Croquet in Scotland

The Early Days of Croquet in Scotland

The early days of croquet in Scotland have been lost in the mists of time — just enough known to be intriguing, but not enough to satisfy.  It was known to be flourishing, but where is the detail? 

The earliest known reference to croquet in Scotland is the booklet called The Game of Croquêt, its Laws and Regulations which was published in the middle 1860’s for the proprietor of Eglinton Castle, near Kilmarnock.  On the page facing the title page is a picture of Eglinton Castle with a game of "croquêt" in full swing.

Throwing stately homes open to the public, and organising money making events in the grounds is not just something invented by the aristocracy as a means of keeping their estates intact since the Second World War.  They were at it in the nineteenth century, too.  Jousting events were apparently held regularly at Eglinton Castle, and clearly the proprietor saw sufficient money-making potential in the new game of "croquêt" to publish his own book of rules.  One of the many variations described is "The Eglinton Castle Game of Croquêt" complete with 8 circular hoops, two pegs, two tunnels and a double hoop with a bell!  One of these sets is still used for demonstration games in the West of Scotland.

The next known date is 1869, because a mallet bearing this date was discovered in the club room of the Edinburgh Croquet Club.  The name "Highgate" was also painted on the mallet head and the final thing to clinch its origin was the barely decipherable name and address of the retailer, "Buchanan 215 Piccadilly", on the under-side of the head.  Research showed that this was almost certain to have been a quarter-finalist’s prize at a championship held at Highgate that year, and that the famous David MacFie who lived in Borthwick Castle near Edinburgh was a quarter-finalist.  The remaining mystery is how this mallet travelled the short distance from Borthwick Castle to Lauriston Castle over 80 years later.

The importance of this find, however, is that it shows that as early as 1869 there was in Scotland a player good enough to compete against the best players in England.

Two years later, 1871, is the early date best known among croquet players in Scotland because it is the date inscribed on the side of our most famous trophy — the Moffat Mallet.  This bears the original inscription "Champion of Scotland" and is held each year by the Open Singles Champion[1].

This mallet, again found in Edinburgh, obviously showed that croquet tournaments were held in Scotland as early as that time.  Research has established that there has been a Scottish Championship since at least 1870 and that it was usually held at Moffat, and for many years was usually won by Mr D. J. MacFie.  In fact, Col. Prichard in his book The History of Croquet says that "From 1870 to 1875 the history of croquet in Scotland can be summed up in one word — MacFie."

Further light was shed on this period in 1990 when a magnificent solid gold medal was found in an old box in a safe in Gleneagles Hotel[2].  It was inscribed "Scottish Croquet Club Championship of Scotland For Annual Competition".  On the back of the medal were the names of all holders from 1875 to 1906, while on two gold bars attached to the blue, red, black and yellow ribbon were further winners up to 1914.

This important find has filled in several blanks in the knowledge of croquet in the last century.  The words "Scottish Croquet Club" show that the game was organised nationally, and that there has been a forerunner to the Scottish Croquet Association.

An article in the Moffat News of 26th August 1871 gives a report of an all-ladies competition with competitors from several parts of Scotland and valuable prizes (fourth prize was a "double (silver) smelling bottle").  But the holder of the Championship of Scotland medal in 1877 was a Miss Jessie Forrest.  This shows that even in those days men and women competed as equals in croquet although women also had their own competitions.  This equality of the sexes was in advance of English ideas and has continued throughout, as is shown by one third of the winners of the medal being women.

Another interesting fact confirmed by the medal is that croquet in Scotland suffered the same fate as it did in England during the 1880’s and 1890’s.  There are no winners’ names from 1880 to 1897.  This decline in the popularity of croquet is largely ascribed to the tremendous popularity of the new craze for tennis.  One advantage tennis had over croquet was that it did not need so much space for the court, and many people could fit a tennis court into their gardens which were too small for full size croquet courts (40 yards by 40 yards in those days).

