Curling Into Canada

 

The Hack (1500-1800)

The Controversial Origins of Curling and Its Eventual Foothold in North America

Watercolour painting titled CURLING ON THE DON RIVER, TORONTO, 1836

Hunters in the Snow, by Pietr Bruegel (the elder), circa 1565
Source: Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna's
© Public Domain, nlc-10086

The great Scottish curling historian Rev. John Kerr stated in his History of Curling that "there are no facts by which we can determine precisely the antiquity of the game or the manner in which it was first played." (p. 3) However, Kerr devoted the first chapter of his book to the origin of the game.

Some curling historians argue that a few paintings by Flemish artists in the 16th century show a game on ice similar to curling, most notably two paintings by Pietr Bruegel, Hunters in the Snow and Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap. However, other historians disagree and say that Scotland has the earliest hard evidence of curling with stones on ice. Many early curling stones have been found in Scotland, the earliest stone found so far being the Stirling stone, dated 1511. Some historians also note that many curling expressions seem to have originated in continental Europe. Kerr concluded that the number of such expressions has been over-estimated and that even if there were many, it doesn't necessarily follow that curling had its origin in the Low Countries.

Painting by Pietr Bruegel (the elder) entitled WINTER LANDSCAPE WITH A BIRD TRAP, circa 1565

Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap, by Pietr Bruegel (the elder), circa 1565
Source: WebMuseum Paris
© Public Domain, nlc-11943

In looking at the evidence, Kerr stated that "no game is proved to exist, or to have existed, in other countries, so much resembling curling as to imply that the game was borrowed into our country." (p. 3) Warren Hansen, in his book, Curling: The History, The Players, The Game, sums it up nicely: "Since in no other country have such stones been discovered, the game played on ice with stones must have originated in Scotland." (p. 20) Hansen also wrote that "the Scots clearly nurtured the game, improved it, established rules, turned it into a national pastime, and exported it to other countries." (p. 20-21) Scotland took ownership of the game and developed it over the centuries.

The Stone

Curling author Warren Hansen believes that the evolution of curling was tied directly to changes in the equipment -- primarily the stones. In his History of Curling, John Kerr has a full chapter dealing with the study of stones and he identifies three types of stones:

The Kuting-Stone, Kutty-Stane, or Piltycock, or Loofie

These stones had no handles, but a kind of hollow or niche for the finger and thumb of the player. They were meant to be thrown, for at least part of the course, the rink being shorter than now. They were smaller than later stones of the handle type and weighed between 5 and 25 pounds each. These stones were in use from about 1500 to 1650. A well-known example of a stone of this type is that of a famous early curler, Rev. W. Guthrie.

The Rough Block

Many stones of this type have been preserved. They were channel stones with a handle and were bulkier and heavier than the first type. They were in use for about 150 years, from about 1650 to 1800. In those days curlers took stones from the bed of a stream or the hillside and fixed a bent piece of iron into them as a handle. These stones varied in weight from about 20 pounds to over 115 pounds. Fortunately, the rinks were not as long in those days, but curlers still must have been very strong to play the game.

The Circular Stone

Early circular stones were still quite heavy, many being over 70 pounds. The development of the circular stones led to less individualism and variety of shapes. This is the type of stone which is still in use today. John Stevenson, in Curling in Ontario, 1846-1946, comments that "the craftsmanship of skilled workers evolved the standard implement of modern curlers, a symmetrical stone, usually made of granite or whinstone, beautifully rounded, brilliantly polished and supplied with a suitable handle." (p. 20)

Engraving of Rev. W. Guthrie's Curling stone, 1645

Rev. W. Guthrie's curling stone, 1645
© Public Domain, nlc-11936

Engraving of a curling stone called BLACK MEG, from Coupar-Angus

Curling stone "Black Meg," from Coupar-Angus
© Public Domain, nlc-11937

   Engraving titled TAM SAMSON'S STONE

Tam Samson's stone
© Public Domain, nlc-11938

 

References to Curling in Scotland

Kerr notes that Scottish historians or poets make no reference to curling prior to 1600. However, in 1976, a professor of Scottish history, John Durkan, found papers of a notary in Paisley, Scotland. They contained a record of a challenge by a monk, John Slater, to the Abbot's deputy, Gavin Hamilton, to a contest in February 1541 with stones thrown on ice. The challenge was accepted.

According to Kerr there are references to curling stones and to persons who were curlers, but no account of the game between the years 1600 and 1700. The first use of the actual word "curling" appeared in a poem written in 1620 by Henry Adamson.

As time went on, references to curling became more frequent. W.H. Murray, in The Curling Companion, notes (p. 41) that the first description of a curling match ever written was published in the Weekly Magazine of February 1771 by James Graeme, a 22-year-old divinity student.

