Perth: Golf on Sundays
(Source: © 2000, Douglas MacKenzie)
Many golfing histories begin with the Perth foursome of 1599 rebuked by the kirk session for playing golf on Sunday, when they should have been at church, but this is certainly not the earliest such reference as several authors claim. The minute book of the Elgin kirk session has an entry dated 19th January 1596 that Walter Hay, goldsmith, 'accusit of playing at the boulis and golff upoun Sundaye in the tyme of the sermon' compeared 'and hes actit himself fra this day furth vnder the paynes of fyve lib. nocht to commit the lyik outher afoir or eftir none the tym of the preaching'.
Royal attitudes, at least, had lightened up by the 17th century. James VI, and Charles I, both golfers felt that Sunday golfing was fine, so long as the religious devotions had first been performed. The trouble was waiting for them to finish, particularly if you were a clergyman yourself. "Golfing Charlie" Robertson, a leading light in the King James VI club, was preaching a sermon in Caputh Parish Church but the effect of promised fire and brimstone was somewhat diminished by the sight of his scarlet golfing coat peeping through the black vestments. One dramatic flourish too many and the gown burst up the back to the amusement of those in the congregation seated nearby but, in the words of the commentator, 'Charlie was by no means discomfited'.
Then again, just because your own theology assigned proper places to golf and God, there might be colleagues somewhat less pragmatic. The same Charlie Robertson told the story of being a member of the congregation in a church, with scarlet golfing coat again below his overcoat, and the minister being a golfing friend. At the end of the game Charlie urged him to join the game. Piously his young friend hesitated and spoke of the proprieties. Knowing a thing or two about temptation from the scriptures, Charlie explained 'I just held oot ma hand and leet him see twa new Gourlays; he couldna resist that an' he just cam awa'. One hopes the situation depicted in Alexander's cartoon of the 1890s did not occur too frequently. The gentleman throwing his clubs in the air is celebrating his victory over the minister. The caption, from his caddie, is 'Ye've got it sir, steeple, bell, manse and a' '
Gourlay's famous golf balls feature in another tale of Sundays. Alexander McKellar, the "Cock o' the Green" (shown in the image of the famous print of 1803, from Kay's Edinburgh Portraits, by John Kay) was one of the earliest golfaholics spending most of his time on Bruntsfield Links. 'His wife on coming to Edinburgh, opened a small tavern in the New Town (and he) .... had ample leisure for the indulgence of his fancy .... and golf may be said to have virtually become his occupation; yet no perseverance could entirely compensate for the want of practice in his younger years'. He served as a doorkeeper at an Epsicopalian chapel in Edinburgh on Sundays and Douglas Gourlay, the great ballmaker, was one of the congregation. Knowing McKellar's fascination for the game, one Sunday Gourlay mischievously placed a golf ball in the plate instead of the usual coppers. 'As anticipated, the prize was instantaneously secured by McKellar, who was not more astonished than gratified by the novelty of the deposit'. In a copy of Clark's book presented to Douglas McEwan the famous Musselburgh clubmaker, for his help in its compilation there is a signed handwritten comment by McEwan, dated 1880: 'It is unfortunate that the editor did not mention that Mr McKellar put the value of the ball into the plate, as he was a strictly honest man. The truth I was told by my father.'
Arguments about play on Sunday continued through the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Panmure, for example, first introduced a motion that Sunday be allowed in 1898 but it was 1925 before it was passed by a very narrow majority. The Old Course, which still remains closed on Sunday, resisted attempts at Sunday play during Old Tom Morris's stewardship because he felt even if he didn't need the rest on Sunday, the course most certainly did. Without the Sunday ban at St Andrews we would have been deprived of much of Bernard Darwin's wonderful essay, 'Going North' where he sums the auld grey toon up thus, 'It may be said that St Andrews on a Sunday is a dull place, but that is a very superficial view. It is appallingly dull and that is what makes it so exciting. I thrill with every moment of that drowsy, leaden-footed day because at very moment I can predict with considerable accuracy the precise brand of nothing that will happen.'
The Sunday ban had one beneficial consequence for clubmakers. It encouraged them to make 'Sunday clubs' or 'sabbath sticks', walking sticks with a golf club head of one kind or another. The story goes that these could be used when walking across the links on a Sunday and, when nobody was looking, surreptitiously turned around and a ball struck. Whether the story is true or not the genre produced some of the most interesting examples of the clubmakers art between 1890 and 1930: shafts of hickory, ash, greenheart and palakona, as in full-size clubs, and heads of persimmon and other hard woods, brass, silver and horn. Some examples are illustrated in the second and third photographs.
(Sources include: R and R Clark, Golf, a Royal and Ancient Game, (1875); Through the Green, [Golf Magazine Reprint of 1896] (1999); Charles Rampini, A History of Moray and Nairn, (1897); Peter Baxter, Golf in Perth and Perthshire, (1899); Peter Baxter, Recreations and Sport, in Auld Perth, (1906); The Records of the Panmure Golf Club, Barry, J Lindsay Henderson, Dundee, (1926))