People the world over have been kicking and throwing balls of all types and sizes since the dawn of time, so it’s not an easy task knowing where to start when telling the story of the origins of football. At the FIFA World Football Museum, our focus is, of course, on the history of the game of association football, the code of football created in 1863 over which FIFA is the world governing body. But it is instructive to know what forces were at play at the time of its creation. In our first post, we looked at the role clubs played in the events of 1863, especially that of Sheffield FC, the oldest association football club still in existence. This week we go back even further, to the time before football clubs, when football was a wild and untamed game with no rules or regulations to guide those playing. We go back to the year 1815, when the Carterhaugh Ba Game (Ba being the Scottish term for football) marked a significant step in the development of the sport that we know today.
A football match to celebrate the end of the war
1815 was an important year for the nations of Europe. For a quarter-of-a-century the continent had been ravaged by revolution, upheaval and war. But at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, Napoleon had been defeated. The celebrated Scottish writer Walter Scott was one of a number of notable figures who went to visit the battlefield. Scott could not have known it, but Waterloo ushered in a century of almost uninterrupted peace, especially in Britain, which, combined with the gathering tide of the industrial revolution, would change the whole world beyond recognition. After returning to Britain, Scott paid a visit to his friend Charles Montague-Scott, the 4th Duke of Buccleuch. They decided to mark the end of the war and the accompanying threat of a French invasion, by organising a football match on the Duke’s Bowhill estate in the Scottish borders.
No history of football would be complete without reference to the game the two men organised on 4 December 1815. It wasn’t the first game of football to be organised in the region, and nor would it be the last, but the Carterhaugh Ba Game, as it became known, has achieved a notoriety that few other football games before the advent of codification have been able to match. And for that Scott must take much of the credit. He wrote a song to coincide with the game, the words of which were widely published in newspapers across the country. “The Lifting of the Banner” contained a line that became a football anthem.
Then strip, lads, and to it, tho’ sharp be the weather,
And if by mischance you should happen to fall,
There are worse things in life than a tumble on heather,
And life is itself but a game at foot-ball.
The banner in question was that of the Dukes of Buccleuch, which was traditionally used as a rallying point to gather locals together to help repel English invaders. The banner was paraded before the game and, remarkably, 205 years on, it still exists in the Buccleuch collection at Bowhill. But the banner is not all that survives from that day. Copies of the Scott’s song, along with another by James Hogg, which were collectively known as “The Ettricke Garland” also form part of the collection. The pamphlets were handed out before the game, very much in the manner of a match programme, while the communal singing before the game would echo down through the ages, like the hymn Abide with Me before the FA Cup Final, or You’ll Never Walk Alone sung before Liverpool and Celtic matches today.
The Carterhaugh Ba Game was played on the plain of Carterhaugh at the confluence of the Ettrick and Yarrow rivers, a stretch of land steeped in myth - of border clashes with English armies; of minstrelsy; of folklore and poetry. The nearby town of Selkirk provided the players for one of the teams, who wore slips of fir to identify them, while the men of the Vale of Yarrow provided the opposition, who wore sprigs of heather.
A giant step forward for football
The sports historian Allen Guttmann has identified seven criteria that mark the development of ancient sports into modern sports. One is the introduction of rules, and another is the modification of those rules. At the Carterhaugh Ba Game there simply were no rules. It was played with both the hands and the feet and the teams numbered over 100 players. But in five crucial aspects, the game did mark a giant step forward for football.
The first of Guttmann’s seven criteria states that there should be no religious undertones to game, and at Carterhaugh there was none. Secondly, he argues that the game should not be the private domain of an elite. With 100 or more locals per side, this was as democratic as could be. Guttmann’s third criteria, the “bureaucratization” of sport, suggests an organizational layer underpinning the game, and this was definitely the case at Carterhaugh. The Duke of Buccleuch went to great lengths to make the game a success. The Yarrow team was organized by James Hogg under the patronage of the Earl of Home, while the Selkirk team was organized by Robert Henderson and chief magistrate Ebenezer Clarkson.
The Duke’s control even extended to match refreshments which were provided by his domestic staff. In yet another nod to the future the sale of alcohol was forbidden and there was a lavish ceremony which preceded the kick-off during which Walter Scott paraded “the ancient banner of the Buccleuch family.” The whole day was recorded meticulously by a reporter from the Caledonian Mercury, further fulfilling Guttmann’s final two criteria of modernity, that of keeping records during the course of a game and of preserving those records for posterity.
A stubborn struggle with an estimated crowd of 2000 ends in a draw
Indeed, the reporter gives us a remarkable insight into what went on that day, on the field as well as off it. He writes that the Duke of Buccleuch threw up the ball at the start and that “the first game was gained after a severe conflict of an hour and half duration by the Selkirk men.” A mason from Selkirk called Robert Hall is noted as having “haled” the first ball, and that George Brodie, from Greatlaws, upon Ale water, haled the second for Yarrow after what was termed a “stubborn struggle of more than three hours, with various fortune, and much display of strength and agility on both sides.”
All this was watched by a crowd that the Caledonian Mercury estimated was in excess of 2000. This may have been in the days before proper grounds, but it showed that football was no longer just for playing and that it could be a spectator sport too. The reporter goes on to state that “Both sides were joined by many volunteers from other parishes, and the appearance of the various parties marching from their different glens to their place of rendezvous, with pipes playing and loud acclamations, carried back the coldest imagination to the old times when the foresters assembled with the less peaceable purpose of invading English territory, or defending their own.”
The onset of dusk called a halt to proceedings before a deciding game could be played, although Walter Scott issued a challenge for “a match to be played upon the first convenient opportunity, with 100 picked men only on each side” to settle the scores. And in parting the reporter stated that “all bets are to be paid by the losers to the poor of the winning parish.” As to the nobility and gentry who had been present during the day, they were treated to a dance at Bowhill, where “the fascination of Gow’s violin and band detained them in the dancing-room till the dawn of the winter morning.” As the two sides headed home there were reports of trouble flaring between some players, unhappy with some of the tactics used during the game. Some things never change.
“One of the most considerable matches at Foot-Ball in modern times.”
Never before had a game of football been recorded in such detail. Within 50 years a whole new industry based on reporting football games would become established, but the scribe from the Caledonian Mercury wasn’t the only writer present at the game. In March 1816, a book called Popular Pastimes was published in London, the first chapter of which was devoted to football. The chapter opened with the illustration of the Carterhaugh Ba Game, and it concluded with a description of the game which it referred to as “one of the most considerable matches at Foot-Ball in modern times.”
It’s a popular myth in the Scottish Borders that the 1815 Carterhaugh Ba Game was the inspiration for the game of rugby, predating the even more popular myth of William Webb Ellis picking up the ball during a game at Rugby School eight years later in 1823. But the Carterhaugh Ba Game has a wider significance than that. Sports historian Tony Collins refers to the pre-codification era as a complex “primordial soup” and of the “impossibility of drawing a direct connecting line from these early set of rules to modern soccer and rugby codes.” But in that primordial soup the Carterhaugh Ba Game help shape the image of football as a game from which both the rugby rules and association rules later developed, and for that it deserves a special place in the history of all codes of football.