However in the late 1890’s there was a revival of the Queen of Lawn Games, and with it, the Scottish Championship.  However, the venue was no longer Moffat.  From 1897 to the last date on the medal, 1914, it was held in Edinburgh at the Edinburgh Hydropathic in Craiglockhart.

At that same venue, between 1908 and 1914, competitions were held for Scottish Gold Medals which were presented by the Croquet Association[3].  These were separate events for men and women. 

1950 onwards

From the onset of the First World War right until the founding of the Edinburgh Croquet Club in 1950 the history of croquet in Scotland is almost blank.  But not quite.  The flame flickered and was kept alight.

Throughout this period golf croquet was played fairly widely in North Aberdeenshire, mainly among the farmers and ministers.  Association Croquet, too, was kept alive, but by only one club, a ladies’ club in Stirling.  This was the Livilands Croquet Club which was attached to the Livilands Bowling Club.

In those days women were not allowed to play bowls and so in 1913 they sought to use a spare area of the bowling club grounds to set up a small croquet court for the ladies to play on.  It took until 1921 before their plans bore fruit (was it a coincidence that women had just got the vote?).  So far as is known Livilands was the only club playing the association game until Edinburgh Croquet Club started in 1950, although they played with two pegs right until the end.  This came in 1976 when expansion at the Stirling Infirmary meant that the ground was needed for a nurses’ residence.  A similar area of ground was given to the bowling club somewhere else in exchange but, instead of a small croquet court, a car park was laid.

In 1949 the Monquhitter Croquet Club in Aberdeenshire was the first club to start up after the Second World War.  It was another ladies’ club, also associated with a bowling club, and which played only golf croquet.  One or two other smaller golf croquet clubs started up in that area, too, in the villages of New Deer, Maud and Ellen.  There was a good spirit of competition between them, and the Aberdeen Press & Journal frequently carried reports of their matches and events.

The first club to start that played Association Croquet was in Edinburgh.  The well-known author, Moray McLaren, put a letter in The Scotsman to see what interest there was in croquet, and inviting anyone interested to a meeting in the Roxburghe Hotel in the spring of 1950.  35 people turned up.  The first General Meeting of the Edinburgh Croquet Club was held in the same hotel on the 1st of June.  A court had already been found at Lauriston Castle and play started there later in the season.

The next club to start in Scotland was the Glasgow Croquet Club.  The first move came from Mrs Pamela Brown, living in Rutherglen, who wrote in August 1957 to Mrs Rosemary Hall, Secretary of the Edinburgh Club, to ask for assistance in "promoting interest in the game in the West of Scotland".

By September 1959 a suitable ground had been found in Pollok Estate, and a meeting of prospective members was held in that month.  By early April the next year, even before the two courts were ready for play, the new club already had 42 members and a waiting list had been started.

One of the two courts was level but the other was far from being so.  It was in a field running down to the river and had a drop of over six feet from end to end.  Despite this the club thrived.  The social side was always strong in the Glasgow Croquet Club, and from the beginning a newsletter kept the members in touch.

Modern Association Croquet was brought to the Stirling area in 1966 when the Glenochil Croquet Club was started by Alan Brown, who came up from England to work for the Distillers Company at their Research Station at Menstrie.  He discovered that the Director, Magnus Pike, was a player and before long had started a club which played, mainly at lunch time, on an area of grass in front of the office.  Despite its very small and bumpy court it became a very strong club which was seldom beaten in club matches.  It was a strong influence on the standard of play in Scotland.

In the same year another club was started in the Glasgow Area, at Langside Training College by "Jack" Norton.  The following year, 1967, he moved to Philipshill Hospital and started another club there, but this did not survive when he again moved on.  The Langside Club, however, lasted for several years.

Also in 1967 Jack Norton started a third club — one with a difference.  It was the croquet section of the Incorrigibles Club.  This was a club that, like the other sections, had no home ground.  Membership was by invitation only, and they would travel anywhere for a match — one was even played in Bermuda.  For many years the club was an important part of the croquet scene in Scotland, especially when numbers were small and good opposition was needed to raise standards of play.

