1619 Leith Links - The Bishop Golfer

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Plaque on cairn on Leith Links marking first golf competition 1744

The first mention of golf in relation to Leith dates from a reported dispute in 1552 between 'the cordiners' (cobblers/shoemakers) of the Cannongate and the 'cordiners and gouff ball makers of North Leith', which implies the use of stitched leather golf ball and links golf.

LeithLinks04One traditional derivation of the term Fore! derives from the use of two defensive cannons of Leith fort. The embankment, seen in the picture to the left of the cairn, is allegedly one of two gun emplacements used by the attacking forces in 1560, when the Links were the scene of the Siege of Leith by the English.

Leith was the site of some of the first reported attacks and injuries in golf. In 1575  Leith golfers were attacked and fought back successfully. On a later occasion, in 1690, Sir Robert Sibbald was crossing the Links when a young boy who did not hear him approach, apparently hit him on the backswing with his club. Sir Robert required medical attention, but the name of the golfer is not mentioned, nor whether he carried any insurance.

As elsewhere, Edinburgh Burgh records of 1593 bemoan the fact that Edinburgh churchgoers were playing golf in Leith instead of going to church. On 16th February 1610, South Leith Kirk Session proposed a fine of 20 shillings (one pound) to be paid 'to the poor' by anyone found playing golf (or bowls or archery) between sunrise and sunset on Sunday. Apart from the fine, they would also have to confess their sins in church. These 'persecutions' continued until 1724, which year marks the last official Kirk prosecution in Scotland for Sunday golfing, when the Leith innkeeper, John Dickson, was accused of giving 'victuals' (food and drink) to Sabbath golfers.

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Charles I hears of Irish Rebellion in Edinburgh

Tradition has it that the Bishop of Galloway was playing golf on Leith Links in 1619 when he suffered a deadly premonition of two men attacking him. So he threw down his 'arma campestria' (golf clubs), took to his bed and died. Another much repeated story is that King Charles I was playing in Leith in 1641 when he heard about the Irish Rebellion. The Rules of Thistle Golf Club outline the facts of the matter, but this has not stopped myths and legends abounding, as depicted in the famous, much later, etching by Sir John Gilbert in 1875/6.  These Victorian tales must be interpreted carefully. 

Sir John Foulis of Ravelston, who was Keeper of the Register of Sasines (The Sasines are legal title deeds) and who kept copious personal records, played golf in Leith in 1672. So too did the medical student Thomas Kincaid in the winter of 1687-8. Both record the return coach journey from Edinburgh to Leith as 10 shillings. (There were 20 shillings in a pound). This shows how highly Edinburgh golfers rated playing at Leith Links compared to Bruntsfield Links.

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77 Canongate, Sketch from A Royal and Ancient Game by Robert Clark

More significant is the record of the first 'international' golf match in 1681, between Scotland and England on Leith Links. The Duke of York, who was the brother of the King Charles II and who would succeed him as James VII of Scotland / II of England, was then in residence as the King's Commissioner at Holyroodhouse. Two English nobleman of his circle claimed that golf was an English game. The Duke disagreed and challenged them to a golf match to settle the matter, choosing John Patersone as his playing partner. Patersone was a 'champion' golfer, but a common 'cordiner' (cobbler). Not surprisingly, the Duke and his champion won for Scotland and it is said that Patersone bought a house at 77 Cannongate with the lion's share of the winning purse that the Duke generously split with him. The house was called 'Golfers Land', and the Duke had an escutcheon affixed to the outside with a heraldic design and the golfers' motto 'Far and Sure' inscribed on it. When John Patersone died, he also owned a house in Leith, from which he supplied golf equipment to the gentry.

Patersone Memorial

Patersone Memorial

Cannongate is part of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and Patersone's Golfers Land was demolished in 1960. It is now the site of a modern pub and remembered only by a plaque. It would rival any prize money today for a single golf game. The story is reported in the Rules of Thistle Golf Club who also claim that the man who carried the clubs of the Duke of York was Andrew Dickson, the future clubmaker, who thus became the world's first recorded caddy. It is not recorded whether Andrew Dickson got the caddie's usual percentage.

In 1724, 'a solemn match at golf', the first reported in a newspaper, took place on Leith Links, between the Honourable Alexander Elphinstone and Captain John Porteous of the City Guard for a stake of 20 guineas (22 pounds). Both men would be further reported in the press. Alexander Elphinstone fought a duel at Leith Links in 1729. Then in 1736, Captain Porteous gave his name to the Porteous Riots, as a result of which several Edinburgh citizens were shot and he was lynched later by a mob when he was pardoned for his part these deaths.

Of course, the most famous single golf event on the Links was on 2nd April 1744; the occasion of the first golf competition anywhere in the world arranged by a group of golfers who were to become known as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. This produced the first rules of golf. In 1994, there was a 250th anniversary match, duly commemorated by the cairn on the links.

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Another commemorative plaque on the cairn is an outline drawing, shown above, of the five holes used by 1744 on the course. The course begins in the bottom left and is played clockwise. Not shown is the 'practice' hole, played before the first round but not in subsequent rounds. We do not know when the first holes were laid out. There is a second cairn at the site of the second hole, to the north of the links in what was the grounds of the old White and Mackay bond store, now redeveloped for housing.

The Honourable Company built a clubhouse called 'the Golf House' in 1768, and played at Leith until 1831 when the Links became too crowded. After an interlude of five years, they recommenced playing at Musselburgh in 1836. The Thistle Golf Club continued to play at Leith to the end of the century, when they effectively ceased to exist.  

The Golf House also no longer exists. It was beside the first tee and is now under the building on Duke Street, originally constructed for Leith Academy, and then used by Queen Margaret's College, but now being redeveloped. The links are split in two by a road. There are two cricket pitches on one side and a bowling green and children's play area on the other. Apart from the cairn, you would never know that international and competitive golf started here.

It's not an isolated neglect. The Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh has only nine artefacts of golf in one corner of one cabinet. They comprise 3 clubs, 4 medals, a box of gutta percha balls and a Thistle Golf Club cup. Thus do the Scots honour their national game in their national capital.

The Leith Rules Golf Society occasionally arrange a course to be laid out on the links for hickory play, and they are raising funds for a statue to Dr John Rattray to be erected close to the cairn. You can subscribe on their website.

Rattray Project

Artists Impression of Rattray Statue on Leith Links by WJ Cairns