Origins of Football In Scotland

The Early Beginnings of Scottish Football: Popularity Amid Violence

As in the case within the rest of Britain, football in Scotland existed long before its formal organization in the nineteenth century. While varieties of the game differed regionally, there were enough shared characteristics and widespread popular involvement such that a dominant version of football with a common set of codified rules evolved over time.

The earliest mention of Scottish football dated back to 1424 in which the Scottish Parliament under King James I outlawed the game in favor of archery, citing the military advantages archery possessed in relation to football as well as the disruptive nature of football.[1] At this time, football was not a widespread sport with universally established rules. In fact, football during this period was a term for almost any ball game not played on horseback; our modern version of football and rugby were both considered to be football. Due to its lack of a collective structure, rules were often misinterpreted and disregarded, leading to a generally chaotic style of play. As a result, Scottish football in the 15th century was a violent game with even more violent outcomes. For example, a court case in 1601 documented a quarrel arising from an on-field incident during a recreational match that resulted in drawn pistols and the deaths of two brothers,[2] while King James VI decried football as a “rough and violent exercise.”[3] Scottish literature describing “broken banis” and “stryfe discorde” further supported the notion of football being an extremely violent game. While the rules and structure of the game would change over time, the often brutal, always passionate nature of the sport characterized Scottish society and became emblematic of Scottish football for years to come.

The characteristics of early Scottish football resulted in its opposition by the Church as well as by local businesses. In addition to the violent nature of the game (which for obvious reasons clashed with religious values), football was also regularly played on the Sabbath. As football during this period was a largely recreational form of entertainment, it was often accompanied by alcohol-induced rowdiness and a general disturbance of the peace; for example, in June, 1607, a group of youths in Aberdeen were charged with “drinking, playing…futte-ball, danceing, and passing fra paroche to paroche.”[4] In another case in 1648, a crowd of men who had played football on the Sabbath were found guilty of “scandalous behavior in convening themselves upon the Lord’s day to a public footballing.[5] This general rowdiness often escalated to rioting in the event of a closely contested game, for while football matches in the 17th and 18th century were largely recreational, the outcomes were nonetheless an important source of pride for the players. The combination of these aspects had the potential to divert the practice of espoused moral values and thus a made football a threat to the established order of the Church, which actively sought to inhibit participation in football. On a more secular level, local employers sought to discourage the and even ban football in Scotland, as participants in the sport often suffered injuries as a result of the game and the commotion that followed. The Company of Hammermen of Perth forbade “servants and apprentices” to play football “under penalty of a pound of wax,”[6] while the Flesher’s Corporation fined those found to be “guiltie at the rastling at the football.”[7] Despite this opposition, zealous, often violent rioting following a football match persisted and would become synonymous with Scottish football as a whole.

On top of religious and commercial opposition, football was also largely opposed by the Scottish government, as the disruptive nature of early Scottish football led to a series of acts outlawing the playing of the game. On the local scale, football threatened to upset peaceful communities; the town council of Jedburgh, disturbed by the violent nature of Scottish football in which “sometimes both old and young near lost their lives,” voted to permanently ban football. On the national scale, football was considered an unruly pastime counterproductive to national harmony and interests. The Parliament under Kings James II, III, and IV all voted to prohibit football in 1457, 1471, and 1491, respectively, and it voted to specifically forbid participation in football matches on the Sabbath in 1656. [8]

However, the popularity of the sport did not subside even under its prohibition or the violent conditions under which it was played, as evidenced by the need of future rulers to repeatedly pass similar decrees outlawing football. In fact, football became increasingly celebrated in Scotland, and its rough nature—rather than discouraging people from playing—actually contributed to its popularity. The physical nature of the game was embraced by a society that valued toughness and masculinity, and participation in football thereby became a test of a youth’s manliness. Literary observations in the 17th century attested to this notion; in one poem written in 1633, the Scottish author William Lithgow lauded the way in which the masculinity of football instilled important values such as perseverance:

“For Manly exercise, is shreudly gone,

Foot-ball and Wrestling, throwing of the Stone;

Jumping and breathing, practices of strength

Which taught them to endure, hard things at length.[9]

The very reason why football was so widely opposed by the government, the Church, and the business sector allowed football to steadily grow in popularity among the majority of the Scottish population. In a 1708 survey on the state of Scotland, football is referred to as a sport to which the common people were addicted to.[10] However, while Scottish interest in football would continue to remain at a reasonably high level throughout the 18th century, it was not until the birth of professional Scottish football that interest would reach its unparalleled fanaticism.

Professional Football and Unprecedented Popularity

Although football enjoyed extensive support among the Scottish people in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the lack of structure and organization on the national scale prevented its ascendance as the national pastime of Scotland. Without a common set of rules, it was impossible for football to completely expand beyond individual regions because multiple versions of football were being played. Consequently, Scottish football in the 18th century—while popular—was fragmented and did not come to dominate national attention.  Furthermore, while the violent nature of the sport certainly encouraged participation among a large part of the population, it also inhibited the development of the game, as technical skill was eschewed due to its ineffectiveness in a game lacking a set of properly enforced rules. However, following the establishment of the Cambridge rules within England in 1848, a universal form of football began spreading throughout British universities, including those in Scotland.[11] Small football clubs formed accordingly near these universities, providing the foundation for future professional football. Meanwhile, the growing acceptance of these rules changed the nature of Scottish football itself; technical and tactical proficiency became much essential factors in the outcome of football match. An observer of a match between Edinburgh students and a local club team in 1851 noted that the students’ superiority in physicality and effort was not enough to counter the tactical discipline of their opponents.[12] The necessary conditions for professional Scottish football and the further expansion of the sport had now been established.

