What are the origins of the Game that we all love and spend endless hours trying to perfect?
The game of Bowls is indeed an old one with records showing that the game was played in England as far back as the 12th and 13th Centuries.
When it arrived in Scotland is not certain, however the earliest record that we have of bowls being played in Edinburgh is during the Reign of King James1 where there is a mention of a green at Holyrood Palace.
King James was a keen player who had every confidence in his ability as a bowler and was prepared to place a wager on the Games that he participated in. Win or Lose did not matter to him as he had the Exchequer to pay his losses, as the Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of 1501 show.
Until the 19th Century almost every Laird’s house in and around Edinburgh had its own bowling green. Bowling greens were also to be found in most of the Closes leading of the Royal Mile; however we are uncertain if these Greens were open to the public.
In 1552 the general public did make an appeal to the Provost, Bailies, Deacons and other Honest men, urging the grant of Land near the head of Candlemaker Row as a place of “ Recreation in Archery, shooting with culverins and Bowling.” Unfortunately this request was turned down.
Bowling greens would eventually appear in various Locations around Edinburgh
- Canongate Tolbooth which eventually became to be known as Bowling Green Close,
- Pratt’s Inn near Potterrow
- George Inn at Bristo Port
Then a Green that was used extensively between 1692 and 1766 was purchased from the First Earl of Haddington. The house was renovated into a Hostelry and let to an Innkeeper named John Thomson, the Green then became known as “Tamsons Green”. However after the death of John the premises were sold. The new owners were not for bowls so the Green went into disrepair and the Bowlers left after 75 happy years.
Again the Bowlers would not be out done and found another Green nearby within the Grounds of Heriot’s hospital. Application was made to the Heriot’s Governors and permission was given to the Bowlers to play on this Green. The bowlers eventually formed themselves into the “Society of Bowlers” and made an application to the Town Council to obtain a “Seal of Cause” (Charter of Incorporation). In the town Council minutes of 1769 are recorded the names of the forty members of the “Society of Bowlers” and the seventeen Rules and Regulations to be kept by the bowlers.
The term “jack” was in use before that date but the Society called it the “Block”, The “Mat” was not mentioned, play being from the “Trig” – a mark on the ground. One rule states that “No beter, wager or bystander can give ground or advice in the game. If a beter, he forfeits his bets.
The Heriots green found much favour with the bowlers who used it for it was sheltered by the Town Wall but, unfortunately, they were unable to enjoy these facilities for very long as the Wall was pulled down in 1788, leaving the green very much exposed to public gaze. This was not at all to the liking of the bowlers; as a consequence most of them left for other greens very shortly afterwards. It is probable that the majority of them went to the green at Hope Park, opened in 1791 by the Royal Company of Archers, now the home of the Edinburgh Bowling Club.
Leith also had its greens in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries; there was one at the Ladies Walk near the foot of and now lost in Constitution Street. Another occupied the site of Taylor Gardens, near one of the Bastions of the Town Hall, while Bowling Green Street probably indicates the presence of a bowling green, perhaps situated on or near the banks of the Water of Leith. Thus, for several centuries, the game of bowls had been played in Edinburgh and Leith, but it was half way through the nineteenth century before there was any real attempt made to play the game in some regular form.
In 1848, the Edinburgh (Archers Hall) Club, became the first to be properly constituted and the next twenty years or so saw the establishment of several others. Friendly matches between the Clubs became a feature of their activities during the summer months.
Mr W.W Mitchell, a recognised authority on the game, formulated in 1849, a set of rules for playing the game of bowls, which were adopted generally by most of the Clubs in Scotland. He published revised versions of these in his “Manual of Bowling” and in 1873 in the Manual he also suggested that the game should be standardised and placed on a more regular footing. He strongly favoured the formations of a National body, but this met with little response. It is probable that Edinburgh Clubs played in accordance with his rules supplemented perhaps by rules of there own. However, it seems likely that Mitchell’s Manual must have had considerable influence in finally getting the bowling on to an organised basis.
It is not possible to Establish with any certainty just who was responsible for calling the first meeting of the clubs of Edinburgh and Leith, but evidence that such a meeting took place can be found in a report published in The Scotsman on Saturday 23rd February 1878.