In 1969 The Whins Croquet Club was started at the National Coal Board Area Headquarters in Alloa by Ian Wright.  This was also mainly a lunchtime club.  In 1973 the office in Alloa closed, and after trying several other locations unsuccessfully the club folded.

Another club in the Stirling area, the Airthrey Croquet Club, was started by Peter Rowlinson in 1971.  It was located at the new university and took its name from the castle, housing the original administration block, because the court was on grass in front of it.  The club later got two much better, full sized courts on the playing fields not far from the cricket square. 

The game has also been played at Aberdeen and St Andrews universities but, because only students were involved, there was virtually no continuity and maintaining contact was difficult.

1967 was the Centenary of the Croquet Association’s Open Championship and this was to be marked by a nationwide tournament called the "All-England Handicap".  Naturally the Edinburgh Club wrote to complain that this name was "not fully representative of those entering it".   They received the interesting reply that the name had been chosen because the Croquet Association already had a stock of bronze medals (for the eleven Area winners) with that name engraved on them!  Anyway, All-England or not, Ronnie Sinclair of the Edinburgh Club won the National Final at the Hurlingham Club, and was presented with a commemorative rose bowl by Her Majesty the Queen.

At the Scottish Area Final that year Ronnie Sinclair had also been presented with the "Moffat Mallet", recently acquired by the Edinburgh Club, and now the annual trophy for the Scottish Open Singles.

This was the first of a succession of All-England handicap wins in the following three years by players from Scotland — Robert Milne from the Edinburgh Club, and Bill Spalding and Bob MacLean from the Glenochil Club.

The Scottish Croquet Committee

Following the success in the All-England Handicap the Edinburgh Club set its sights on a Scottish Open Championship for the following season.  This and other matters were discussed at an informal meeting after the Glasgow Club’s Annual Dinner in March 1968, and thus the Scottish Croquet Committee was born.  The new Open Championship was open to anyone in Scotland and advertised in the Scotsman and Glasgow Herald.  A Scottish Handicap Championship was also held.  The Finals were held at Lauriston Castle on the 6th of July 1968 and there was a good representation from all the Scottish clubs.  The trophy for the Open Championship was the "Moffat Mallet", used the previous year for the Area Final of the All-England handicap.  It was won by Roger Kemp of the Edinburgh Club, with Ronnie Sinclair winning the Handicap.

Aided by the Croquet Association the Croquet Committee was formalised the following spring with members from the Edinburgh, Glasgow, Glenochil, Langside and Philipshill clubs.  It met annually to arrange friendly inter-club matches, and also to run the Scottish Open Singles and Scottish Open Handicap Championships.  The croquet clubs in Scotland were mainly in the Forth Clyde valley and the Open Singles was played as a knockout throughout the country.  There were more entries for the Handicap Singles and so it was played in blocks in each club, with the top two in each club going into the knock-out.

1969 also saw another milestone in Scottish croquet when the first Edinburgh Tournament was held.  Finding a flat area of reasonable grass big enough for several croquet courts is not easy but permission was obtained to use one of the hockey pitches at the Dunfermline College of Physical Education in Cramond about a mile from Lauriston Castle.

With assistance from the Croquet Association, who provided the manager, Derek Caporn, this first week-long tournament was a success.  However, it was decided not to hold one in 1970 because the playing surface was so poor, and it was felt that this would deter any players from England.  But the Edinburgh Club changed its mind in 1971, and the Scottish Croquet Committee approved the arrangements for a Week, again at Dunfermline College, in August 1972 and the tournament has been held without a break ever since.

By this time the next series of Test Matches for the MacRobertson Shield, to be held in Great Britain in 1974, was casting its shadow.  By coincidence Ian Wright of the Whins Club, who was at the Annual Dinner of Birmingham’s Edgbaston Croquet Club, found himself sitting beside Maurice Reckitt, President of the Croquet Association.  He asked Mr Reckitt if he could possibly arrange for either the New Zealand or the Australian team to visit Scotland.