The development of a universal set of rules and the resulting increase in football clubs created an interest in competitive matches between organized sides. However, without a governing body to organize a cohesive system of scheduling, matches were difficult to arrange and often took place under disorganized conditions. The Scottish Football Association was jointly founded in 1873 by a group of eight amateur clubs to solve this issue. The coalition was led by Queen’s Park, which would prove to the dominant force in early Scottish football, and also included Clydesdale, Dumbreck, Eastern Granville, Third Lanark and Vale of Leven.[13] Under the umbrella of the Scottish Football Association, these eight teams would compete against one another annually for the Scottish Cup, which Queen’s Park would win for the first three years. [14] Further growth in the popularity of football led to the formation of the Scottish Football League in 1890, an act that was pushed hardest by the recently established Celtic F.C.[15] The creation of the League was not without controversy, however, as it posed the question of whether football should be an amateur or professional sport. Celtic, Rangers, and the other founding members of the league embraced professionalism as a way to maximize the growth of the sport, while several other clubs—most prominently Queen’s Park, which was at the time the premier Scottish club—opposed the professionalization of what they believed should be an inherently amateur pursuit. The forces of professionalism prevailed, as professional football allowed football clubs to reap enormous economic rewards. Matches between Celtic and Rangers at the end of the 1890’s routinely drew $1,000 per game, an enormous figure at the time, and these financial dividends proved to be critical to the clubs’ fortunes.[16] By the time Queen’s Park reluctantly joined the Scottish League in 1893, Celtic and Rangers had already began their ascent to the pinnacle of Scottish football.

Sectarian History in Scotland: Igniting the Old Firm

The origins of the Old Firm rivalry that would come to dominate modern Scottish football can be traced deep in Scottish history and was a composite of a number of different forces and tensions. The Protestant reformation that began in late 16th century had an astounding effect on the Scottish ideology. Every cultural, physical, and social trace of Catholicism was vigorously demolished, and the small contingent that still adhered to Catholicism was driven out into isolated regions of Scotland.[17] Even after Catholicism seemingly ceased to be a threat to Protestantism, it was nonetheless hated with utmost vigor; in 1790, Glasgow’s anti-Catholic societies outnumbered its total Catholic population, 43-39.[18]

However, economic and political turmoil in Ireland, which culminated in the Great Famine in the 1840’s, led to the large-scale emigration of many Irish families to Scotland and a consequent clash of religious and cultural ideology.[19] With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the early nineteenth century, Scotland was the ideal destination for many Irish, and Glasgow in particular was an attractive location, for it experienced a surge in its manufacturing industries and thus an increase of available jobs. Unsurprisingly, the Protestant Scottish population resented the flood of Irish Catholic immigrants, as in addition to the cultural differences between the two groups, the anti-Catholic movement that had dominated 18th century Scotland was reignited with the influx of Catholic people and values. The Irish were derided as uncivilized and unskilled. Scottish newspapers described them as “ape-faced” and “small headed” while “No Irish Need Apply” notices became a common sight throughout Scotland.[20] At the same time, the Irish immigrants felt a keen sense of distrust towards the Scottish, who they perceived as having played a large role in the subjugation of Ireland and the ensuing instability.[21] Segregation inevitably occurred, and the Irish immigrants formed their own communities in which Irish Catholicism and culture were both preserved. Nevertheless, ideological hostility persisted, and football allowed for the direct confrontation of these values in the form of the Old Firm rivalry, one which, given the historically violent nature of Scottish football, the frequency of football-associated rioting, and the intensity of partisan antagonism within Scotland, would prove to be intensely passionate throughout the 20th century.

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[1] Rogers, Charles, “The Poetical Remains of King James the First of Scotland.”  Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 2, (1873), pp. 297-392.

[2] Magoun, Francis P. “Scottish Popular Football, 1424-1815. The American Historical Review, Vol. 37, (Oct. 1931), p. 5.

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Ibid. 6

[5] Ibid. 7

[6] Marples, M. A History of Football. London: Secker and Warburg, 1954.

[7] Magoun, 8.

[8] Ibid., 1-2.

[9] Lithgow, William. “Scotland’s Welcome to Her Native Sonne and Soveraigne Lord King Charles.” The Poetical Remains of William Lithgow  the Scottish Traveler, now first collected. Edinburgh: Thomas George Stevenson, 1863.

[10] Chamberlayne, John. Magnae Brittaniae Notitia: or, the Present State of Great Britain. London, 1708.

[11] Harvey, Adrian. Football: The First Hundred Years. New York: Routledge, 2005, p. 83.

[12] Ibid., 83.

[13] “Scotland- The Scottish Football Association.” The Global Football Database. (accessed 9 December 2009).

[14] Cox, Richard. “Scottish Football.”Encyclopedia of British Football. London: Frank Cass, 2002, p. 278.

[15] Ibid., 278.

[16] Murray, Bill. The Old Firm: Sectarianism, Sport and Society in Scotland. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd., 1984. p. 6.

[17] Ibid., 75.

[18] Ibid., 75.

[19] Ibid., 6.

[20] Bradley, Joseph. Celtic Minded. Glasgow: Argyll Publishing, 2004, p. 21.

[21] Bradley, Celtic Minded, 20.

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