There is no evidence that Robbie Burns ever curled but he wrote about his curling friend Tam Samson in "Tam Samson's Elegy":

When Winter muffles up his cloak,
and binds the mire like a rock;
When to the loughs the curlers flock,
Wi' gleesome speed,
Wha will they station at the cock?-
Tam Samson's dead!

He was the king of a' the core,
To guard, or draw, or wick a bore,
Or up the rink like Jehu roar
In time o' need;
But now he lags on death's hog-score:
Tam Samson's dead.

Curling Clubs

In Scotland there was a great lack of uniformity in the rules and in the equipment for curling. Curlers brought their own stones and there was no standardization in terms of size, shape or weight of stones. The rinks were of varying lengths and rules differed from club to club about how much sweeping curlers could do. The number of players on a team varied from four to nine or more, with some curlers throwing two stones and others only one. As communications and roads improved, teams wanted to compete more and there was a need for standardization to make games easier to play. In Kilmarnock and the Edinburgh area, teams were composed of four players and they each threw two stones. This became the standard with the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in 1938 and is now the norm throughout the world.

W.H. Murray, in The Curling Companion, describes the rise of the curling clubs. He claims that the evolution of curling had been through the development of the stone, until about 1800; after that it came largely through the development of the clubs. The clubs tried to promote the use of the round or circular stone and to get agreement on rules that would allow the competitive game to develop. The clubs brought together people from every walk of life, but there was a need for some discipline. In some clubs there was a fine for swearing, among other things. The Scots always remained practical and one club had a rule that whisky punch was to be the drink of the club in order to encourage the growth of barley. (p. 53-55)

Gerald Redmond, in his thesis entitled The Scots and Sport in Nineteenth Century Canada, notes that many clubs had a policy that no politics of church or state were to be discussed. Redmond believes that this is "another facet of the democracy of the game, which meant that political or religious opponents could enjoy curling without recourse to differences between them." (p. 181)

Curling was exported to Canada from Scotland and in 1807, The Montreal Curling Club was the first Curling Club outside of Scotland.

The establishment of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club as governing body in 1838 resulted in curling becoming a truly national sport in Scotland. The Royal Caledonian became the mother club for curling clubs in Canada and elsewhere.

The Hogline (1760-1850)

The Early Development of the Sport as it Crossed into Canada

Curling was brought to Canada from Scotland and some curling was played informally before 1800. The generally accepted story is that the 78th Fraser Highland Regiment melted cannonballs to make iron curling "stones" and that they curled at the city of Québec in 1759-1760.

Quebec has had a long tradition of using iron curling stones as a substitute for granite. This came about because there were problems getting granite stones from Scotland. The iron stones were made at a forge in Trois-Rivières, Quebec. John Kerr, in his History of Curling, says that these stones were shaped like huge teakettles, weighed 46 to 65 pounds each and were owned by the clubs.

Quebec and the Ottawa Valley used iron stones in regular play up until about 1955, when they were replaced by granite stones, thus putting Quebec in step with other parts of Canada and the rest of the world. The use of iron rather than granite was a sore point and caused problems in organizing games and bonspiels (tournaments) for Quebec teams. The Ladies Curling Association of the Canadian Branch of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club held annual competitions for the Lady Tweedsmuir Trophy, and irons continued to be used in this competition up until and including 1953.

The first curling club in Canada was formed in Montréal in 1807 by 20 merchants and they used irons exclusively. The Montreal Curling Club has been operating continuously since then and will celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2007. Its history is documented in The Montreal Curling Club, 1807-1907. This club took part in the very first inter-city game in Canada against the Québec Curling Club in Trois-Rivières, about halfway between the cities of Montréal and Québec, in 1835. Québec won and Montréal had to pay for the dinner (the opposite of the present-day custom). There was no whisky available and there were complaints about having to drink wine and champagne.

After the inauguration of the Montreal Curling Club in 1807, clubs were formed in Kingston in 1820, the city of Québec in 1821 and Halifax in 1824, and other clubs were to follow. The Toronto Curling Club was founded in 1836 and in 1840 James Bicket of that club published the first Canadian Manual on Curling. The manual [PDF 5.72 MB] included remarks on the history of the game as well as the constitution of the Toronto Curling Club.

The establishment of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in Edinburgh was very important for Canadian curling because it helped to standardize the game. Quebec clubs quickly joined the Scottish club as the Canadian Branch in 1841. This led to a standardization of the game in Canada, except of course for the continued use of both iron and granite stones. Ontario clubs joined the Canadian Branch later on. The decision to join the Royal Caledonian Curling Club meant that Canadians maintained close ties with the "mother club" in Edinburgh.

