Monday, January 18, 2010

A blether about some favourite medals

Most clubs have, if not an actual medal, a note in their minute book that shows that they once had a medal. For a long period – from the beginning of the nineteenth century to its end - the medal was a very popular form of trophy, far more popular than the cup.

When I use the word 'trophy' I mean that the medal was played for year after year, and did not ever become the property of a winner unless, for example, in terms of the donation he had won it three times in succession, in which case he won it 'outright'.

This philosophy could cause difficulty if the medal was meant to be played for in rinks, but even here there was a custom in some parts of the country of having a match at points, involving all the rink members, and the winner of the points carried off the medal as his own.

An early form of embellishment of the obverse, or front, of a medal was an engraving of a curler in the act of throwing, or having just thrown, a stone.

The first of my favourites is new to the collection, for it was a Christmas present from my wife in 2009. As can be seen from the photograph it is of modest size, a standard medal of the sort which could be bought blank in many a silversmith’s shop, and then engraved to suit its purpose, whether for a curling or a ploughing match, or a horticultural society.

Not too many were as elegantly engraved as this one. The curler delivering the stone is wearing not only a tall, silk hat but on his feet are crampets, the pronged devices much favoured in the south west to give a sure footing. This they did, but at the cost of mangling the ice. Our curler appears below a ribbon on which are the words: RAISED BY SUBSCRIPTION. The stone he has thrown is of the older-fashioned variety, single-soled; that is, with its handle permanently fixed to the top surface.

On the reverse are the words which show that the club which subscribed for the medal was that of Springholm in Kirkcudbrightshire. Sadly, although I have applied to some of the oldest and most knowledgeable curlers of that part of Scotland, such as Ramsay Lamont and Tom Rennie, I have been unable to find out anything about the history of this club.

The other medal is also old, and slightly larger. One can tell that it is old by the suspension, which consists of two, crossed brooms of early to mid-nineteenth century shape. My daughter noticed it in an antique emporium in Victoria Street, Edinburgh, long since replaced, as it happened, by my favourite curry restaurant, Khushi’s, sadly, also no more in that location for it burned down some months ago.

The medal to which my daughter drew my attention was blank on both sides; and so it remained for some time. As I found the blankness a bit displeasing, I decided to have the medal finished as it might have been more than a hundred years before.

What better motif for the obverse than a bearded, Tam-o-Shantered curler delivering a stone? I knew just the design: one of the water colours by R.M. Alexander, which belong to the Scottish Curling Museum Trust, fitted the bill exactly. And I knew just the man to do the engraving, John Grant, the superb heraldic engraver in Edinburgh.

I had an important birthday coming up; and I resolved that the beautifully engraved medal should be a present from me to me.

All that remained to do was compose the appropriate donation inscription: just within the rim:

DAVID BUCHANAN SMITH 31 OCTOBER 1996; and within that: GLACIEM AMAVIT ATQUE COTEM.

Quite a number of people have asked me from what Roman author the Latin quotation is taken. I have to confess that, Roman as it may look, it is entirely Scottish, made up by myself. It says: “He loved the ice and the stone.”

David B Smith.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Grand Match of 2010 That Never Was

It was not without some justification that a journalist from The Observer in 1963 described curling’s largest outdoor bonspiel as 'sport’s greatest non-event'. When I wrote about Grand Matches in my Curling: An Illustrated History, published in 1981, I was able to say that since the first and second in 1847 and 1848 there had been only 33 outdoor Grand Matches.

Sad to say, the Grand Total as at January 10, 2010, remains the same.

There are good reasons why such a large event can’t happen with great frequency.

First, the climate of Scotland is not really designed to give us enough ice very often. It is interesting to record – against all the recent statements that SEVEN or EIGHT inches of ice are needed – a piece from The Glasgow Herald of January 17, 1855:

“THE ROYAL CALEDONIAN CURLING CLUB MATCH. – The secretary of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club had reported last night that he would have been able to make arrangements for the national match on Tuesday next, but the reports from Carsebreck rendered that impossible. Ice four inches thick is deemed necessary to sustain the weight of so large a concourse of persons as usually attend the match, and this thickness has not yet been attained…”

This year, however, it was not a lack of thickness of ice, - whether FOUR or SEVEN inches are requisite - it was a lack of polis and emergency personnel to deal with a major incursion of traffic on minor roads already under strain from snow and ice, and all the anticipated emergencies, that caused the abandonment of attempts to put on a grand match at the Lake of Menteith.

