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Curling 101: History

Dec 15, 2007; Kitzbuehel, Austria: A general feature of curling equipment.
Dec 15, 2007; Kitzbuehel, Austria: A general feature of curling equipment.

The recorded history of curling indicates that the game developed during the 16th century in Scotland, the Netherlands and possibly Belgium. There is some question as to who played the game first – the Scots or the denizens of the Low Countries – and the earliest known references are almost contemporaneous, shedding little light on the mystery.

The first recorded curling match comes from 1540-41, when John Sclater, a Scottish monk from the Paisley Abbey, challenged the lay governor of the abbey, Gavin Hamilton, to a curling match (translated from Latin):

Sclater went to the ice which was between the orchard and the late Abbot's room and there threw a stone along the ice three times, asserting that he was ready to carry out what had been promised on the first day of Gavin's arrival concerning a contest of throwing this sort of stone over the ice.

John Durkan, a research fellow in the Department of Scottish History at the University of Glasgow, has noted that this match was not a friendly game – Hamilton was not well-liked, and since a monk could not possibly challenge the governor to a duel, this was one way for him to show his displeasure.

Twenty years later, in 1560, Dutchman Pieter Bruegel completed a painting of a curling scene, followed by his “Hunters in the Snow,” which also includes a curling scene in the background. Some historians have argued that these paintings prove that the Dutch had the game first, but the Sclater evidence – which only came to light in 1976 – calls that conclusion into question.

In addition, the earliest curling stone dates back to 1511 and includes an inscription that connects the stone to the Scottish region of Stirling and Perth. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, stones were culled from river bottoms. They often curved – or curled, hence the name – as they slid across the ice. In the seventeenth century, handles were added for easier delivery on the ice as was the use of brooms to clear snow from the path of the stone.

The first literary mention of “curling” occurred in 1639 with the publication of The Muses Threnodie or Mirthful Mournings on the Death of Master Gall, written by Henry Adamson. The work is a two-part poem about the death of James Gall, a friend of Adamson’s, in 1620. Adamson wrote, “James Gall…was much given to pastime, as golf, archerie, curling; and Joviall companie.”

The curlers of Kilsyth in Stirlingshire formed a casual curling club in 1716, and other clubs were soon organized around central Scotland. The first officially-founded club was the Kinross-Club, created in 1818. The Grand National Curling Club – now known as the Royal Caledonian Curling Club – was formed in 1838. It was the sport’s official world authority until the founding of the World Curling Federation in 1966.

The first description of a curling game is from a poem by James Graeme in 1773:

The goals are marked out; the centre each
Of a large random circle; distance scores
Are drawn between, the dread of weakly arms
Firm on his cramp-bits stands the steady youth
Who leads the game: low o'er the weighty stone
He bends incumbent, and with nicest eye
Surveys the further goal, and in his mind
Measures the distance; careful to bestow
Just force enough; then, balanc'd in his hand
he flings it on direct; it glides along
Hoarse murmuring, while, plying hard before,
Full many a besom sweeps away the snow
Or icicle, that might obstruct its course.

British troops brought curling to North America during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). After the British defeated the French on the Plains of Abraham, west of Quebec City, the British troops decided to take some leisure time. The men of the 78th Highlanders took some cannonballs from their artillery stores and melted them into flat stones to play on the frozen St. Charles River.

Scottish immigrants popularized the sport in North America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The first Canadian curling club was founded in Montreal in 1807, and the first U.S. club emerged in Pontiac, Michigan in 1829.

Reverend John Kerr brought 24 Scots on the first transatlantic curling tour in the winter of 1902-03, and the matches between the Scots and Canadians illustrated how different the sport was in their two countries – the Scots were more aggressive players while the Canadians played more of a drawing game and were more effective sweepers. The Scotsmen soon adopted some of the Canadians’ innovative strategies.

Canadians continued to innovate through the first half of the twentieth century, devising the sliding delivery and the takeout game. Ken Watson, regarded as one of the greatest curlers of all-time, is credited with popularizing the sliding delivery. These new methods were on display at the first Scotch Cup series in 1959, where the Canadians, with their more complex style of play, overcame the old guard, leading to the modern era of international play and a series of new international rules. The World Curling Federation, which was founded in 1966, presides over international play.