Gerald Redmond in his thesis, The Scots and Sport in Nineteenth Century Canada, suggests that there were many reasons for the success of curling in Canada. He comments on Canada's favourable climate, plenty of water, the widespread settlement of enthusiastic Scots, the formation of clubs, the high-class patronage of the sport and the willingness of the Scots to open their sport to other nationalities. Redmond notes that throughout the centuries that curling was played in Scotland, it was renowned for its democratic tendencies. (p. 142) This was noticeable in Canada as well, particularly in the military clubs where people of different ranks played together.

In Curling in Ontario, 1846-1946, John A. Stevenson reports that in 1841 there were two military clubs in Montréal, the 71st Regiment (now the Highland Light Infantry) and a regiment of Dragoon Guards, and that they challenged the Montreal Curling Club. Doug Maxwell, in Canada Curls, comments (p. 55) that "curling in Canada has always been aligned, historically, with the military, and their early offshoot, the police force."

Before 1850 there were no railways and the roads were poor. This made it difficult to arrange games with teams from distant cities. Three days had to be allowed for teams from Toronto and Hamilton to play a match in the other city -- only 50 miles apart. The Toronto and Scarborough clubs met more regularly as they were not far apart.

Curling games were played in Central and Atlantic Canada before curling clubs were formally set up. Curling was introduced into the Toronto area about 1825 and there were games between Toronto and Scarborough by 1830. Scottish immigrants were the curling pioneers in these areas of Canada. Many of them were stonemasons and made their own curling stones from granite boulders left behind by ice and removed from fields as they were cleared for farming. According to David B. Smith in Curling: An Illustrated History, wooden 'stones' were often used in Upper Canada, especially by curlers in Galt, until conventional stones were available. They were usually cut from a maple or birch tree trunk and shaped. A band of iron was fastened around the middle to prevent splitting and to add weight.

During this period, games were played outdoors and only gradually did clubs build wooden buildings to eliminate the need for snow removal during games. The early buildings were more like sheds and; later buildings also protected the ice against thaws. The Royal Montreal Curling Club was the first club in British North America to build an indoor rink, in 1838.

Clubs in existence before 1850 include the Royal Montreal Curling Club (1807), Kingston (1820), the city of Québec (1821), Halifax (1824), Fergus (1834), West Flamborough (1835), Milton (1835), Toronto (1836), Galt (1838), Guelph (1838), Hamilton (1838), Scarborough (1839), Dragoon Guards at Chambly (1841), 71st Regiment, now called the Highland Light Infantry (1841), Montreal Thistle Club (1842), Paris Curling Club (1843), London Curling Club (1847), and the Caledonia in Montréal (1850). The Fergus Curling Club claims that it has operated every year since it was established in 1834, making it the oldest continuously operating curling club in Ontario.

 

In the Atlantic Provinces, in addition to the Halifax Curling Club (1824), David B. Smith, in Curling: An Illustrated History, reports (p. 132) that there was reference to curling in Albion Mines and Pictou, Nova Scotia, in the 1840s. The New Caledonian Curling Club in Pictou was formed in 1852. In New Brunswick, the Fredericton Curling Club was organized in 1854 and other clubs soon followed. Alan O. Garcelon's book on New Brunswick curling, New Brunswick Curling Records, documents curling in that province up to the present. Curling has been enjoyed in Newfoundland since the 1830s, when it was initially played on Quidi Vidi Lake. In Newfoundland, a curling club was started in St. John's in 1843. By 1850, clubs were established in all Eastern provinces except Prince Edward Island. Ontario was the centre of curling in Canada. The next stage would see curling expand to the West.

The House (after 1850)

The Development of Curling as a Canadian Sport and How It Shaped and Was Shaped by Canadian Culture

Curling was well established in eastern Canada by 1850. In the early years, curling had its roots in Quebec. However, southern Ontario became the center of Canadian curling for most of the 19th century as a result of Scottish settlement in Ontario and the growth of railways. Curling continued to grow in the East after 1850, and in 1879 organized curling began in Prince Edward Island when the Caledonian Club of Charlottetown was formed. Scott Russell, in his book, Open House: Canada and the Magic of Curling has a chapter called "The Island Way," in which he provides historic and recent information on curling in Prince Edward Island.

The sport began its quick move to Western Canada after 1850. Vera Pezer, in The Stone Age: A Social History of Curling on the Prairies, explains that curling, more than any other game, became well established on the Prairies so quickly because of the railway and the Scots who rode on it. She notes (p. 1-2) that "curling defines the character and spirit of the Prairies and its people. Its requirements of self-discipline, persistence, patience, and co-operation parallel the qualities of early settlers, and it has been linked with every aspect of prairie life -- political, religious, and commercial."

