of the game in Scotland. Nonetheless, as you have seen here the evidence we do have suggests a long and rich history of the game which deserves to be celebrated.
Dr Fiona Skillen is a senior lecturer in history at Glasgow Caledonian University. In 2014 she was named as a BBC Woman Expert for her research on women’s sport history.
With thanks to the Scottish Football Museum.
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