Leith’s gift to the world

Tim Bell

It came to something when in 2001 the 41st President of the United States, George Bush, made a gross mis-statement of fact: “Every young player… is bound through the ages… to the members of the Society of St Andrews Golfers… who founded the first ‘Thirteen Rules of Golf’ nearly 250 years ago”[i] he wrote. One appreciates that he was retired and no great matter of state policy was at stake, but just how this could get past his advisors and the editors of an otherwise impressive golfing encyclopaedia should be a matter for the Fed’s finest.

That same year I and a handful of friends, not golfers but more interested in tourism and community development, reckoned that, with the Open just along the coast at Muirfield the following year, we would be missing a trick if we couldn’t reclaim Leith’s golfing legacy. In 2002 I was helping the Council workers cut the holes for (not quite) the first permitted playing of golf on Leith Links for almost a century. It was a thrill to find the sand of the dunes no more than a hand’s depth below the grass.

Having been banned by Parliament in 1547, by the 18th century golf on Leith Links became firmly established among the wealthy – royalty, indeed! – and the “humble” alike. The rules were agreed on the day and wagers were settled by night in a Leith tavern over copious amounts of claret. This is the origin of the Claret Jug as prize for the Open Championship to this day. 

In the early 1740s the newly founded Gentlemen Golfers of Leith petitioned the Town Council for a prize for an annual event. Very reasonably, the Council required a set of constant rules. In a sequence of choreographed moves on 7th March 1744 the Council agreed to provide the Silver Club for annual competition on the Links of Leith, and John Rattray signed the Articles and Laws in Playing at Golf. They are the world’s oldest written rules of golf.

John Rattray, born in 1707, was a colourful character. He was the first and second winner of the Silver Club, and served as surgeon to the insurrectionist Bonnie Prince Charlie. Captured after the battle at Culloden in 1746, he was taken to London and returned to Leith with his head still on his shoulders thanks only to the intervention of fellow Leith golfer Duncan Forbes, by then Lord President of the Court of Session. He won the Silver Club again in 1751.

Starting from the south-west corner of the Links, the course consisted of five holes played in clockwise order. Heading north from the first tee was Sawmill Hole. Eastwards along the northern edge were North Mid Hole and East Hole, and returning westwards along the southern edge were South Mid Hole and Thorntree Hole, a total of around 2,250 yards. 

Playing on common land, the golfers had to contend with washerwomen, children, dogs, drilling soldiers, and horses and carts heading to and from the ships at Leith Shore. They left Leith Links and re-formed in 1836 as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers playing at Musselburgh. But they didn’t get on well with the horse racing, which had also been displaced from Leith, and in 1891 they acquired their own course for the first time at Muirfield, where they remain.

Ten years after the signing of the Rules in Leith, the Society of St Andrews Golfers adopted the Leith Rules pretty well word for word, including local rules. It must be to this that George Bush was referring. St Andrews made their own rules sometime later. As Leith Links, crowded in by urban developments, lost their pre-eminence, the St Andrews club, in a fine mixture of self-serving opportunism and a noble intention to protect the traditions of the game, attached “Ancient” to its name. In 1843, through a rather loose association with King William IV, it added “Royal”. The name Royal and Ancient Golf Club is not a claim to the historical origins of the game. 

Leith is home to an astonishing collection of golfing firsts: in chronological order, the first recorded game; the first club; the first port of export of golf equipment; the first written rules; the first competition for a prize; the first international challenge match; the first club house; and the first professionals’ tournament. Golf is Leith’s gift to the world. In the development of golf and Christianity respectively, Leith is to St Andrews as Bethlehem is to Rome. 

In the 19th century the dunes of Leith Links were smoothed over and grassed, creating a very pleasant but otherwise unremarkable urban park, and golf was expressly forbidden. Leith’s golfing legacy was forgotten. But now we have a statue to Dr John Rattray, and a week in July – before the Open, wherever it is played – of local and open competitions.

To the modern golfer, Dr John’s stance addressing the ball is all wrong. But it’s authentic – the long-nosed club, at a shallow angle to the shaft, was swung round his back, not over the shoulder as now, and putting one foot in front of the other was necessary to maintain balance throughout the stroke.

It is already an established fact that if you rub the ball you will have a hole in one in the following year of your golfing career. Those who are disappointed didn’t rub it properly. 

[i] Campbell, Malcolm (1991). The New Encyclopaedia of Golf. London: Dorling Kindersley. Foreword to the 2001 edition.

More information at www.leith-rules-golf.co.uk