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Scottish Traditions

The Sport of Curling

curling stone

There are several references to the game of curling in the Dictionary of the Scots Language, and some fascinating quotations. In the entry for curling there is reference to curling stones from 1638, and curler from 1639. The term curl is used to mean the curved motion of the stone. It is used in this sense in English too. In the 14th January 1882 edition of the Glasgow Herald it is used in this way: "With the richt strength and the richt curl on [we] sailed through the narrowest of ports".

John Kerr's History of Curling (1890) gives us some indication of how curling developed:

Curling when first practised, appears to have been a kind of quoiting on ice. The stones had no handles, but merely a kind of hollow or niche for the finger and thumb of the player, and they were evidently intended to be thrown, for at least part of the course, the rink being shorter than it is now.

In Thomas Pennant’s description from A Tour in Scotland (1772), the stones have handles:

Of the sports of these parts, that of curling is a favourite; and one unknown in England: it is an amusement of the winter, and played on the ice, by sliding from one mark to another, great stones of forty to seventy pounds weight, of a hemispherical form, with an iron or wooden handle at top. The object of the player is to lay his stone as near to the mark as possible, to guard that of his partner, which had been laid before, or to strike off that of his antagonist.

Some participants seem to have their own set of handles, as Joseph Laing Waugh outlines in Robbie Doo (1912): "Hingin' on the waa' were my auld freen Duke Smith's curlin'-stane handles".

Details of the equipment used and the rules of the game are rich sources of Scots vocabulary. In James Taylor's work Curling (1884) there is reference to: "The twa 'Ailsa Craigs'". Ailsa Craig is a volcano and curling stones were made from its granophyre rock. There were three types of stones or Ailsa, the Blue Hone, the Red Hone and what was known as the Common Ailsa. Hone as used in English, usually means 'whetstone'. The quotation from H. Crawford's A Descriptive and Historical Sketch of Curling (1828) adds to our understanding of the equipment and skills needed to be involved in the game:

Making him repeat the curling word, 'I promise never to go to the ice without a broom: I will fit fair; sweep weel; take all the brittle shots I can; cangle to a hair-breadth.'
The word cangle usually means to wrestle and dispute which shows how hotly contended the game was.

The contest would also be thoroughly enjoyable as shown in Allan Ramsay's Poems (1728):

From Ice with Pleasure he can brush the Snow,
And run rejoycing with his Curling Throw.

The curling-house is a hut near the pond, where the curling-stones are kept. This term may be familiar to you as it is used throughout Scotland. The words relating to the scoring system for the game might be less familiar. John Strathesk's More Bits from Blinkbonny (1885) gives us some helpful information about the term hog-score: "Allan's first stone was a 'Hog', i.e. did not cross a line called the 'hog-score', which lay about seven yards back from the Tee".

In the Royal Caledonian Curling Club Annual of 1940 we learn that this was not a good thing: "Every Stone which does not clear the Hog Score shall be a Hog, and must be removed from the ice". Hog-score also appears in James Kennedy's Scottish and American Poems (1883):
Ne'er ahint the hog-score droopin' —
Ne'er gaed skitin past the tee
and we also find it in The Channel-Stane, Or, Sweepings frae the Rinks, a collection of curling-related literature edited by John Macnair (1884): "As the stone neared the hog-score….he broke the silence with — 'He’s the very curl, he has it, he has it, to a hair's breadth'." The channel-stane of the title refers to the original source of the stones, which were taken from a river.

In David Jardine Bell-Irving's Tally-Ho (1920) we learn about another target, the pot lid: "We stood twenty all, with one of my stones on the 'pot lid' with a narrow port to run just over the hog score". The circle at the end of the rink at which the stones are aimed in curling was called the cock, as shown in the following quotation from Walter Scott's Guy Mannering (1817): "He just asked questions…about the folk that was playing at the curling, and about auld Jock Stevenson that was at the cock". Or in Robert Burns' Tam Samson's Elegy (1786) when he describes a poignant scene:

When to the loughs the curlers flock,
Wi' gleesome speed,
Wha will they station at the cock? —
Tam Samson's dead!

The phrase to be (have) a' the curle or the very curl means to have played the winning shot, as illustrated in George MacIndoe's Poems and Songs (1805):

Then down the port like a king's cutter,
Your stane'll slide into the whitter.
He's a' the curle! the game is ended.

Some curlers formed societies. A curler's grip was a secret handshake used by some groups and a curling court was a mock judiciary of curlers which was sometimes held after a Curling Club supper to check that rules were observed. Indeed, the game of curling seems to have brought whole communities together and was absorbing for those taking part as shown in A Statistical Account of Scotland from Ayr of 1795:

Their chief amusement in winter is curling, or playing stones on smooth ice; they eagerly vie with one another who shall come nearest the mark, and one part of the parish against the another, one description of men against another, one trade or occupation against another, — and often one whole parish against another, — earnestly contend for the palm, which is generally all the prize.
This dedication is shown in Burns' Vision (1786) too:
The sun had clos'd the winter-day,
The Curlers quat their roaring play.

If curling is a game you know well and you know of other interesting Scots words connected with this sport you would like to share with us, please let us know.