A brief history of curling – from medieval Scotland to the Winter Olympics
It’s proving to be one of the most iconic sports of the 2022 Winter Olympics, with Bruce Mouat’s Team GB taking on Sweden in the men’s Beijing 2022 final on Saturday and Great Britain's women securing a place in the gold medal match on Sunday. But did you know curling is thought to be one of the world’s oldest team sports, originating in medieval Scotland and counting Queen Victoria among its fans?
Here we chart the history of the so-called “Roarin’ Game”, which Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, wrote about in his poetry…
When was curling first invented?
The exact origins of curling remain a mystery, but it was the Scots who first embraced the sport and drew up the early official rules of the game.
Curling seems to have started out as a fun Scottish pastime of throwing stones over ice, played informally on frozen lochs and ponds in the medieval period. Today, every Olympic curling stone is made from granite hewn from a quarry on the island of Ailsa Craig off of Scotland’s Ayrshire Coast, and their size has been standardised. But the earliest curling stones were made from a variety of different stones and came in all shapes and sizes. “Players would choose the most useful variation to sneak through a gap on the ice or cover the target, all with the aim of strategising victory,” according to the Beijing 2022 website. The world’s oldest curling stone dates from 1511 and can be found today in the collection of the Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum.
The earliest surviving reference to curling, written in Latin, dates from 1541, “when notary John McQuin recorded a challenge that occurred in Paisley, Scotland, between John Sclater, a monk from the local abbey, and one Gavin Hamilton,” writes Jeff Wallenfeldt for Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Apparently Sclater took three practices throws with a stone on the ice, and then the contest was on.”
Paintings by a 16th-century Flemish artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c1525–69) seem to depict “an activity similar to curling being played on frozen ponds,” according to the Word Curling Federation. And poets across the ages from the Scottish regions of Kirkcudbrightshire, Renfrewshire and Lanarkshire have celebrated the game in published poems.
Curling even features in the poetry of Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns. The opening lines of his 1785 poem ‘The Vision’ read:
The sun had clos’d the winter day,
The Curlers quat their roaring play…
Meanwhile, two stanzas of ‘Tam Samson’s Elegy’, written by Burns the following year, read:
When Winter muffles up his cloak,
And binds the mire like a rock;
When to the loughs the curlers flock,
Wi’ gleesome speed,
Wha will they station at the cock?
Tam Samson’s dead!
He was the king of a’ the Core.
To guard, or draw, or wick a bore,
Or up the rink like Jehu roar
In time o’ need;
But now he lags on Death’s hog-score,
Tam Samson’s dead!
There is even evidence that Burns himself took part in a ‘bonspiel’ (a curling tournament) in January 1789.
The Grand Caledonian Curling Club
Records show that by the 18th century curling was being played throughout the Lowlands of Scotland. Different forms of the game existed – the most popular involved rinks of seven, eight, or nine curlers throwing only one stone. Curling clubs and societies sprang up across the country, and by the 1830s curling had become so popular and so widespread that there arose demand for the founding of a national club to regulate the game.
The Grand Caledonian Curling Club was born in 1838 and became the sport’s governing body. Set up with the purpose “of regulating the ancient Scottish game of Curling by general laws”, the club formally adopted the ‘four by two’ (meaning four people in a rink, each throwing two stones) form of the game as the standard, the official Scottish Curling website explains. “By the early 1860s this form had ousted all the others.”
Curling has been dubbed the “Roarin’ Game”, with the ‘roar’ referring to the noise of the granite stone as it travels over the ice.
Listen: Author Juliet Nicolson tells the story of the frozen winter of 1962. As Britain shivered under a blanket of ice and snow, new political and cultural forces were emerging that would shake up the nation
Is it true that Queen Victoria liked curling?
Yes! During a visit to Scone Palace near Perth in 1842, Queen Victoria watched a demonstration of the game by the Earl of Mansfield – who was the president of the Grand Caledonian Curling Club – on his polished ballroom floor. “The Queen was so fascinated by the game that in 1843 she gave permission for the Club’s name to be changed to the Royal Caledonian Curling Club [RCCC],” the World Curling Federation explains.
According to The Curling History Blog, “her Majesty herself ‘tried her hand’ at throwing the Stones, although they proved to be too heavy for her delicate arm. Both her Majesty and the Prince [Albert] expressed surprise when informed as to the usual length of a ‘rink’, and appeared to imagine that it must require a very great degree of strength to propel the stones to such a distance.”
During the visit to Scone Palace, the queen’s husband, Prince Albert, was gifted a number of personalised curling stones. The silver handles were engraved: “Presented to His Royal Highness Prince Albert. By the Grand Caledonian Curling Club on the occasion of His Royal Highness’ First Visit to Scotland. Edinburgh, 1st. Septr. 1842.”
The stones can today be found in the Royal Collection at Frogmore House.
When was curling first played indoors?
From 1838 onwards the game exploded in popularity – by the final decades of the 19th century, every county in Scotland had at least one club affiliated with the RCCC, and almost every parish had its own custom-made curling pond, according to the official Scottish Curling website.
Curling was traditionally played outdoors and could draw impressive crowds, in gatherings known as ‘Bonspiels’. The Royal Caledonian Curling Club helped to organise ‘Grand Matches’ which divided players into teams representing the north of Scotland and the south (an imaginary line was drawn between the River Forth and River Clyde to decide the two sides). The first Grand Match was held on Penicuik Loch on 15 January 1847 and 300 curlers took part, according to the Scottish Curling website. The next Grand Match was held on Linlithgow Loch in 1848, with 680 curlers turning up to play.
But the weather had to be sufficiently cold for ice to form in order to play – and because such conditions were not always guaranteed, indoor ice rinks were introduced to Scotland in the early 20th century (the first having been built in Manchester and Southport in the latter part of the 19th century). The first indoor rink in Scotland – Crossmyloof in Glasgow – opened in 1907, followed by rinks in Aberdeen and Edinburgh in 1912.
The 1960s saw a boom in ice-rink building, and today Scotland has 21 rinks that have facilities for curling. Sadly, the Crossmyloof ice rink closed in 1986.
How did curling become an international and Olympic sport?
During the 19th century, the game was “exported wherever Scots settled around the world in cold climates, most notably at that time in Canada, United States, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway and New Zealand,” the World Curling Federation explains. The game was particularly popular in Canada, where today the Royal Montreal Curling Club – founded in 1807 – claims to be oldest active athletic club in North America. Curling in the United States is believed to date to the 1830s, when Scottish soldiers and settlers brought the game to Michigan, says Sports Heritage Scotland.
International curling events took place in the 19th century in Europe and North America, but it was not until the inaugural Olympic Winter Games in 1924, in Chamonix, France, that any form of official international competition took place for men’s teams. However, curling then went on a 56-year Olympic hiatus until it was brought back as a demonstration sport [a sport which is played to promote it, rather than as part of standard medal competition] at the 1988 and 1992 Winter Games. It then returned as an official medal sport at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, with both men’s and women’s competitions.
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Curling was only re-introduced to the Winter Olympics in 1998, and as such it has featured as a medal sport at only nine editions of the Games (1924, 1932, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022). To date, Canada is the most successful curling nation in Winter Olympic history with 11 medals, including six golds, followed by Sweden with eight medals. Team GB – made up primarily of Scottish curlers – has only ever won four Olympic medals for curling in its history. It remains to be seen which nation will be the most successful at the 2022 Games.