The last few weeks have seen the temperatures up here in the Highlands dip to the lowest I can remember for years. Keeping a draughty old cottage warm has been quite a challenge for our little family "bubble" as we continue to adhere to the lockdown restrictions of essential travel only. Hope like Spring is on the way. Both my mum Betty and husband Brian have now been vaccinated - I'm just waiting for my call up!
Being cooped up with my family for weeks on end you may be thinking by now that "The Roaring Game" refers to family relations - but no. It does in fact refer to the game of curling, and with all of the lochs and ponds in the vicinity frozen for the last few weeks, I've been reminded how each of the small villages of the Highlands would once have had their own local curling pond.
Like golf, the sport of curling has a strong association with Scotland and has been taken all over the world by Scots emigrants. Scotland is home to the World Curling Federation that oversees the sport across the globe and specifies the rules, requirements for equipment etc. - the equivalent of the Royal and Ancient in golf. Curling has been an official sport in the Winter Olympic games since 1998 with the Canadians dominating from the outset – most unfair given that the Scots taught them how to play the game in the first place!
It’s watched on television by millions of viewers all over the world who often become hooked on the excitement, while perhaps not fully understanding the intricacies of the game.
It’s a sport in which players slide stones on a sheet of ice towards a target area segmented into four concentric circles called the house. Two teams of four players each take it in turn to slide polished granite stones towards this circular target. Points are scored for the stones resting closest to the centre of the house. The purpose for each team is to accumulate the highest score at the conclusion of each end, when both teams have thrown all of their eight stones. A game usually consists of eight or ten ends.
Curling has been played in Scotland since medieval times with the first reference to a game using stones on ice appearing in the records of Paisley Abbey in 1541. The word curling first appearing in print in a poem written in 1620 and describes the motion of the stone as it travels across the ice. The game is also referred to as “the roaring game” because of the sound the stone makes as it travels across the little droplets of frozen water that form tiny pebbles on the surface of the ice.
In early times the playing stones were simply flat-bottomed stones pulled out of the river and so consistency would vary significantly in size, shape and smoothness. You can imagine the search for that perfect stone to be hidden away until the local pond froze over in winter and competition would begin. Unlike today, the thrower had little control over the curl or velocity and relied more on luck than precision, skill and strategy.
Weavers were known to use the heavy stone weights from their looms and would fit detachable brass handles for the purpose, while others have experimented with wood or ice-filled tins. During the 16th to 19th century, the climate usually provided good ice conditions most winters, but today the sport has generally shifted indoors to artificial ice.
The curling stone, or rock as it’s called in North America, is made of granite and traditionally the source of this granite would have been the island of Ailsa Craig in the Firth of Clyde on the west coast of Scotland. The island was quarried for its rare types of granite that were particularly suited to this use. Nowadays the island is a wildlife reserve and strict environmental conditions mean that no blasting is allowed, making this granite even more highly sought after.
Curling is a game of strategy, tactics and skill often referred to as chess on ice - not simply a matter of launching the stone and hoping for the best! There’s a handle attached by a bolt running vertically through a hole in the centre of the stone and a skilled curler can make the stone rotate slowly on release, so that as it travels across the ice it takes a curved path. The direction and pace of travel is then influenced by two "sweepers" with brushes who accompany the stone as it slides down the ice. Under the direction of the “skip” they use their brushes to sweep and polish the ice in front of the stone – making the stone travel faster and straighter.
A great deal of strategy and teamwork goes into choosing the ideal path and placement for each stone. A team can either play aggressively trying to keep as many stones in play as possible, or play defensively – driving a lot of hits to take their opponents stones out of play. Only stones left in the house are considered for scoring.
More so than in any other team sport, good sportsmanship, or “the spirit of curling”, is an integral part of the game – I’m told that the winning team buys a round of drinks and hot dogs for their opponents!
Back in the day, the height of any curling season was a bonspiel - a curling competition traditionally held on a frozen, freshwater loch. While bonspiels are still popular throughout the United States and Canada, global warming has meant that the winters in Scotland are seldom cold enough to form the seven inch thickness of ice required to hold the weight of what can be thousands of curlers.
Back in 2010, when the winter's "big freeze" was believed to be the most intense in Scotland for fifty years, excitement mounted as the Lake of Menteith (Scotland's only Lake) prepared to host this rarest of sporting events. Unfortunately, the event had to be called off at the last minute over safety concerns. Not regarding the condition of the ice, but rather police and emergency services ruled it was too dangerous because of narrow, icy roads, bitter cold temperatures and poor access routes for the crowds that were expected to turn out. That's Health and Safety for you!
By Charles Martin Hardie
All other images from Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore, Scotland