The Manitoba Curling Club was started in 1876 but ceased operation in 1884. The Granite Club was founded in 1881 in Winnipeg and became very influential, setting the standard for other clubs in the West, including the use of granite stones. In 1874 the Ontario Branch of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club was formed and Manitoba followed suit in 1888, forming the Manitoba Branch. This Branch stimulated inter-club competition and by the following year there were 17 clubs, from Calgary and Edmonton and east to Port Arthur.

The use of granite stones became the norm. Field stones ("stones" cut from logs) and irons had been used for a while but gave way to granite. The colder weather on the Prairies resulted in thicker ice, which allowed holes to be dug, and hacks (footholds at each end of the ice) replaced crampits (iron foot-boards laid on the ice or attached to the feet).

In 1879 curling began in Prince Albert and Battleford, in Saskatchewan. In Alberta the first curling club was in Lethbridge in 1887, followed by Calgary and Edmonton in 1888. In 1889 the first Winnipeg Bonspiel was held; this bonspiel became the leading curling event in Canada until the Brier began in 1927. When the Scottish curlers visited in 1903, the Winnipeg Bonspiel and the Industrial Exhibition were the two major events of the year in Winnipeg. There was a report that a sitting of the Manitoba Legislature had to be cancelled for lack of a quorum because so many members were at the bonspiel. Bonspiels soon followed in Calgary and Edmonton and in other cities and towns. Bonspiels became the most popular forms of competition early in the 1900s and remained so even after the Brier was established.

In British Columbia, the first curling club was organized at Golden in 1894. In 1895 Golden and Kaslo joined the Manitoba Branch of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. Curl BC's The History of Curling in British Columbia describes 100 years of curling in British Columbia, from 1895 to 1995. The authors mention that "the development of curling in British Columbia was 90 years behind Eastern Canada because of the delayed settlement of the west and the construction of the transcontinental railway system." (p. 13) Bonspiels were important forms of competition and the British Columbia Bonspiel ran for 65 years.

 

Bonspiels continued to grow in size and popularity on the Prairies from 1925 to 1950, as they did elsewhere in Canada, although the Depression and the Second World War hurt many clubs. Bonspiels and the existence of curling clubs helped to get people through the long prairie winters. For curlers, curling itself was social and recreational and helped them keep up morale during difficult times. Neighbours often dropped by the rink to watch curling and to play cards. The curling rink became a social centre for both curlers and non-curlers.

Women's curling began in earnest in the 1890s. The Montreal Ladies Curling Club was organized in Montréal in 1894. This club may have been the first of its kind in the world; the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in Scotland did not admit women until 1895. In January 1900 the first intercity curling bonspiel took place between women from Montréal and Québec. Women's curling grew slowly and it was only in 1912 that Ontario ladies' clubs were recognized by the Ontario Curling Association. Women's curling grew in the 20th century in all provinces.

In the years after the Second World War, many new curling clubs were constructed and bonspiels offered bigger prizes to competitors. In Quebec and Ontario inter-club competition was easier because Quebec switched over to granite stones in the 1950s. T. Howard Stewart donated "100 or more pairs of granite stones to such clubs as might desire them" (RCCC Canadian Branch Minutes of the Granite Curling Association, 1924-31, Feb. 27, 1924, vol. 9, p. 1-2) Clubs were quick to take him up on the offer.

A decision was made to amalgamate the Canadian Branch of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club and the Granite Curling Association. This led to the adoption of granite stones in Quebec in the 1950s and to the standardization everywhere of stones used in curling.

Curling became more mainstream as time went on. Curling for juniors and little rock curlers, seniors and other groups became part of the curling scene. Wheelchair curling and curling for the visually and hearing impaired began in Canada and elsewhere. The media became more interested in the sport and curling games were broadcast on television.

Cover page of the sheet music for the song THE ROARIN' GAME

The Roarin' Game, by John D. Hunt
© Unknown, nlc-11941

 

Curling's popularity is evident in the fact that it has made its way into literary works and popular culture. In Max Braithwaite's The Night We Stole the Mountie's Car, for example, chapter 9 is entitled "You Can't Curl All Night." A literary manuscript contains a song for curlers called The Roarin' Game. Bowser & Blue, a musical duo, have "The Curling Song" in their The Illustrated Canadian Songbook, and films such as Men with Brooms have made Canadians more familiar with curling.

 
   Page 1 of letter from Howard H. Ward Page 4 of letter from Howard H. Ward Page 5 of letter from Howard H. Ward Page 6 of letter from Howard H. Ward

Pages of letter from Howard H. Ward, volume 20
© Ottawa Curling Club. Reproduced with the permission of the Ottawa Curling Club, nlc-11946

 
 
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