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29 Sep 2021

Sporting collections

Written by Antonia Laurence Allen, Regional Curator (Edinburgh and East)
A black and white photograph of a group of men and women in Edwardian dress, posing around a tennis court. Some hold long-handled rackets.
Beatrice White (lying at the front) lived at Hill of Tarvit in Fife. She is pictured with family friends who often gathered together for sports. | Hill of Tarvit collection, c1880s
People’s behaviour and tendencies are influenced by the culture around them. It is language, education and everyday activities like sport that can provide a sense of place and belonging.

In celebration of National Sporting Heritage Day on 30 September, we’re taking a look through our collections to find some stories about the sports played in Scottish homes throughout the centuries.

National Trust for Scotland properties range from country estates to tenement houses and they all once functioned as homes. Once the basic needs of food and shelter were met, householders would often entertain themselves by playing a game of cards, hitting the golf course or trying their hand at fishing. Certain sports at certain times were only accessible to the wealthier classes, and therefore provided a sense of being part of an exclusive ‘club’.

A black and white photo of four young Victorian men, standing behind the net on a grass tennis court. They hold unusual-looking rackets!
The four Sharp brothers with their tennis rackets ready for a game, c1880s (Frederick, on the far right, married Beatrice White, seen above) | Hill of Tarvit collection

Hill of Tarvit Mansion is a family home designed by the prominent Scottish Arts and Crafts architect Robert Lorimer. Habitable by 1906, Tarvit is one of the most complete Edwardian houses in Scotland today, with its architecture, gardens, interiors and collections remaining largely intact. It’s a useful property as we look at sporting collections across the Trust, as it was designed with sports and leisure in mind. The 17th-century Wemyss Hall was remodelled for Frederick and Beatrice Sharp shortly after the birth of their first child, Hugh, who would go on to become a highly proficient golfer, horse rider, skier and mountain climber.

A sepia photograph of a man climbing up an almost-vertical rock face, with a rope wound round his middle. The photo is in a narrow wooden frame with a large brown mount.
Photograph of Hugh Sharp mountain climbing in the Alps, c1930s | Hill of Tarvit collection

This Edwardian country estate was where the Sharp family could play tennis and croquet, and enjoy a game of golf in privacy. The family employed the English ideal of domesticating the land, following in the wake of Victoria and Albert’s plans for Balmoral in Aberdeenshire, which had created a wave of enthusiasm for sport in Scotland. Hill of Tarvit has the quintessential English landscape of clipped hedges and immaculate lawns with borders of bright flowers.

Just along the road from Hill of Tarvit is Falkland Palace, home to one of Britain’s oldest tennis courts. This was commissioned by James V in 1539 (Hampton Court’s was built earlier but was demolished and rebuilt in 1625 for Charles I). Tennis was played here by Mary, Queen of Scots, who also enjoyed archery, bowls and hunting in the deer park.

Bowls only became widely played in the late 1800s. It seems that in the 15th century the game ‘boules’ was banned due to its popularity amongst the layfolk, whose skills were required as archers in battle. Until the mid-19th century, people could be fined for playing bowls on public land, and you had to have a licence to play the game on your own private green.

Fyvie Castle has an indoor bowling alley, once played on by Princess Margaret, who dropped in for lunch in the 1990s. It was built as part of a games building, or ‘playhouse’, for Alexander Forbes-Leith. Fashionable in country houses belonging to the wealthiest of families, a ‘playhouse’ typically consisted of a squash/racquets court, indoor tennis court, swimming pool, bowling alley and a room for ping pong, cards and board games; proper changing rooms were also provided. At Fyvie, Alexander’s additions were rather modest, only having a racquets court and bowling alley inside, with grass lawns nearby for tennis and croquet.

Croquet sets can be found at several Trust places. This game of hoops and balls was considered polite and suitable for ‘the ladies’. It rose in popularity in Scotland at the end of the 19th century after official rules had been registered at the Stationers’ Company in London in 1856. There is a set at House of Dun in Angus (the Erskine family seat), as well as at Haddo House in Aberdeenshire and Inverewe House, near Poolewe in the North-West Highlands.

A long open wooden box is displayed against a plain grey background. Inside are 3 croquet mallets and 2 wooden poles. In front of the box are further poles and croquet mallets, with colourful stripes on the handles. Five balls lie beside the box.
Croquet set, c1870 | House of Dun collection

Sport and leisure brought families together while also helping them identify with other families of similar social standing. In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, women often participated alongside men. Healthy activity was encouraged as a means of avoiding idleness ... but there were limits! Victorian etiquette dictated which sports and how much exertion was suitable for a lady; anxiety about idleness was coupled with a concern for gentility.

