Golf: By-product of Polder land and Links land

31 July 2014

How golf is a consequence of the Dutch agricultural revolution and the Scottish climate.

Most historians now acknowledge that 'colf' in the Netherlands provided some of the elements of golf, which were brought over to Scotland by merchant traders in 15th century, if not earlier.

We do not know exactly what the game of 'colf' was and it seems to have had several formats on land and ice, to targets and holes. The connection to golf is clear from the evidence of the etymology of several golf terms; many contemporary Dutch pictures; and the description of colf in 'Tyrocinium Lingua Latinae', published in 1552, which calls it the ‘game towards the hole’.

Most importantly, imports of balls, probably including colf balls used for golf, are recorded from Netherlands into Scotland from at least November 1486, when Ritsaert Clays, possibly Richard Clay, exported 6,000 leather balls from Bergen-op-Zoom in the Low Countries to Scotland, after the 'Cold Fair'.  Other exports are noted in subsequent years. This is only three decades after the word golf is first recorded in Scotland. 

The quantities of imported golf balls and the cost of them grew significantly, until, in 1618, James VI/I granted a monopoly to James Melville and William Berwick to make them in Scotland.

...no small quantity of gold and silver is transported yearly out his hienes (His Highness's) kingdome (kingdom) of Scotland for bying (buying) of golf ballis (balls).

Letter of Licence 1618 from James VI/I to James Melvill (sic) and William Berwick

The Scottish connection with the Netherlands goes back centuries. It is said to have begun in the time of King David I in early 12th century, and by 14th century thousands of sacks of wool and tens of thousands of hides were being exported annually to the Low Countries. By 1600, Dutch traders were settling on the east coast of Scotland and Scottish merchants were setting up house in Veere, where they enjoyed privileges such as duty free imports and limited self-governance, including the use of Scots Law. The Scottish diaspora in the Netherlands is less well known than others but the connections exist to this day.

Colf 1668 Van De Velde Harleem

The Kilted Colfer - Colf on the Ice at Harleem 1668 by Adriaen van de Velde National Gallery London Room 26. Did his ancestors bring golf to Scotland?

However, few historians consider why the Dutch were making leather ‘colf’ balls and why did golf flourish in Scotland while colf died out in the Netherlands.

Why leather balls in the Netherlands?

The history of golf ball is critical to golf history. The Feathery ball marks the acme of a long line of technology in leather stitched balls. It had good handling properties and could be hit 200 metres with a wooden club. Its antecedent was not the wooden ball but the 'hairy' ball, a stitched leather ball filled with cow hair, which possessed about 80% of the characteristics of the feathery and which was probably an adaption of the ‘kaasten’ tennis ball. The history of both these balls goes back to ancient times with the ‘paganica’ ball (a large feather filled handball) and the ‘harpastum’ (a smaller hair filled hand ball), used by the Romans.

But why were these balls revived in Low Countries? The reason for this lies in the comparatively advanced economic development in the Netherlands, which despite political turbulence, produced a combination of a ready supply of the raw materials, the manufacturing capability to make use of them, and the leisure time demand for them.

Friesland Fryslan

Fryslân - Not in Germany. Is this why it all began?

The land in the Netherlands, called ‘polder land’, is ideally suited for grass and thus cattle production and dairy products. Between the 13th and 16th centuries, records indicate that this led to the production of significant quantities of butter and cheese and heavy beef cattle, weighing 2,600 / 3,000 pounds. Fryslân (Friesland) is a province of The Netherlands, which gave rise to the systematic breeding of the eponymous Friesian cattle, a by-product of which would be plentiful quantities of hides and hair. Colf/golf balls could made from the off-cuts that would otherwise be thrown away.