Against the 'health and safety' arguments it may be worth saying – and saying loudly – that my researches over many years have disclosed NO FATALITIES AT ALL during the 163 years of Grand Matches.

The second reason for infrequency is that there is a major difference between a proposed match of the present day and all the pre-War events, namely, that now all the participants and spectators would expect to arrive in their own motor vehicles, whereas hitherto the main mode of transport was the railway train. Carsebreck had a railway siding, which, though far from ideal, allowed large numbers of curlers to disembark with their stones from numbers of special trains. An influx of curlers and spectators arriving by road would have been impossible at Carsebreck, just as it has been judged to be impossible to cope with at the Lake of Menteith.

Carsebreck siding 1929. The RCCC pond is to the right. The access was not ideal!

Many a match in the past had to be cancelled after all the arrangements including the marking out of the rinks had been accomplished.

Even when they did take place it was sometimes with difficulty.

The Match of January 29, 1929, was such a one. The report in the Annual says: “The Grand Match at Carsebreck was pulled off…with difficulty and under adverse conditions. Indeed, had the thaw been of a little longer standing or a little more rapid, play would have been impossible. As it was, the Match was played in circumstances of considerable discomfort…” January 29 was the fourth date fixed in that month.

Below are two more surviving photographs of the 1929 Match which give some idea of the uncomfortable conditions.

The busy scene at the pond-side. The reflections give a clue to the conditions underfoot on the ice.

This must be after the Match. Curlers ready to depart.

David B Smith

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Clarissa and the Wild Scotsmen

This photo was taken on Coodham Loch on January 3, 2010, as a number of enthusiasts were enjoying a great day curling on outside ice (photos here). David Smith is talking to local resident Katrina Tweedie, not herself a curler, but enjoying herself with her family skating on the loch.

The scene reminded me of a story David had written for the Hogliner daily magazine when the World Ladies Championship was held at Paisley's Lagoon Centre in 2005. Here's what he wrote:

"By the 1920s, when the following poem was composed, curling was very popular in Switzerland in all sorts of Alpine places, such as Chateau d’Oex, and Wengen and Kandersteg and St Moritz.

The game was as yet little played by the native Swiss but large numbers of Brits - English as well as Scots - spent a week or more in fine hotels enjoying outdoor curling in what was often clear, sunny weather. The apr├Ęs-curl was very important.

The poem and illustration are from a delightful little volume, Winter Sportings, by Reginald Arkell, published in 1929. Clarissa’s picture is by Lewis Baumer. Both convey the spirit of the times vividly.

The Girl Who Was Torn to Pieces by Wild Scotsmen

Clarissa - isn’t it a shame,
I can’t recall her other name,
I knew it once, but I forget -
Was just a modest violet
Who simply couldn’t stand a crowd.
She only asked to be allowed
To luge or bob or skate or ski
When no one else was there to see:
Avoided carnival and ball -
Was not gregarious at all.

Clarissa, one December day,
Had just arrived at Chateau d’Oex,
When she espied a sheet of ice
That looked particularly nice.
It’s surface was beyond compare,
No single skater skated there -
Clarissa didn’t stop to think,
She skated on the Curling Rink.

Oh me! Oh my! Oh us! Oh you!
There was a Bonspiel overdue,
And fifty lairds had taken pains
To polish up their granite stanes;
And fifty lairds were lurking round
The Curling Rink - that holy ground.

Beginners, please! The stage is set!
Clarissa lit a cigarette.
She puffed it gaily once or twice,
The threw it down upon the ice;
Waved to the Scotsmen standing by
And started in to do or die.

She died! In agony untold!
The dreadful details I withhold,
But, if you see a piece of ice,
That looks particularly nice,
Dear Reader, ere you start to skate,
Ponder upon Clarissa’s fate."

Needless to say, Katrina did not venture onto the curling rink last Sunday. Indeed her presence at Coodham was much appreciated by all the wild scotsmen present on the day - she heated up the lunchtime soup for us all. Thanks Katrina!