If archery has martial roots, the origins of lawn bowling are its antithesis! In the 16th century, when men should have been at archery practice, we know many nipped off for a game of bowls instead. Indeed, such was the pastime’s attraction that it was better than going to Church. The evidence of its popularity is thus twofold – edicts that discourage bowls but promote archery and rebukes from the pulpit against Sunday bowling.
It is difficult to trace the locations of early rinks. The oldest records relate to those associated with royal palaces (yes, monarchs could forbid on the one hand and keenly compete on the other). In East Lothian, Haddington had its green in the 1660s, but it relocated in 1749 to a still extant (albeit a garden now) site on the west bank of the Tyne by the Nungate Bridge. Some authorities consider that the foundation of the Haddington Club in 1709 marks the beginning of the modern sport. Other burghs and communities had their greens, as did a number of the landed estates but a clear sight of their activities is not really evident until the 19th century. As the sport began to regulate itself in the middle of the century, East Lothian clubs were represented. When the East Lothian Bowling Association came together in 1893, 11 clubs became founder members (there were others – they joined later).
If archery has faded in popularity bowling has sustained its appeal, even if its current following has dipped from its early 20th century peak. Many clubs have purchased their greens (it was typical once that ground for a green was leased or feued from a local estate) and their activities are an integral part of many county communities. A host of East Lothian bowlers have competed at district, national and international level of whom, perhaps, Willie Wood MBE is the doyen. Willlie competed internationally into his 70s and holds two Commonwealth Gold medals amongst his many trophies.
For those researching family history, a number of the clubs have websites with short histories. Lists of past winners and committee members can be another source. The Archives at the John Gray Centre have many records associated with lawn bowling. More references can be found in the indexes of the local press and the annual registers of the county, also held at the John Gray Centre.