Friday, 30 January 2015

The Royal Dornoch PhD Studentship: The Early-Modern Golf Industry in the Moray Firth and Aberdeen By Wade Cormack

The professionalisation of a sport is an important part of their development. Prior to professional golfers, however, many Scotsmen were involved in professions related to golf such as ball and club makers, merchants and greens keepers. These professions were necessary for the sport’s development and supported enthusiasts at their favourite pastime. Golf in the Moray Firth and Aberdeen, as the evidence suggests, was a popular and sophisticated sport. While many historians of golf have scrutinised the sport at the major southern golfing centres, it is necessary to acknowledge that the Moray Firth and Aberdeen also contributed to the development and definition of one of Scotland’s favourite sports.

References to golf, as we already know, date back to the mid-fifteenth century; however, specific references to people involved in the creation of golfing equipment do not become readily available for another century. Interestingly, especially for small golfing centres, club and ball making were not always done by a noted professional. For example, accomplished bow makers often times made clubs, just as cobblers (shoemakers) periodically stitched golf balls, if there was a demand for such goods. Therefore, it is difficult to judge accurately the actual size of the early-modern golf industry. Nevertheless, documentary evidence can illuminate important details about how it functioned and those involved.

Legal disputes concerning the lawful production of golf balls in Edinburgh date back to 1554, when a group of cobblers were found illegally making featheries. King James VI, a known patron of the game, intervened in the industry in 1618 and granted James Melville a twenty-one year monopoly for ball making. Melville’s high-handed actions however created further legal action as his rivals from Leith petitioned the Privy Council in 1629 for their intervention. John Dickson, one of the petitioners against Melville, moved from Leith to Aberdeen in 1642 and found a new market for his golf ball making abilities. Dickson then received a licence for his craft from the burgh, as the community was without such a craftsman. The professionalization of the craft continued westward to Elgin. In 1652 George Watsone, mentioned in a previous post, appeared in the Elgin council records as a burgess and ‘golfballmaker’ in a non-golf related commercial dispute. Further evidence suggests that golf ball making did not stop in the region in the eighteenth century, as the Earl of Seafield and Findlater placed an order for a dozen to be sent to him from Aberdeen in the winter of 1711 and 1712.

Old Royal Dornoch Golf Club
Old Royal Dornoch Golf Club

To compliment the work of Dickson and Watsone, Alexander Gordon and his son James plied their trade making golf clubs as burgesses of Banff from 1652 to at least 1691. Elgin also had a number of club-makers and bowers operating in the burgh during the mid-seventeenth century, as the council assured them that even in old age they would retain their status in municipal affairs. During the seventeenth century the golfing industry thrived in the north and a cohort of talent craftsmen devoted their working lives to golf and ensured enthusiasts, who had the money, had all the necessary equipment for the sophisticated game of golf.

By the mid-eighteenth century Scottish golf had reached another stage in its development, with the official founding of the Honourable Company of Gentleman Golfers and the drafting of the first set of rules. The Moray Firth and Aberdeen were also participating in this development. For example, in Cromarty an informal golfing and dinning club had formed in the mid-century that attracted numerous gentleman and merchants from the surrounding Black Isle and Easter Ross. Chief among them were Sir Charles Ross of Balnagown, Sheriff McLeod of Geanis, and William Forsyth. After enjoying themselves on the links the gentlemen would retire to Forsyth’s home for his generous hospitality. But that begs the question, who was supplying them with their equipment and wine? David Alston points to James Fraser, a local merchant from the Black Isle. Fraser’s account book from 1755 to 1759 illuminates the business transaction of this golfing fanatic. His business mainly consisted of importing luxury goods, such as Lisbon wine for Mr. Forsyth, and exporting grains and salmon. However, his book also recorded the sale of a golf club to Mr Hugh Munro. Fraser’s trading connections were vast, so it is difficult to pinpoint the club’s origins. It possibly came from Elgin or Banff, or from one of his trips to Edinburgh and Glasgow, where he purchased numerous golf balls and paid multiple caddies.

Twenty years later, in 1777 the Fraserburgh Golf Club was formed, followed shortly by the Aberdeen Golf Club in 1780. The charter for Fraserburgh’s golf club had many notable members including Lord Saltoun, Sir William Forbes of Fettercairn and Pitsligo, Alexander Garden of Troup. The club’s charter is excellent tool to understand the social network of the golfer that met every third Tuesday from April to September, acting in a similar way to Cromarty’s club. However, the charter illuminates another development of the game in the north: the designation of the role of the greens keeper and his salary.

It is clear then, that although the ‘Metropolis of Golf’ was centred at St. Andrews and the monopoly on golf ball making was in Edinburgh, the Moray Firth and Aberdeen were also active in the early-modern golf industry. The ball and club-makers, in addition to merchants, were selling their wares within a competitive market, as it was not uncommon for gentlemen to order equipment from the south. However, judging by the number of noted craftsmen and the length of time they were active, they adequately supplied the local market. Importantly in the formation of the sophisticated game played today, the eighteenth century witnessed the creation of a new profession, the greens keepers, to maintain the links and keep them at their best. So, next time you are at the Royal Dornoch Golf Club and you see Eoin and his crew out maintaining the course, and likewise see Andrew, Gary and Sean in the Pro Shop, know that they are following in the footsteps of a host of talents and experienced professionals who devoted their lives to the game of golf. 

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