Tennis, golf, croquet and badminton were deemed fine for women, but cycling was still under debate at the beginning of the 20th century. Cycling was considered unbecoming as you literally have to straddle a seat; some women tried to ride side saddle as they would a horse. Riding a bicycle properly brought about the use of cycling bloomers instead of skirts, which symbolised a freedom for women that society was unprepared for at the time.

Cycling was considered suitable for children before it was acceptable for women. Below, we can see the bicycle owned by young Agnes Blackie, who grew up with her four siblings riding bikes around her Helensburgh home, the Hill House.

An old-fashioned black bicycle rests against a white wall in a round room with wooden floorboards.
Agnes Blackie’s Royal Enfield bicycle, 1890s – the black metal frame is painted with red lines, and a bell and torch has been attached to the handlebars. | Hill House collection

When it came to dressing for golf or cycling, magazines like Woman at Home published ‘How to ...’ guides on proper attire. By the turn of the century, some journals and newspapers suggested that certain types of exercise were wholly inappropriate for a lady. A (male) writer in The Scottish Review in 1900, for example, was anxious that ‘boisterous bodily exertion is enshrined in the modern young lady’s creed and ambitions’. He considered sports such as hockey, cricket and football to be too ‘mannish’ and unsuited to the sweetness and refinement of a woman’s ‘genuine nature’. [1]

A sepia photograph of a couple on a golf course. The green is very flat and the course appears rather empty. The woman wears a long wool coat. The man crouches down beside the ball on the ground.
Miss Agnes Toward on the golf course, c1920 | Velox paper print, sepia monochrome, Tenement House collection

Agnes Toward was a typist for a shipping company and lived in a tenement in Garnethill, Glasgow. The photo above is from a collection of prints that Miss Toward kept to remember days out with her friends.

Read more about her life and photo collection.

For many years, golf had been freely accessible on public links courses for anyone who had the time and inclination to play the game. The first golf clubs started to be formalised in the mid-18th century; by the 1850s there were 16 clubs in Scotland. In the first decade of the 20th century, 8 new clubs opened in Fife alone. Many new clubs also opened for women: the first women’s club was founded at St Andrews in 1867, followed by clubs in Leven and Lundin (both instituted in 1891). [2]

The family at Hill of Tarvit built their own course in 1924, although Frederick, his brothers (John, Robert and William) and his son Hugh were all involved in the St Andrews Royal & Ancient Golf Club before this.

Book a round of golf at the Kingarrock course, played with Edwardian hickory clubs

As well as being involved with formalising the professional game, the Sharp brothers were some of the key figures who developed the first private golf courses in Scotland. They were involved in the operations and management of Panmure Golf Club, near Carnoustie – Robert administered the first Scottish Professional Championship here in 1907. He was also an avid collector of ceramics, inspiring his younger brother Frederick to appreciate fine arts as well his love of golf, dovetailing two elite pastimes.

An old painting showing a winter scene under a heavy grey sky of many people skating on a frozen river. Some are holding golf clubs. Several boats are frozen into the bank.
One of Frederick Sharp’s ‘kolf’ paintings, attributed to Barent Avercamp. Winter Landscape with Skaters on a River, c1620–30 | Hill of Tarvit collection

Some of the first pictures Frederick bought were Dutch paintings of ‘kolf’, a nascent version of golf that was played on ice. Robert Lorimer had been specifically tasked with creating a home at Hill of Tarvit that could showcase Frederick’s growing art collection. The first-floor corridor was designed in the tradition of a picture gallery especially for the kolf paintings, while the large central stairwell accommodated three sizeable Dutch oil paintings, all illustrating the spoils of hunting.

Hunting, shooting and fishing are three outdoor sports represented in almost all collections across National Trust for Scotland properties. Fox hunting was certainly a key part of life for the men at Hill of Tarvit. Frederick purchased the old Wemyss estate knowing it was used for the Fife foxhound meet, a hunt that formed an important part of the social calendar. He and his son both joined this illustrious club.

The Fife landscape had been the hunting grounds of royalty for centuries. The 16th-century Royal Palace of Falkland was built on the site of a 12th-century hunting lodge, previously owned by the Earls of Fife. The Palace and hunting grounds were popular amongst the Royal Stewarts: King James IV, his son James V, and his granddaughter Mary, Queen of Scots all hunted here. A set of tapestries were purchased by Lord Ninian Crichton-Stuart in 1906 to mark this history, and feature archers on horseback trumpeting their path through the dense forest in pursuit of prey.

