The origins of golf are a matter of mystery and controversy. Little, if any, evidence of the game in the form of golfing equipment or recognisable images survives from earlier than the mid 18th century. But now, a revised edition of A Swing Through Time: Golf in Scotland 1457-1744 enlightens us about the 'Dark Ages' of golf, travelling through time on a journey from the game's early illegitimacy to the establishment of the first golfing societies and clubs in the mid 1700s.
The story starts in 1457, when the Scottish Parliament passed an Act which outlawed rowdy pursuits such as golf and football in favour of compulsory archery lessons. This is among the earliest documentary evidence that the game was being played, on any kind of widespread basis. By 1502, peace had been reached with England, archery skills were viewed as less crucial, and King James IV himself lost three French Crowns in a game with the Earl of Bothwell in Edinburgh in February 1503. These early roots are the starting point for a fascinating journey through the early history of the game of golf.
Published by the National Library of Scotland and NMS Publishing, A Swing Through Time takes a close look at the earliest written records of golf in Scotland. The book is written by Olive M Geddes, a senior curator in the National Library of Scotland's Manuscripts division, who has responsibility for its early sporting archives.
The story also takes in the church's disapproval of those who insisted on playing a round on the Sabbath: in 1610 the South Leith Kirk issued the warning that those who ignored it would have to pay 20 shillings to the poor and 'make public their repentance before the pulpit'.
The royal connection continues with the news that James V played Gosford in East Lothian and, perhaps more remarkably, the claim that Mary Queen of Scots was reputedly a keen golfer who attracted some controversy for playing a game of golf in the grounds of Seton Palace within a few days of the murder of her second husband, Lord Darnley.
Also covered is the role of David Wedderburn of Aberdeen University, whose famous Vocabula of 1636 gives one of the earliest known descriptions of the use of 'iron' clubs - the bunkard club, as he called it - as well as 'short strokes' or putts. Wedderburn also provided his students with some useful Latin phrases for use on the course, such as 'Bene tibi cessit hic ictus' ('well struck') and the less positive 'Imissa est in paludem' ('It is in the myre').
In this revised edition, original documents and books, many from the collections of the National Library of Scotland and elsewhere, are reproduced, while transcripts, commentary and interpretation illuminate not only the early days of golf, but also the society which gave rise to the world's most internationally popular game.
The book ends with an entirely new chapter on the first Rules of Golf drawn up in 1744 by the world's first Golf Club, the Company of Gentlemen Golfers, later the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.
A Swing Through Time can be purchased from leading bookshops.
National Library of Scotland
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14 May 2007