A meeting of representatives of several bowling clubs of Edinburgh and Leith was held on Thursday 21st February, in the Ship Hotel, for the purpose of considering the desirability of instituting an Annual Competition amongst the Clubs of Edinburgh and Leith for a Cup or other Trophy to be played for in Rinks. Councillor J Baxter was called to the chair. It was unanimously agreed to recommend to the Clubs of Edinburgh and Leith that such should be instituted and an Association be formed for carrying out the object.
The first committee was as follows:
- President : Councillor Baxter
- Treasurer : R.S.Wilson of Drumdryan
- Secretary : Wm Thomson of Hillside
- General Committee from the following Clubs : Hillside, Drumdryan, West End, Summerside, Hermitage Place, Leith, Warriston, Mayfield and Hope Terrace
The committee quickly got to work and lost no time in putting forward a draft constitution for the following item appears in the Minutes of the Annual General Meeting of The Edinburgh West End Bowling Club held on the 29th March 1878, relative to the meeting reported by The Scotsman.
- The proposed Constitution and Rules of the Associated Bowling Clubs of Edinburgh and Leith were considered and it was resolved that the Club should join the Association and that £4.00 be suggested as the preliminary subscription from each club.
The Scotsman of Saturday 22nd June 1878, published the following notice under the heading “Associated Bowling Clubs of Edinburgh and Leith” The following seven clubs joined the Association: Archers Hall, Mayfield, Lutton Place, Drumdryan, West End, Hillside and Summerside. The competition for the Association Trophy will take place on Thursday 27TH June over 25 Ends.
The first game was played at Hillside with Drumdryan winning by 25 shots with an average of 8.33 per rink.
The Association grew in popularity eventually attracting new members:
- 1881 Northern, 1884 Coltbridge,1885 Seafield,1886 Ardmillan,1887 Pilrig,
In 1887 the Association made contact with Glasgow with a view to compete in an Inter-City match with teams being picked from a corresponding number of clubs, Glasgow declined this offer it was again attempted in 1891 however Glasgow again declined the Invitation.
Interest in the game was growing rapidly to such an extent as to allow clubs to play their friendly matches with both First and Second Sixteen’s.
In 1888 Mr James Bretsell expressed a strong opinion that a Champions competition would add much interest and stimulus to the game, and suggested that various Club Championships should be finished by the middle of July and that the champions should then play off for a badge and trophy. The first competition attracted eight of the eleven Associated Clubs.
The game was to be won of 31 shots up, the winner of the first competition was Mr John McBeen of the West End Club.
Immediately after the end of the first final, one of the spectators Mr William Tait of Rosehall Cottage, Dalkeith Road very generously offered to provide a trophy for the winner, an offer which was most gratefully accepted. He ultimately furnished designs for a trophy for the winner, to the value of Twenty Guineas, for the selection and acceptance of the Association. When the elegant vase was eventually handed over to the Association Mr Tait was very warmly and deservedly thanked.
From its inception in 1888 until 1900 the game was won of 31 shots up, in 1901 this was reduced to 25 shots up the first winner being Archie Martin of the West End Club and it remained this way until 1924. It was then reduced to 21 shots up as the game is now played today.
In the year 1918, the Annual General Meeting In response to an appeal from the British Red Cross society, City of Edinburgh branch, in connection of Scotland’s Red Cross Week, decided to organise a rink tournament on Wednesday evening 3rd of July, with all entry money to go to the Red Cross. Unfortunately no record could be found of the result of the competition however it was reported at the 1919 Annual General Meeting that sum of £109, 5- had been raised.
By the end of the First World War in 1918 the number of Clubs in membership had risen to 21. Interest in the game continued to increase after that period, and as a result many other clubs joined the Association, some of these conditions perhaps due to the extension of the City boundaries:Trinity, Whitehouse and Grange, Blackhall, Juniper and Green, Slateford and Corstorphine.
The Association continued to grow and by 1940 the clubs in membership had reached a total of 34. With all this added strength the Association was easily enabled to maintain its standing in the world of bowls as was shown in 1939, when this Association was only narrowly defeated by Ayrshire in the final of the new Scottish Counties Championship instituted in that year by the Scottish Bowling Association.
The Association has continued to grow to its current number of 50. The member clubs have and still produce Bowlers of a World Class Standard competing for Scotland all over the world, however that is another story.