Scotland’s Winter Sports

We’re in the year of History, Heritage & Archaeology … so our look at Scotland’s winter sports takes a step back in time to discover the beginnings of two of the most popular pastimes at this time of year: curling and skiing …

If you are in Ayrshire – on the coast – take a look out to Ailsa Craig, the iconic rocky island sitting in the Firth of Clyde. Almost two miles in circumference, it rises to 1,110 feet (338m) and was formed as a result of intense volcanic activity some 60 million years ago. A strategic landmark between Scotland and Ireland, Ailsa Craig has a long history going back to the late 1500s when a castle was built by the then Marquess of Ailsa to protect the island from Spanish invaders. Hardly a place you’d associate with winter sports. What you might not realise as you gaze west is that you are looking at the world’s largest – and many would say best – source of Curling stones.

Stone me …

Curling has its origins in medieval Scotland. The first note of a game involving stones on ice dates from 1541 and is recorded in Paisley Abbey. The first time ‘curling’ appears in print was in a work by Perth poet Henry Adamson in 1620. But it was played even earlier. When a pond in Dunblane was drained, it revealed several ancient stones – one inscribed with 1511. Kilsyth Curling Club, instituted in 1716, claims to be the world’s oldest and is still in existence – celebrating its 300th anniversary in 2016.

Curling at Eglinton Castle (by Roger Griffith – Archival) and The Grand Match on Linlithgow Loch, 1848, oil painting by Charles Lees.

 

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Marquess’ castle on Ailsa Craig was used as a prison but his decision to grant exclusive quarrying rights to Kays of Scotland in 1851 led to the island being recognised as the best source of Curling stone granite. It produces three types – Blue Hone, Common Green and Red Hone. In days gone by, Blue Hone was the curlers choice, but times change. Uninhabited – it is now a bird sanctuary and home to large numbers of various species of birds including gannets, razorbills, kittiwakes, herring gulls, shags and puffins – its wildlife reserve status means that quarrying is restricted. Stone is quarried, removed to the mainland, and manufactured as required. That includes the exclusive manufacturing of all Olympic curling stones for more than a decade.

Today, mainly from centuries of migrating Scots, Curling is played in Canada, the United States, Switzerland, Sweden, Brazil, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and China.

 

Heading to discover this corner of Scotland?

Check out Bargany Gardens and their self-catering Coach House near Girvan. This cottage sleeps 4 and is a great place surrounded by stunning woods and gardens. Looking for something larger? Blairquhan Castle provides a wealth of options – from rooms in the castle to cottages in the grounds. It is a stunning location.

 

On the piste …

We are most likely familiar with what are now recognised as Scotland’s main winter resorts across the Highlands – from Glencoe and the Nevis Range on the west, through to the Cairngorm Mountains, Glenshee and The Lecht in the east. But we’re interested in where folk went skiing before these were developed … before the lifts, when folk climbed to get the best runs.

Images used with thanks to each …
Glencoe Mountain, Nevis Range (from @pegerteg on Twitter – a collection of old postcards),
Cairngorms Mountains (from@sforbes94 on Instagram), Glenshee and The Lecht.

 

The birth of skiing in Scotland is attributed to the mountaineer William Wilson Naismith – co-founder of the Scottish Mountaineering Club. Records are divided as to whether it was skiing through the Campsie Fells in 1890 or his descent of Meikle Bin in the Kilsyth Hills in 1892 – but William seems to be the father of Scottish skiing. Delve into history and you unearth some extraordinary heritage.

The Lowther Hills in the Southern Uplands – from the east of Dumfries & Galloway to South Lanarkshire – saw not only a host of the very first Curling societies in the 1700s but lays claim to be the cradle of Scotland’s snowsports. In the early 20th century, long before the highland resorts took shape, skiing enthusiasts in and around the Lowther Hills started promoting it as a skiing destination. The Hopetoun Arms Hotel promoted Leadhills as a place to visit for guests to enjoy the fresh mountain air – in the fashion of the early alpine resorts. A railway line to Leadhills and Wanlockhead was built to meet the “growing popularity of the Leadhills district as a summer resort” and the hotel – and others – saw the opportunity to attract skiers come winter.

Lowther Hills in recent times – a century of downhill fun.

 

In the ’20s, the hotel was hiring ski equipment and the then manager provided ski lessons. In 1953, The South of Scotland Ski Club was created to exploit the Lowther Hills – and the Hotel was their HQ. Glencoe is credited with having Scotland’s first ski lift, but the Lowther Hills launched their own in the same year – in 1956.

Further north – but not in the ski resorts we see today – another area blazed a trail as a ‘must visit’ for the pioneers of Scottish skiing. Beinn Ghlas is a mountain in the Southern Highlands on the north shore of Loch Tay. A little known Munro yet one of the most frequently climbed as it is on the path used by most when bagging Ben Lawers.

You won’t find any plaques or signs of the hill’s skiing heritage yet the slopes of Beinn Ghlas played an important role in the history of Scottish skiing. In 1934, The Scottish Ski Club held the country’s first ever slalom race. Two years later, the same slopes saw Scotland’s first straight downhill race. In ’37, skiers were carried up Beinn Ghlas in a Citroën Kegresse, so giving rise to cat-skiing … decades before it became common on continental and North American slopes.
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The following YouTube clip is made by a group of Scottish skiers and filmmakers – The Mountain Goats. They camped on Beinn Ghlas to make this film in an attempt to capture the hill’s all-but-forgotten skiing past …

Mains of Taymouth features in the filmn clip. It is close to Beinn Ghlas, set in stunning countryside and provides 4 & 5 star luxury pet-friendly accommodation with hot tubs & private gardens. You can enjoy fab facilities including a Golf Course, Riding Stables, Courtyard Bar & Restaurant … and boat hire. If you’re heading to Beinn Ghlas, why not stay at the Mains to explore the area?

 

Interested in Curling?

The Royal Caledonian Curling Club (RCCC) is the National Governing Body for Scottish Curling. With approximately 12,500 members in over 640 clubs it is one of the largest governing bodies of sport in Scotland. Curling is a game which is played and enjoyed in communities across Scotland and is renowned for its proud history, traditions and great friendships. Participating in sport can improve the quality of life of individuals and communities, promote social inclusion, improve health and raise individual self-esteem and confidence. We are committed to promoting the sport and increasing participation levels among all ages, sexes and abilities. Our mission is to develop a robust infrastructure of clubs and facilities that will support the growth of the sport, increase the number of people who enjoy curling in Scotland and sustain medal success at world class levels. Follow this link for contact information.

Interested in Skiing?

The Scottish Ski Club (SSC) was founded in 1907 to promote all types of skiing in Scotland. Membership is open to anyone with an interest in skiing. A quarterly newsletter is circulated with details of club affairs, forthcoming attractions and reports. The Club Journal is a permanent record which is produced annually highlighting the wealth of experience and knowledge covering the whole spectrum of skiing. Club huts at Cairngorm, Glencoe, Glenshee and Nevis Range provided excellent meeting places for members as well as a secure refuge from the elements. Follow this link for contact information.

With thanks to many for information used in this Blog …

The Lowther Hills Ski Club   Kays of Scotland    The Scotsman    WeLove2Ski   WalkHighlands

If you’d like to read more on the history of Scottish skiing, we suggest getting a copy of Myrtle Simpson’s ‘Skisters’ via this link.