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Firming up the "Old Firm"

Alison Grant


Soccer ball
The term 'Old Firm' is a long-established designation for Rangers and Celtic football teams collectively, although up until now printed evidence substantiating this longevity has proved oddly elusive. The earliest attestation in both the Scottish National Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1989, which in both cases is a quote from Richard Holt's book Sport and the British, in which he suggests that "Only Rangers and Celtic made much money — hence the original meaning of the term 'The Old Firm'."

However, a search through some of the older Scottish newspapers provides the much-needed confirmation of the antiquity of this phrase. A column in the Dundee Evening Telegraph from Monday 29th March 1909 laments an upcoming Old Firm fixture:

The Scottish Finalists.
So, after all, it is to be "the old firm," Rangers and Celtic, that is to contest the Scottish Cup Final at Hampden on 10th April. 'Tis a pity for Scottish football that it is to be so. Better a thousand times it had been for the game had some other club been equal to the occasion, for one feels that there can be too much of Rangers or Celtic or both year in year out in the last bout. This is the third year in succession that the Celts have shared in most of the coin forthcoming from the Scottish Cup...

Viewed in isolation, the writer's objections to the pecuniary gain connected with the Cup tie might appear to corroborate Richard Holt's assertion that the nickname refers to the financial success of the two teams. However, when this article is compared with a substantial body of other late 19th and early 20th century newspaper occurrences of the term 'old firm' where it is found in a more general sporting context, the financial aspect begins to look like something of a red herring.

For example, a racing column in the Glasgow Herald dated Monday 6th September 1897 reveals that a horse named Butter racing in the upcoming St Leger Stakes:

was bred by Lord Falmouth, who, caring far more for soldiering than he does for horsemanship, leased him to the "old firm," as the partnership between Lord Alington and Sir Frederick Johnstone is called.

A description of a Scotland-England international football match in the Dundee Evening Telegraph from Monday 2nd April 1900 records that:

The forward team upsets most forecasts. Bloomer and Athersmith, as well as G. O. Smith, all belong to the old firm who have left their mark on Scotland's goal record long ago.

Another example relating to international football is found in the coverage of a forthcoming Scotland-Wales match in Edinburgh Evening News of Friday 17th January 1902:

THE SCOTO-WELSH MATCH. The Scottish side chosen a week ago to confront Wales at Cardiff has been well canvassed by this time, and although alleged flaws have not escaped comment, the universal attitude of the critics might be said to be one of hearty homologation of the Union's action in standing by the "old firm."

A quote from the same newspaper dating from Friday 19th August 1904 reveals that the term was also used in reference to cyclists:

VULCAN CYCLING CLUB.
POSTPONED RACE MEETING will be held at TYNECASTLE PARK, WEDNESDAY FIRST, 24th AUGUST, at 6.30 p.m. SUPPORT THE OLD FIRM. THE LAST CHANCE THIS SEASON TO SEE ALL THE CHAMPIONS.

A further footballing instance, illustrating the term being used in reference to Dundee F.C., is found in the Dundee Courier dating from Tuesday 14th September 1909:

With the exception of Mair for Neal, the team will be as usual. Hunter will not be ready for either of the matches named, but so long as Langlands continues to fill the position so admirably, the "Sailor's" absence will not be so keenly felt. Of course, we would rather have the "old firm" at work.

A quote from the (Lanarkshire) Post of Sunday 3rd June 1917 describes an Athletics event held in Celtic Park:

Three flat events have filled well, and the dark horses still come. It will take a good tipster to get at the winners so early in the season. Several of the old firm look the goods on paper, and the Celts' cinders suit the backmarkers, though a lad who ran round in the Celts' 100 last year, Johnnie Crawfurd, a Bothwell Harrier, should be in the picture from the 7 yards' mark.

Finally, the same newspaper contains a football column from Sunday 18th April 1926, recording that:

Airdrieonians have signed on nine of their last season's first eleven. It is more than likely that the old firm will be completed when they are touring in England next week at Leicester and Bury.

All of these extracts suggest that 'old firm' was being used as an extension of the business sense of the term: that is to refer to associates of long standing or a well-established line-up, either in reference to teams featuring recurring players, or teams meeting as a recurring fixture in a sporting event. In the case of Rangers and Celtic, the term may have specifically emerged in reference to their popularity as a derby fixture, and their long-standing dominance of cup finals. Over the last century, the term seems to have evolved from quite a general term meaning simply 'the usual lot, the local favourites' (in any sporting context) into a far narrower term exclusively designating the two Glasgow football teams.

It is apparent however, that there is no suggestion in any of these quotations that the term had particular monetary connotations, and it is worth noting that there are plenty of other 'old firm' references to the Glasgow teams from the same year as our original quote which make no reference to money either, for example:

The Final at Hampden...at Hampden to-morrow Celtic and Rangers, or the "old firm," as they are known, will provide the entertainment. (Dundee Evening Telegraph, Friday 9th April 1909)

And also:

Celtic and Rangers had victories on Saturday, and when the old "firm" meet in the Cup ties a hard game is expected. (Dundee Evening Telegraph, Thursday 30th September 1909)

On the basis of this evidence, it will now be possible to create a new entry for 'old firm' for the revised Concise Scots Dictionary, detailing the history and development of this previously under-researched phrase.