History of Leith, Edinburgh

December 20, 2003

The Home of Golf

The first rules of golf in the world formulated not at St Andrews but on the Links of Leith. Not only this but the first Golf House in the World was on the site of what is now Queen Margaret University College in Duke St (the old Leith Academy building). Furthermore it was from Leith that St Andrews got the Rules of Golf. So in fact the true home of golf is not St Andrews but Leith!

Below can be seen the first rules of golf in the world formulated not at St Andrews but on the Links of Leith. Not only this but the first Golf House in the World was on the site of what is now Queen Margaret University College in Duke St (the old Leith Academy building). Furthermore it was from Leith that St Andrews got the Rules of Golf. So in fact the true home of golf is not St Andrews but Leith! (Click here for an image of the original rules of golf)

So how did the game start and when did it arrive in Scotland. There are two possible theories for this. The first one is that it was introduced in the 14th century from the Low Countries where a form of golf was played for centuries and as Leith traded with the Low Countries it is easy to see how it was introduced. The other theory is that it was introduced from England during the reign of Edward III but it wasn’t called Golf but cambuca. However in the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of James IV we find the following entry:
1503 Feb 3

Item to the King to play at the Golf with the Erle of Bothwile…..xiiis
Feb 4

Item to Golf Clubbes and Ballis to the King……………………..ixs

Further in the records of South Leith Parish Church we find the following entry in the Session Records:

“16th February 1610 The said day it wes concludit be the hail Sessioune, that thair sall be na public playing suffered on the Sabbath dayes. As playing at the valley bowles, at the penny stane, archerie, gowfe etc”

In fact anyone found playing Golf on the Sabbath was to be find 20s and a repentance was to be made in the Church before the pulpit (so all Sunday Golfers be warned!)

During the 17th and 18th centuries the Links of Leith was the main place in Edinburgh to play Golf for all levels of Society. So you would find Nobles playing with ordinary working folk, Legal people and political figures. In fact in Cassell’s “Old and New Edinburgh” there is a curious tell told about Golf on the Links which comes from a earlier book called “History of the Kirk of Scotland”:
“William Cowper, Bishop of Galloway was a very holy and good man, if he had not been corrupted with superior powers and worldly cares of the bishopric and other things and so he was accused of turning against God and that he was shortly was to be summoned before God to answer for all his sins. He ignored this and went out to play golf on the Links. However during the game he had a vision of two men coming towards him with drawn swords and when he asked his fellow players if they had seen anything they said no, on hearing this he went straight home and went to bed and instantly died”.

The course itself was not the modern 18 hole course but was composed of five holes starting from the Club House on Duke St. to Links Place. Then to the Links Allotments and onto the East end of the Links coming back to the foot of Restalrig Road and back to the Club House.

The Golf House itself was built towards the end of the 18th century and prior to this the Golfers frequented a Tavern on the West side of the Kirkgate near to the foot of Leith Walk. Where after a game up to eight pints of Claret was drunk by each of the Players from silver and pewter tankards. That Tavern would have stood where the New Kirkgate Shopping Centre is now.

From 1744 the silver club was given by the magistrates and Town Council of Edinburgh to be played for annually on the Links of Leith

Apart from local dignitaries some famous people played at Leith such as Montrose and Charles I. In fact Charles was very keen on Golf and was playing Golf on the Links when news of the Irish Rebellion reached him in 1642. In this rebellion some 40,000 Protestants had been killed. According to all accounts he throw his clubs and quitted the ground in haste, called for his horse and galloped to the Privy Council at Holyrood and returned to London. Unfortunately there is no evidence that Mary Queen of Scots played on the Links. Apparently she played on the Seton Sands instead.

Eventually by the early years of the 19th century the Golf Club House went into Debt and had to be sold and the Club moved to Muirfield where it is to this day. Golf on the Links finally ended at the beginning of the 20th century.

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