1744 Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers
In 1744, a committee of the Gentlemen Golfers of Edinburgh drafted the first 13 rules of golf to compete for a silver golf club, presented by the City of Edinburgh, over Leith Links. John Rattray, a physician and champion archer, was the first winner and was declared 'Captain of the Golf' on 2nd April 1744.
The event is commemorated in a plaque on the cairn on Leith Links. This was the first known organised golfing competition of any golf club in the world.
The gift of a silver club as the prize was inspired by the fact that the City of Edinburgh gifted a silver arrow to the Royal Company of Archers in 1709. The silver club was paraded through Edinburgh with the 'tuck o' the drum' as pictured in a print by David Allen 1787, reproduced in Robert Clark's book.
THE PLAYERS OF THE FIRST GOLF COMPETITION
Eleven players are thought to have taken part in the first competition. They were:-
|John Rattray (the winner)
|Hon James Leslie
Duncan Forbes, President of the Court of Session, put his name down for the competition, but did not play as may James Veith, whose name is not on the day's record. The players were important and well-known people in Edinburgh, and several had been mentioned in a mock-heroic poem called The Goff, written in 1743 by Thomas Mathison about the golfers at Leith, reproduced in Robert Clark's book.
Recent research has discovered that 20 years before he participated in the competition Robert Biggar was the publican at Golfhall, the world's first golf clubhouse at Bruntsfield.
The first competition was over a five hole course.
For the first twenty years the Leith competition was 'open' to all golfers, but from 1764, with the agreement of the City of Edinburgh, it was limited to members of the Leith club. Golf was becoming popular and there was the possibility of the competition being won by somebody of whom the club members did not approve. It had, in any case, really always been an annual club championship. The first proper 'Open' golf competition was not until 1861 at Prestwick. In 1872, the Gentlemen Golfers appointed the first golf Chaplain, Dr John Dun, whose first act as Chaplain was to say grace after dinner.
The Gentlemen Golfers built a clubhouse at Leith in 1768. Until then, they usually met in a tavern called Luckie Clephan's, on Kirkgate, now demolished, near the foot of Leith Walk. There is a minute on 2nd July 1768 recording the foundation ceremony for the 'Golf House', as it was called. It was sold in 1833 for the reasons outlined below. Eventually it was demolished and the Leith Academy Secondary School was built on the site in 1931. This became part of Queen Margaret College and is now flats.
Known by various names, the Gentlemen Golfers became 'The Honourable, the Edinburgh Company of Golfers' in 1800. Subsequently, this was streamlined to the present 'Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers'.
At the beginning of the 19th Century, with the Napoleonic Wars raging, Leith Links had become overcrowded and golf was declining in popularity, or at least, being a member of a golf club was. Many golf clubs disappeared. In 1831, The Honourable Company fell into particular financial difficulties through heavy mortgaging, misappropriation of funds and third party guarantees for others' debts, eventually owing several hundred pounds. An 'administrator' was appointed, and in 1833 the club's early treasures were sold off for £106 but failed to clear the debts, so the clubhouse at Leith was also sold raising £1,130. That why one of the club's best known pictures, the portrait of William St Clair of Roslin, (Captain in 1761, 1766 and 1770-1771), which they had commissioned in 1771, came to be owned by the Royal Company of Archers, (who paradoxically were also heavily in debt at this time). No competitions were held from 1831-1835.
With their financial matters settled, the Honourable Company moved to Musselburgh in 1836, then an eight-hole golf course inside the racetrack. They also played the West Links at North Berwick during the summer months, as they had to share Musselburgh with several other clubs.
The practice of declaring the winner of the Silver Club as Captain for the next year ceased after 1837 and election became the norm. Possibly, the members felt that the best golf player did not necessarily make the most suitable chairman of the Club's financial affairs.
In 1865 they built a new clubhouse in Links Place at Musselburgh, now a children's nursery at 6 Balcarres Road.
In 1872, the Honourable Company began co-sponsoring the championship with Prestwick and the Royal & Ancient golf clubs. The competition was held in rotation at the three sponsor clubs and therefore it was held six times at Musselburgh between 1874 and 1889 while the Hon Co were there.
Soon overcrowding at Musselburgh, as at Leith, forced Honourable Company to move again, settling on another racecourse, further down the coast, the site of the East Lothian horse races on the Hundred Acres Park owned by the Rt Hon Nisbet Hamilton. This was the Muirfield course, designed by Old Tom Morris. The first 16 holes, built by 'hand and horse', were opened on 3rd May 1891, with the final two holes added in December of the same year. The Open championship moved with them and is still held there from time to time, although, since 1919 the Hon Company have no longer been involved in its management.
Until recently, you could buy Muirfield memorabilia at the professional shop of Gullane Links nearby, but the Club have now taken this in-house and these are only available to members and guests.
Details of bookings are now available on the Honourable Company's website.
Updated 13th Sep 2021