In the event the New Zealand team came to Scotland.  It was decided to hold the match at Gleneagles Hotel, and accommodate the team in the hotel during the match (they stayed with croquet players for the rest of their visit).  In those days the visitors were trying to keep their expenses below £3 per person per day, so the Committee set out to raise the difference between this and the cost of staying at Gleneagles Hotel.  This came to £163 for seven people for three days!

The money was raised, and the match was played, and it proved a turning point for Scottish croquet.  The Scotland team was selected following several weekend tournaments at Gleneagles open to any qualified, interested players.  The match was played to the same format as the Test matches — teams of six playing three doubles and six singles, each best of three games.  Scotland lost 6-3 which, against some of the top players in the world, was a magnificent result.  Every Scottish player won at least one game.

The boost to the morale of Scottish players was tremendous, and this led to Scottish players entering tournaments in England and the start of matches against the other home countries.

The Scottish Sports Council

Very early in the seventies the Glasgow Croquet Club was finding that its single flat court and two very sloping ones at Pollok Park were not good enough, and was looking for somewhere better.  A nearby area was found which could be purchased cheaply, and Scottish Sports Council aid was sought.  This raised the problem that the Sports Council could deal only with properly constituted, fully autonomous governing bodies.

At that time the governing body for croquet in the UK was the Croquet Association, so steps were taken to form the Scottish Croquet Association.  A sub-committee of the Scottish Croquet Committee, chaired by Robert Milne of the Edinburgh Croquet Club, set about devising a constitution.  They held several meetings throughout the winter of 1973/74 until they were satisfied that they had a good constitution.  The Croquet Association were very helpful in this, but they were also very reluctant to give the Scottish Croquet Association its complete independence and insisted on having a member on the SCA committee.

Then in May 1974 an Inaugural Meeting was held in the University of Stirling (home of the Airthrey Croquet Club), so as to be equally convenient to club members from Edinburgh and Glasgow.  At this meeting the Scottish Croquet Association became a fact.  Bob Calder of the Edinburgh Club was elected Chairman, and Ian Wright of the Whins Club the Secretary and Treasurer.  At last Scotland had its own body to govern the sport of croquet and the Glasgow Croquet Club got its grant, and flat courts.  Over the years, the new Association was able to help first Ireland, then Wales to form their own Associations.  Then, on 17 July 1986, after many discussions worldwide, led by Andrew Hope, the inaugural meeting of the World Croquet Federation took place, and Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England were all independent founder-members.

The National Croquet Centre[4]

The Bush Estate, eight miles south of Edinburgh, was an Edinburgh University agricultural campus, which included a few other like-minded organisations on the same site. Once a year, there was a sports day at which all the various departments competed against each other, in games like Toss the Bail, Reverse the Tractor, Five-a-side Football etc, and, believe it or not, Croquet. This happened because a few people had played croquet at university themselves.  Several people enjoyed the croquet so much that they started to play at other times. In about 1980, these people became the nucleus of the Bush Croquet Club, a section of Bush Sports and Social Club (BSSC), with membership restricted to Edinburgh University staff and families. The prime movers were Alastair Hunter, Allan Ramsay and George Anderson, with Campbell Morrison and Ralph Pirrie being among the other Founder Members.

They started by mowing the flattest piece of grass on the estate which happened to be in front of Bush House. The Estate Manager of the day was quite happy with this as it kept part of the estate tidy for him. They wanted to expand but there were too few members to make it economically viable.

In the meantime, in about 1985, the Scottish Sports Council (SSC) had funding available for establishment of National Centres for Scottish-controlled sports, and croquet was one such sport in contention for this funding.  Originally Edinburgh CC approached SSC, but could not get approval from their District Authority.

