Origins of Curling
One of the most hotly debated subjects in curling is with regards to the exact origin of the game. There is some evidence to suggest Dutch beginnings; there is yet other evidence that points toward Scotland as the birthplace of the sport. Rev. John Ramsay published a book entitled “An Account of the Game of Curling” in 1811. Rev. Ramsay argued that the origins of curling were Continental Europe due to words such as bonspiel, curl and rink apparently having a Dutch or Germanic origin.
This compelling argument was refuted by Rev. John Kerr in his book, “A History of Curling” published in 1890. Rev. Kerr pointed out that many curling terms had a Celtic or Teutonic origin. Examples would be draw, hack, hog, skip and tee. Rev. Kerr contended that if curling had been brought to Scotland by the Flemish during the 1500′s, why was there no mention of its introduction prior to 1600?
This argument is further complicated by early Dutch artwork. An engraving by R. de Baudous (1575-1644) appears to show players sliding large, wooden disks along frozen canals. Other sketches and drawing of the same era show a Dutch game called “kuting”, which was played with frozen lumps of earth.
Obviously, there is no known evidence of these frozen lumps of earth, as they would fall through the ice with the spring thaw and fall to the bottom of the canals and ponds upon which the game was played.
The earliest known curling stone is the one pictured at the right, called the “Stirling Stone”, it was discovered when an old pond was drained at Dunblane, Scotland. This stone is inscribed with the date “1511″, thereby making it the oldest known curling stone. This stone could best be described as a “loofie”, derived from the Scottish word for hand. These “loofies” were eventually replaced by larger “channel stanes”, or smooth, river stones with added handles. Later, other materials would be used for curling stones. Wood, cast iron and eventually the peerless granite of today would all have their turn as the material of choice.
Though the exact origin of the game will most likely always remain a mystery, it is certain that the Scots embraced and enhanced the game and worked toward standardization of equipment and rules.
The early 1800′s saw tremendous growth in the popularity of curling in Scotland. necessitating a uniform set of rules. In 1804, the Duddingston Club became the first to set forth the “Rules in Curling”. The rules were logical and straight forward, and bear a remarkable similarity to those used today.
As more and more clubs formed, it became evident that a governing body was needed for the sport. John Cairnie was an accomplished curler, and had even built a curling hall at Largs, Scotland in 1813. Mr. Cairnie took the reins of formation of this governing body. In 1833, he called on all Scottish clubs to submit names of officers, numbers of curlers and match results. All of this information was used to create the Grand Caledonian Curling Club in Edinburgh in 1838. It began providing it’s members with “The Annuals”, an annual record of curling that has been published since 1839. In 1843, the club was patronized by a member of the Royal Family and was renamed the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. The club has been patronized by a member of the Royal Family since that time, and more specifically, by either the King or Queen since 1900.
The Royal Caledonian Curling Club worked on the standardization of the rules, game and equipment. The club promoted the use of round stones manner of play and team composition. The club is responsible for defining a team as 4 players throwing 2 matched stones each, rather than a single stone thrown by each of 8 players. The Royal Caledonian was also instrumental in the standardization of the stones, with the Ailsa Craig granite being the prevalent choice.
A Brave New World
Scottish emigrants and soldiers helped to spread the sport throughout the world. The North American origins of curling have been attributed to Scottish soldiers, stationed in Canada, melting down cannonballs to create curling stones in the late 1700′s. The first curling club in North America was the Montreal Curling Club, established in 1807.
American curling got its start in the Detroit area in the 1830′s. A group of Scottish immigrants shipwrecked on the shore of Lake St. Clair, en route to Chicago. They decided to stay in the area, and formed the Orchard Lake Curling Club, complete with hickory “stones” in 1832. Soon other clubs sprung up around the country: Boston, 1839; Milwaukee, 1843; Chicago, 1854. The Milwaukee Curling Club prides itself as the oldest continuously operating curling club in the U.S.
The sport enjoyed considerable growth in the Northern Midwest states, primarily Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota, throughout the mid- to late 1800′s. In 1852, a branch of the Royal Caledonian was established in Canada. The first American Association was founded 15 years later, in 1867, as the Grand National Curling Club. This group of twelve clubs was also an affiliate of the Royal Caledonian. Despite the sport’s continued growth, especially post World War 1, curling remained largely a regional sport until 1927.
Let the Games Begin!
In 1927, the first Canadian National Championship was held. This was the real impetus behind the growth and nationalization of a previously, mainly local and regional sport. Another boom in the sport post-WWII led to a proliferation of curling organizations. The Midwest Association was formed in 1945, and represented curlers from Nebraska, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois, followed by the U.S. Women’s Curling Association in 1947.
In the 50′s and 60′s, organizations and associations were forming at a rapid pace. The first U.S. National Championships were held at Chicago Stadium in 1957, with teams from 10 states competing. 1958 saw the birth of the U.S. Men’s Curling Association, and the first World Championship tournament. In 1965, Bud Somerville of Superior, Wisconsin skipped the first non-Canadian team to win a World Championship. The International Curling Federation was formed in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1966. Combining the U.S. Men’s and Women’s Associations in 1976 created the U.S. Curling Association. The USCA is a member of both the U.S. Olympic Committee and the World Curling Federation.
After several years as a demonstration sport at the Winter Olympics, curling finally made its debut as a full medal sport at the Nagano, Japan Olympics in 1998.
Today, curling is played in 40 of the 50 states in the U.S. While Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota have long had active curling clubs, other Great Lakes states, New England and Mid-Atlantic states are also home to numerous clubs. Minnesota boasts the largest club, the 1,200 member St. Paul club. There are also dedicated curlers in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Missouri, Texas and Washington. There are approximately 165 curling clubs across the U.S., with nearly 20,000 active curlers. There are estimates of nearly an equal number of “recreational” curlers. Worldwide, it is estimated that as many as 1.5 million people in 49 countries enjoy curling.
Though never as popular as some other winter sports, the popularity of curling continues to grow, possibly fueled primarily by the most recent Olympic exposure. The sport is often passed down through families, in many small towns and rural areas, providing much needed entertainment on those long winter nights.
Although its origin may never be resolved, curling holds the same allure to its’ enthusiasts as it probably did to that first person, hundreds of years ago, who chanced to push a stone along the surface of a frozen pond. Listening to the sound, watching the way the stone moved and curved, this unwitting individual had created a sport enjoyed by millions.