The Dutch were early adopters of low technology agricultural improvements which, over the centuries, included lay farming, (the deliberate growing of animal fodder and cultivating grasslands for cattle) and crop rotation, which was superior to just letting land lie fallow. By the mid-17th century, the Dutch agrarian workforce were 40 percent of population but producing almost enough food to satisfy the whole country. Most of the rest of the population (30 percent) were involved in manufacturing, and thus the Netherlands has been described as the first modern economy, with a higher than average income per capita.

Friesian Cow CF

A Friesian Cow - Were his ancestors the origin of the golf ball?

Consequently, the Dutch had leather hides, cow hair and a manufacturing ability which gave rise to a prodigious ball making industry, believed to have begun in the early 15th century and assessed at 500,000 units per year at its peak. The centre of production appears to have been in Goirle in the Duchy of Brabant, whose ‘ballefrutters’ (ball-stuffers) were able to produce tens of thousands of balls per year.

One notable example of their capability can be seen during the Spanish War. In 1588, Spanish troops, under the Duke of Parma, were stationed in the Netherlands, waiting in vain for the Armada to invade England. According to the Koninklijke Nederlandsche Kolfbond, Sebastian van Warendorp, a Spanish army commander, demanded a ransom from Tilburg of 12,000 balls or he would burn the village down. The Tilbergers were not ball makers, but they prevailed upon the neighbouring village of Goirle in the south to help. After rummaging behind the sofa, the ‘ballefrutters’ of Goirle produced 6,500 balls as a down payment!

Exporting a few thousand balls to Scotland would have been a few days’ work for the Dutch ballefrutters.

Feathery Golf Ball John C Goulay

A John C Gourlay Feathery Ball ca 1845 sold by Bonhams in 2012 for £5,000. Were his ancestors 'ballefrutters' from Goirle?

Why golf in Scotland?

As every Scottish golfer knows, a links course dries out quickly after all but the most torrential rain, and thus the water damage problems with leather balls suffered would have been much less than those experienced in the muddier conditions in the Low Countries. The wooden Scottish cleek would also have done less damage to the leather ball than the iron clubs used on the continent. With this and the greater distance and handling characteristics of leather balls, this produced a different dynamic to the game of golf in Scotland compared to colf.

Rain in Fife and East Lothian is much less than the national average. East Scotland today has rain levels which are comparable to Netherlands but benefits from the gulf stream from the west and south west. We do not know what the weather was like centuries ago, but there were ‘ice age’ conditions reported in south England and Netherlands, which do not seem to have affected Scotland as much. Dutch traders also settled in East Norfolk, but golf did not develop there. So better weather in winter and better links land than the polder land have almost certainly played a significant part in the success of golf in Scotland.

Crail Balcomie 010

Crail Balcomie Links - The bell in the Dutch Tower in the Crail Town Hall was made in Holland in 1520. Was Sauchope where links golf began?

 The first written reference to golf ball makers in Scotland is in a dispute in Leith / Edinburgh in 1554, but what type of golf balls they made - ‘hairies’ or 'featheries' - is not known. The first mention of the ‘feathery’ is in colf in 1657 in the Netherlands in a poem describing the hitting of a ‘pennebal’ (feather ball) from a tee with a Scottish cleek, but the most famous mention of a feathery golf ball in Scotland is in Thomas Mathison’s poem the Goff in 1743. The prevailing theory is that the feathery ball was introduced for golf during the 17th century, though who re-invented it is not known. Records of the time indicate golf balls were expensive and that golf was therefore a middle class sport. None-the-less it prospered. Colf did not. 

The ancient game of colf was a tiresome game, a cold game, a dangerous game, a muddy game and an uneconomic game.

Geert and Sara Nijs Games for Kings and Commoners

Before the first golf societies were formed, by golfers in the Lothians and Fife playing featheries on the links, colf had disappeared.  Although the above-ground version of colf, played to a target with leather balls and gutties, would be revived decades later as Kolf in the Netherlands, the ‘cross-country’ version was not, leaving the Scots the undisputed masters of the game.

Page updated 3rd November 2014

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