Bush CC got the idea of applying for funding when they heard that the Edinburgh club had been ruled out. Alastair Hunter was the principal negotiator when it came to dealing with the University. He managed to get a letter from the University to the SSC, not a legally binding agreement but enough to persuade the SSC to grant Bush CC the money.  The SCA was involved with the negotiations, because the funding had to be applied through the National Governing Body, and national or open events had to be catered for, despite the site being in a closed environment.  Because Bush CC and Edinburgh University were, in effect, providing the land to the SSC, using money left in BSSC which was being wound up around this time, they were not asked to put money up front.

Work commenced in 1986 to lay two new courts at Bush, but the poor winter of 1986/7, followed by a poor summer in 1987, meant that work was delayed, and the planned National Centre Opening Ceremony, to coincide with the 1987 Chairman’s Rosebowl, had to be cancelled. 

In the event, there was a very successful Opening Ceremony on 11 June 1988, despite yet more bad weather on the Saturday, involving a doubles competition partnering six top-rated Anglo-Scots with six home-based players, won by Martin Murray and Corla van Griethuysen.

However, almost immediately, staff cutbacks at Bush Estate meant that ongoing maintenance became an issue, and a financial burden on both SCA and Bush CC, as the members did all the work and paid for any materials themselves.   Access to the main house was also denied, limiting changing and toilet facilities, and a large wooden pavilion was erected in the trees near to the new courts. 

Despite the lack of off-court amenities, the two new courts had been well-laid, with drainage being a minor issue after some years.  The SCA used its National Centre for its prestige events, including the Chairman’s Rosebowl, the Malmet, the Area Final of the CA All-England Championship, and representative matches against the CA, the CA of Ireland, the Welsh CA, Canada, Switzerland and Jersey.  Bush CC ran its own Open and the SCA introduced the Scottish Masters to the Calendar, both being high-class events, and National Coaching courses were run there.  The original court was used as a third lawn when required, but once it had been used to land a helicopter transporting Princess Anne, the surface was damaged beyond repair.  Eventually the drainage issue became more pronounced as the land sank leaving significant trench-like hollows across the two new courts, maintenance became more difficult, and Edinburgh University sold Bush House, meaning liaison with the new owners became more difficult.

During 1998 and 1999, Brian Murdoch investigated the possibility of rescuing two bowling greens in Edinburgh itself, and, after one site had been ruled out, the abandoned Meadows West Bowling Club site near Tollcross was identified as being available, and even better, having the potential to be turned into a three-court site, thus qualifying to continue as the National Centre. In 1999, it was proposed that Bush CC relocate onto this site, which would have no restrictions on membership criteria, negotiate a formal lease with Edinburgh City Council, and prepare a grant for the transformation to the National Lottery.  SSC (by now becoming sportscotland) had no issue with the move to the Meadows, for as far as they were concerned the SCA and Bush CC had maintained a good croquet facility for more than ten years and they were prepared to amortise their funding over that period since SCA with Meadows CC were proposing to set up a second National Croquet Centre on the new site.

sportscotland provided much support with some guidelines in the National Lottery application.  Bush CC moved and became Meadows CC in 2000.  After significant planning, project-managed by Brian Murdoch, fund-raising, headed by George Anderson, and with a successful National Lottery grant, the two bowling greens at Meadows were transformed into three croquet courts, the pavilion was updated, and the second National Croquet Centre had its Grand Opening Ceremony in 2003.


Ian H. Wright

[1] David Appleton’s 2009 book The History of the Scottish Championship 1870 – 1914 fills in the missing detail.

[2] Mr Craig McKenzie, Assistant Manager, discovered the medal.  Mr Patrick Latham, Manager of the Gleneagles Hotel Country Club, presented the medal to the SCA.

[3] The Royal Insurance Company Sports Encyclopaedia for 1913/14 says “Since 1897, there has been a marked revival of the game ... due largely to the efforts of the Croquet Association, which is now the recognised authority, not only in the United Kingdom, but also in the greater part of Europe and the Colonies”.

[4] This section was written by Bruce Rannie, from information provided by George Anderson and Brian Murdoch.