Read more about these tapestries

Although fishing has long been an important livelihood in Scotland, the swish of a rod and splash of a net plunging into the cold waters of a stream or the sea has also long been a favourite pastime. The folklorist and photographer Margaret Fay Shaw captured her husband John snagging a lobster with his fishing net on Canna in the mid-20th century. The printer Robert Smail had a business on Innerleithen High Street in the late 19th century and likely fished the local River Tweed, famous for its salmon. Cases of fishing hooks are still sitting, waiting to be used, in his front office. And a ‘Grant Vibration’ rod – made exclusively by C Playfair & Co, fishing tackle makers in Aberdeen, who also made rods for Prince Albert – waits ready to swing into action in the Rod Room at House of Dun.

Pollok House has a gun room; Brodick Castle has a stairwell filled with stag heads; while Culzean Castle’s entry hall features an enormous display of firearms and armour. These were the homes of wealthy families who launched themselves into the rugged landscapes when resident in Scotland. During Queen Victoria’s reign, the north was defined in opposition to the motherland of England; Scotland was a masculine space of sublime views and feats to conquer, only fit for the bravest citizens.

The National Trust for Scotland has many books, magazines, decorative arts, prints and paintings that were designed to herald this sort of idea. Boot polish found in the Angus Folk Collection links the sports of fishing and shooting with the travails of army life. The Gun Room at House of Dun has publications like Fores’s Sporting Notes and Sketches, a quarterly magazine with witty tales of derring-do in British territories. It was published in London and is written from an English perspective, in which man both dominates and domesticates the land.

Haddo House has a painting that mimics Edwin Landseer’s famous work The Monarch of the Glen of 1851 (that masculine archetype of Scottish-ness that was commissioned to be hung at Westminster). Landseer’s painting was so popular that steel engravings were made, and artists were commissioned to make copies. The one below was painted by James Giles (1801–70) in 1861. Giles was close friends with William Gordon of Fyvie. He was introduced to the 4th Earl of Aberdeen (1784–1860), under whose patronage he painted the Castles of Aberdeenshire series, which includes 85 views in watercolour painted between 1838 and 1855. Giles was also a landscape gardener and designed the gardens and terrace at Haddo House.

A painting of a stag, peering round the side of a mountain, with dramatic clouds in the background. He has magnificent antlers but an almost fluffy chest.
The Monarch of the Glen, James Giles after Edwin Landseer, 1861 | Haddo House collection

Hunting was a sport entwined with Scottish estates. Whether we agree with the practice today or not, it formed a key part of the recreational activities for Victorian gentry. Hunting for smaller game may have been an active part of daily life for many working people too, as a means of sustenance. But leisure time spent beating through the hills for deer was very much a rich man’s game.

Another expensive endeavour was water sports. Yachting was one of the passions of the 3rd Marquess of Ailsa, who had a boat house built in 1871 under the great cliff upon which sat his Scottish home, Culzean Castle. He won many yacht races and designed his own boats. He started a boat building and repair business in 1878, operating from his new boat house. The business flourished, and he had a concrete slipway constructed just three years later to accommodate orders for larger boats.

A wooden model of half a hull of a boat is displayed on a wooden board, against a plain grey background. There is a small metal plaque in the bottom right corner.
A half hull of a model steam launch for sea or river – it was built and engineered by the 3rd Marquess of Ailsa at Culzean Yacht & Steam Launch Works | Culzean Castle collection, 1881–82

As boats were being crafted on one estate in Ayrshire, playing fields were being created for footie on another estate near Glasgow. Sir John Stirling Maxwell of Pollok House was a keen contributor to the Victorian and Edwardian fashion for providing public spaces for working people to stay fit and healthy. Rambling and walking in the countryside had become a popular form of recreation in the 19th century. For many people living in towns and cities, walking offered a welcome relief from a polluted environment and the stresses of daily life, without spending any money. Sir John was a particular believer in the benefit of open spaces for everyone, and in 1911 he opened his grounds at Pollok to the public.

A view of the garden stone structure at Pollok House, overlooking the manicured lawns that sweep down to the river and then out across fields.
Pollok House had formal gardens and parkland stretching over hundreds of acres.

The opening of Pollok Park followed on from other donations of land by Sir John. Land from the Pollok estate was given for urban parks, to the newly formed Pollok Football Club for a playing field, and for the creation of golf courses and allotments. Sir John’s own staff were encouraged to ‘grow their own’ in gardens attached to estate housing or on allotments near the old stables courtyard behind Pollok House. He supported and provided land for Glasgow’s first playing field under the George V Memorial Scheme, leading the way in ensuring the provision of green spaces for children and community sport in the city.

