1815 Thistle Golf Club (Leith)

First Golf History

Sadly, the original Thistle Golf Club, based in Leith, is no more. The club was initially established in 1815 and played on Leith Links.  It had two brief periods of illustrious history:- 1815-1830 and 1866-c1888.

Thistle Golf Club Rules 1824Its most important accomplishment was that in 1824 it published a rule book with an extensive introduction on golf history, which they termed as ‘some historical notices relative to the progress of the game of golf in Scotland.’ Significantly the history documents the origins of ball games, which with the related technology of the leather bound ball, known as the 'feathery', was key to golf development.

The Thistle Club motto was “Noli me Tangere!” translated as ‘Touch me not!’ but more properly interpreted as ‘Do not hold me back!’ There is a biblical origin to this motto, on which several paintings by famous artists have been based. 

Thistle Golf Club Members 124

The principal reason for the Club's demise in 1833 was the sale of the 'golf house' by the Leith Golfers club to pay their debts. At this point they moved to Musselburgh, but the Thistle members seem just to have each gone their own way.

The list of members of 1824 was published with the Rules and history. One of the members was George Sligo, who was a merchant in Leith and also a member of the East Lothian and Caledonian Horticultural Societies. When Leith Thistle folded he became a member of the North Berwick Golf Club and later its Captain in 1839. He was probably not the only member to make such a move.

Revival of the Club

For whatever reason, in 1866 there was sufficient interest for a revival of the Thistle. The Golfer's Yearbook of 1866 reported of the Thistle Club that

This Club was established in 1815, and was in active operation for 15 years up to 1830. After having been in abeyance for 36 years, it was resuscitated on 5th April, 1866. The members have a commodious Club-room, and the game has made great progress since Spring; the resident professional being Willie Dunn, whose services the Club was fortunate enough, to secure.

In 1866, the membership included Robert Chambers, a prominent golfer.  He was a member of the Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society amongst other clubs. He was later Captain of Tantallon Golf Club, playing at North Berwick, and in 1858 Chambers was champion of the first individual 'Grand National' golfing tournament in St Andrews. Chambers laid out the first 9-hole course at Hoylake with George Morris and was instrumental in the initial development of the course at Carnoustie

There were gold medal and silver medals played for over 3 rounds of the 7-hole course at Leith.

LeithLinks106AW

Leith Links old home hole from clubhouse

The Leith Thistle was still listed in the golfing annuals and postal directories in 1888. Leith was getting congested and problematic, but the club struggled on there until the end of the century, using 8 Vanbrugh Place as its club-house, where William Dunn the golf club-maker worked. Thereafter, they disappear.

The Successor Clubs

Some of the Thistle members had begun playing at Bruntsfield Links in 1820s. In 1870, the Edinburgh Thistle Club was formalised when they got the opportunity to rent space in the Golf House Tavern. Edinburgh Thistle was one of the founding clubs when the Braid Hills course opened in 1889, which is where they play today, inheritors in spirit of the Leith Thistle Club.  James Braid, a member of the Earlsferry Thistle club at Elie, was a prominent member of Edinburgh Thistle. Prior to winning the Open five times between 1901 and 1910, he won several club medals and the Braids Tournament in 1892, which he considered the finest win of his amateur career. Tommy Armour who won the US Open in 1927 and the Open in 1931 was also a Edinburgh Thistle club member. 

Thistle Cup

National Museum of Scotland golf memorabilia

The Leith Thistle Club memorabilia has been sold off. One bowl survives in the National Museum of Scotland. Recently, Thistle Club scorecards from 1825 were discovered and are available in occasional auctions.

The club name is kept alive by the Thistle Golf Club in North Carolina, USA, apparently a commercial development of Thistle Estates

Welcome to Thistle Golf Club & Estates

Thistle Golf Club & Estates is an exclusive golf and residential community, located in Sunset Beach, North Carolina, offering a limited 145 custom golf estates on 27 magnificent holes. Enjoy the finest in country club living with a luxury resort lifestyle, surrounded by an idyllic nature preserve, acres of wildflowers wetlands, and rare wildlife.

This is far cry from the 7 holes on Leith Links. The North Carolina club is 110 miles north from Charleston, South Carolina which is the site of the first mention of golf in America when golf clubs and balls were imported in 1739 and 1743. For more details of oldest clubs and courses in America, see News item on New World: Oldest Clubs and Courses.

The Carolina club ‘exhibits many of the relic trophy clubs and score cards from the time period, as well as the original book, Rules of the Thistle Golf Club, published in 1824’. Other clubs also have copies of this important work including Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society in Edinburgh and Royal Blackheath Golf Club in London.