September 23, 2014
The Reverend John Hamilton’s exquisite legacy
2014 promises to be special if for no other reason than the month of August, which will have five Fridays, five Saturdays and five Sundays, something that happens once every 800-plus years. That means the only present-day sport being played the last time the calendar produced this oddity was some Scottish shepherds whacking round stones into rabbit holes with their crooks.
Doubters suggest such beginnings apocryphal and propose the game of golf came to northern Britain much later, in the 1420s after a Scots regiment, fighting with the French against the English at the Siege of Baugé during the Hundred Years War, was introduced to chole.
Put it to any Scotsman that his national pastime derives from a European two-team game played with a single ball where scoring meant striking a church door with the ball and get ready to run, fast.
What is clear is that by 1457 golf had taken such a hold on the Scots that the parliament of James II banned playing the game Sundays so that “the day of rest” could be dedicated to the practice of archery, requisite military training for a country almost constantly at war with England.
This Sunday ban was reaffirmed in 1470 and again in 1491. Yet although offenders could be fined as much as a week’s wages or even sent to a bread-and-water prison the game thrived, and in 1502 the prohibition was finally lifted. That was the same year Scots king James IV purchased his first set of golf clubs, ironically made by a bow-maker from Perth.
The ban meant it was mostly the rich, those not required to work from daylight to dusk Monday to Saturday, who played what came to be known as “the royal and ancient game.” But it was commoners, including these shepherds, who really made it thrive.
A seminal moment took place 1553 when the Archbishop of St. Andrews, John Hamilton, issued a decree giving the local populace the right to play golf on the seaside links bordering the town — which is why you, dear commoner, 460 years later, can actually play the Old Course.
More than half a century later, in 1616, the common man’s rights to golf were enshrined in national charter, when King James I of England-James VI of Scotland, confirmed the right of all to play golf on Sundays.
By the 1700s the game, initially played on Scotland’s eastern seaboard, had spread west, then south into England and as the old British Empire continued to expand, pretty soon around the world.
The game has also attracted the distaff side for much longer than one might imagine. Naturally the most famous is Mary, Queen of Scots, who in 1567 was accused of taking to the links within a fortnight of her husband’s murder. Possibly lesser know is that the first tournament for ladies took place in 1810, held by the Musselburgh Club, for the local fisherwomen. So here’s to 2014, hopefully yet another vintage year!