Of course, when the weather became inclement and winter drew in, families like the Stirling Maxwells retreated into their homes to play cards, billiards or listen to music. Many houses had games tables, which were folded out in the evening for card games like bridge or whist.

An old wooden games table with a green baize top is displayed against a plain grey background. It has finely carved legs.
A mid-18th-century mahogany folding games table with green baize to prevent cards and counters slipping on the table top | Pollok House collection

Old packs of cards can be found in many houses, but some properties have unique sets. One such set is found at J M Barrie’s Birthplace in Kirriemuir. Although not owned by Barrie, the pack of playing cards features his famous creation Peter Pan, ‘the boy who would not grow up’. The cards were manufactured by the International Card Company six years after the successful 1904 stage play, which was performed before the publication of Barrie’s novel. British artist Charles Buchel (the first to visually depict the characters in Peter Pan) produced the illustrations and included many of the characters, including Wendy, Smee, Nana and Mrs Darling.

A set of Peter Pan-themed playing cards are arranged against a plain grey background. The card faces feature various characters from the play.
The new artistic & amusing game Peter Pan by the International Card Company, c1910 – the game was based on the well-known Happy Families. | J M Barrie’s Birthplace collection

We also have several examples of lesser-known games (even if they been adapted for modern play under new guises). At Brodie Castle, a long wooden box contains a game called Fishponds, in which players attempt to hook the game pieces using a rod. If successful, they had to guess whether the number on the bottom of the piece was odd or even. If they managed to correctly do this, they could then add the piece to their own ‘pond’.

A long thin wooden box is displayed with its lid just beside it, against a plain grey background. Inside the box are lots of little wooden pieces with hooks as well as some thin fishing rods. There is a green label on the lid that reads: Fishponds: A Parlour Game.
Fishponds, a game in the nursery at Brodie Castle, c1880

Also at Brodie are the remnants of a game whose rules are unknown but which involves a set of nine cardboard cut-out figures and some play scenery. Figures include five women and four men, all dressed in theatrical, Shakespearean costume. Five of the figures are mounted on small wooden blocks, so they can be stood upright, and have labels attached, identifying the characters as Gomez, Pedrillo, Guzman, Pepita and Ines. The rectangular section of scenery is mounted on a cylindrical wooden dowel and features a section of staircase on one side and the inside of what is probably a church on the other. The figures may depict characters from an 1888 comic opera entitled The Queen’s Mate, which was itself adapted from the French La Princesse des Canaries (1883) by Charles Lecocq. Maybe this was a game to teach children the opera, or perhaps to help adults follow the arias as they were performed? The opera was also known as Pepita and was performed in London in 1888.

A small cardboard cut-out figure of a woman dressed in a blue corset and wide, knee-length red skirt is displayed against a plain grey background.
Pepita, a cardboard cut-out figure of a woman dressed in a blue corset and wide, knee-length red skirt | Brodie Castle collection, c1888

And to conclude, we have the curios in our care – like the boxing squirrels at Leith Hall – that illustrate the human tendencies of personifying animals and being competitive in sport. Known as ‘The Pugilists’, the red squirrels below were prepared and mounted for Leith Hall by William Hart, a specialist in setting up animals and birds to represent human activities. Hart had been interested in natural history as a boy and decided to pursue this as an adult ... in a roundabout fashion! His son followed him into the taxidermy family business, and the two men became renowned for their series of boxing squirrels’ dioramas. A set like the one at Leith Hall was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London.

Four glass boxes are mounted on a wall in a square formation. All feature stuffed red squirrels, arranged as if in a boxing match.
The Pugilists, taxidermy by William Hart | Leith Hall collection, c1850

It seems that sport of all kinds offers a means for humans to compete – with each other, with themselves and with nature. Taking a stroll through our heritage collections gives us a sporting chance to take stock of our own leisure habits today.


[1] Articles from Woman at Home (1893–95) and ‘The redundancy of spinster gentlewomen’ in Scottish Review (1900) are quoted by Linda Fleming in ‘Bodies, sexuality and health’ in E. Breitenbach, L. Fleming, S. Karly Kehoe and L. Orr (eds), Scottish women: a documentary history, 1780–1914 (Edinburgh, 2013), pp 44–7

[2] N. Tranter, Sport, economy and society in Britain, 1750–1914 (Cambridge, 1998), pp 15, 84–5

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