The Curling Stone with an H and the formation of East Linton Curling Club
A Personal View Display Case by David Affleck
The history of curling in East Lothian is a long one, and still being uncovered. This display, in a Personal View case in the museum at the John Gray Centre, reveals what we know of the story so far. You can hear a description of the display by David Affleck on our Talking Museum pages.
At the foot of the display is a shaped stone with the letter H roughly inscribed on the top. It is approximately 40cm long, 20cm wide and 20cm high (16” x 8 x 8”). It has an iron handle and weighs about 50 pounds (20 kilograms).
These early curling stones were sometimes called channel stones because they were usually found in rivers and streams where the running water had created a smooth surface over the years. On the left panel, there is a photograph of a similar stone at the mouth of the Pease Burn getting smoothed by the power of the advancing waves. We know that stones like this were collected from the Pease Burn on the border of East Lothian and Berwickshire. The early game of curling only involved each player throwing one stone unlike today when four players in a team (called a rink) each throw two round stones.
The stone with the H was donated to the museum in 2012 having been being found on the pond at Lawhead Farm on Tyninghame estate around 1970. We know that stones like this were found in the old Bowling Green area at Haddington in the late 1700s. In the mid 1800s, a Dr Howden lived in Maitlandfield House which is now the Maitlandfield hotel. He told a keen Haddington curler about stones with handles being found when he was a boy and that no one knew what they were for. We also know that the farmer who lived at Lawhead from 1787 to 1851 was an Andrew Howden. He was a cousin of Dr Howden’s father. At the display there is a recording about Andrew Howden’s life as an experimental farmer, which you can listen to here.
There is a photograph of another early curling stone on the left hand side of the back panel. It has a date of 1698 cut into the side and has a link with the Buchan Hepburn family of Smeaton in East Linton. But like the stone with the H, its history is a mystery. It is not impossible that it belonged to the Buchan family of Letham near Haddington. They owned that estate in the late 1700s. It is larger in size and weight. These two stones are the only evidence we have of the sport of curling in this area before round curling stones were introduced when new rules for the game of curling were first published in 1811. These rules became adopted in Scotland when the new Grand Caledonian Curling Club was formed in 1838.
Two of these are a small printed book with a list of names and a slightly larger minute book. If you look carefully, you may spot that an entry for 1838 comes after the entry for 1844. The names listed in the 1838 entry do not agree with the names listed in the small printed book. For example, Andrew Howden is listed in the minute book as an office holder in 1838 but he did not join the club until 1840. This is one of the hidden histories of the club which research on the story of the stone has uncovered.
East Linton Club was one of the earliest in East Lothian and a founder member of the Grand Caledonian Curling Club formed in 1838. The small printed book was published when the new national curling organisation, the Grand Caledonian Curling Club was established in 1838. The printed list gives the names of the president, the secretary and treasurer, and the names of the original club members. We now know that there were two distillers, a schoolmaster, a wright or carpenter, a merchant, a farrier, a baker, a flesher resident in Leith, a baronet, a corn agent and eight farmers. Out of the twenty-one members, thirteen were resident in the parish of Prestonkirk.
Sir David Baird, the club’s first president, inherited his father’s estate at Newbyth estate east of Lawhead farm in 1828. There is a photograph of his house at Newbyth estate on the panel to the left of the display case. On the back panel of the display there is a map of the Lawhead, Smeaton and Newbyth area of East Lothian which was published in 1832. When icy conditions allowed, club games were held at Newbyth lake and Lawhead pond. The year 1837 is noted as having been a very severe and prolonged winter and it would be a surprise if curling was not held that year or even earlier. We need to find an earlier minute book.
On the left of the display just above the stone with the H, there is one of the earliest photographs of curling. It is a game held on the manmade lake formed by 1830 at Smeaton estate which lies just to the south of Newbyth. The photo is believed to have been taken about 1860. By that time the requirement to play with round curling stones had been established. The curlers have brooms made from twigs or bunched corn stalks and are wearing different styles of hats including a top or lum hat. Canadian curlers still sometimes play with corn brooms which when used with vigour on the ice, heats the ice and enables the curling stone to travel further. The modern curling brush achieves the same effect and avoids leaving debris on the ice which can affect the route of the stone.
At the bottom of the display on the right is a tartan bonnet, similar to bonnets and Glengarries used in the rare outdoor curling matches. It has a selection of club curling badges pinned to the top. Curlers give presents of their club badge to their opponents when they take part in important matches. Sometimes they are offered for sale on Ebay!
Why is the stone with the H important? In trying to research its story, an earlier history of what happened in the early years of East Linton curling club has emerged. It has also helped to uncover stories of the lives of the people who took part in the game of curling in the East Linton area and the part that the club played in forming the Royal Caledonian Curling Club of today. There are still missing bits of the jigsaw before the fuller story of the stone and its part in the game of curling in the East Lothian area can be concluded.
Robert Noble the significant artist was a keen curler and member of the club in the late 1800s . He was also secretary of another club, Tyneside, which was formed in 1909 when an artificial pond was created beside the River Tyne. In 1903 he presented one of his paintings for sale in aid of club funds that year. It raised the sum of £10/6/6 after expenses of 28/-. The large minute book records the thanks of the members for this gift.
Can we find out who bought it and maybe which painting it was? What might it sell for today?
Modern-day curling clubs
There are eight curling clubs in East Lothian today that still compete together. The Musselburgh club has kept its link with Midlothian. The East Linton club currently has 35 members and plays indoors at Murrayfield in Edinburgh. Today, most clubs consist of men and women being in the same team but competitions can be for ladies, men, juniors or mixed teams. Wheelchair curling is popular and is a Winter Olympic sport. One of the best ways to learn about the game is to attend a come-and-try event and learn how to enjoy the game as well as being safe on the ice.
Analysing networks of individuals and groups has been a topic that fascinates me. It was a developed skill in my professional career and in my earlier management training. So when I was asked to look at a curling club membership for an Open University project, I declined as it would not be enough of a challenge. Fifteen years on and after the discovery of a curling stone retrieved from a farm pond, I have finally taken up the challenge. Minutes of meetings do not always tell the full story. The East Linton minutes started in 1844. Could the club history for the earlier years be recreated? Who were the men who took the step to form the East Linton Club, how did the group or club develop, and how did East Linton compare with other East Lothian clubs when they were set up?
In the words of Pierre Abelard (1079–1142), ‘The key to wisdom is this – constant and frequent questioning.’