Leith’s gift to the world


Posted by in November's Magazine

A statue unveiled on Leith Links in early September acknowledges the remarkable contribution of Leith Links to the story of golf, says Tim Bell

Leith has a new resident. He’s 110% life-size and he’s out in all weathers. He is John Rattray, born in 1707 and died in 1771, and a statue of him is now opposite Salamander Place. What’s a Perthshire boy doing here?

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Well, he lived 64 action-packed years. As second son he didn’t become Clan Chief, instead coming to Edinburgh to train as a surgeon. Multi-talented, he won the Edinburgh Silver Arrow, as prize of the Royal Company of Archers in 1735, and he took up golf. Golf was something of a craze among the relatively wealthy of Scotland, and Leith Links was the most prestigious course. 

They agreed the rules of play on the day, and settled their wagers in the Leith howffs of an evening. There was plenty of claret, which is the origin of the Claret Jug as prize for The Open to this day. But it became more formalised, and golfers wanted to hold an annual open competition. They petitioned the Edinburgh Council to supply a silver club, which was agreed to, but it was clear that written rules were required in order to establish consistency over the years.

Thus it was that on 7th March 1744, John Rattray signed the world’s first written rules of golf for playing on “the Links of Leith”. Rattray won the first competition and the Silver Club that year. He also won the Silver Arrow, again.

A year later the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie landed from Italy, making a claim for the crown of Scotland as a Roman Catholic. Rattray attended to the wounded after the Battle of Prestonpans, and marched with the insurrectionist army as far as Derby. He became personal surgeon to Charlie, and surrendered after defeat at Culloden. “If anyone hangs, you shall”, warned a Hanoverian officer who knew him.

He was taken to London, and, after an intervention from his Leith golfing friend Duncan Forbes, Lord President of the Court of Session, returned to Edinburgh. He won the Silver Club again in 1751, and practiced as a surgeon for another fifteen years.

Golf (and the fut-baw) had been banned throughout the land by the Stewart kings of the 16th century, as they were distractions for young men who should be practicing their archery for the defence of the realm. South Leith church banned the playing of golf on the Sabbath; anyone caught playing would have to sit on the penitence stool and give to the poor.

None of this stopped the wealthy, and even royalty, playing on Leith Links, which is home to an astonishing collection of golfing firsts: in chronological order, the first recorded game; the first club; the first port of export of golf equipment; the first written rules; the first competition for a prize; the first international challenge match; the first club house; and the first professionals’ tournament. 

Leith Links were the most prestigious golf course in Scotland – and therefore the world – until they were reduced by the industrial developments along the new coast road to Musselburgh, Salamander Street to the north, which separated them from the dunes and the beach. Also crowding in were the villa houses along the south side.

Smaller versions of David A Annand’s sculpture of
John Rattray

The golfers in St Andrews adopted the Leith Rules in 1756, local rules and all. Later, in a fine combination of self-interest and a wish to preserve the traditions of the game, they called themselves the Ancient Club. Then in 1834 King William became their patron, whereupon they called themselves The Royal and Ancient. None of this is a claim to the historical origins. Golf is Leith’s gift to the world. Leith is to St Andrews as Bethlehem is to Rome. It all started here.

A young Ben Sayers, born in Leith in 1856 and later golf instructor to royalty, nobility and fellow professionals, was introduced to golf on Leith Links. But the Links were levelled and grassed over, and Leith Franklin Cricket Club played on the east end. Just over a century ago Leith Council banned golf on the Links because it had become an urban park.

Leith Links is one of the oldest open areas in Scotland to be protected by Act of Parliament, along with Calton Hill and The Meadows. Edinburgh Council did not have authority to grant permission for the statue; it turned out that the authority had migrated to Westminster, and it had to be repatriated to Holyrood.

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club were there, publicly acknowledging almost for the first time their indebtedness to John Rattray and Leith 

The 1744 course was five holes. Heading north from the first tee in front of the old Leith Academy, was Sawmill Hole. Eastwards along the northern edge were North Mid Hole and East Hole, and returning westwards along the southern edge were South Mid Hole and Thorntree Hole, a total of around 2,250 yards.

Leith Rules Golf Society, formed in 2003, was formed to reclaim Leith’s golfing legacy. It holds a series of golf events on the east end of the Links, with permission and support from the Council, in the week before The Open, wherever in Britain it is played. Starting in front of the cricket pavilion, the five holes are reduced to the eastern end. Check the website www.leith-rules-golf.co.uk Join the fun.

The unveiling of the statue on 11 September was a fine occasion. The descendants of the Leith golfers, now at Muirfield, were there. The Royal and Ancient were there, publicly acknowledging almost for the first time their indebtedness to John Rattray and Leith. Lachlan Rattray, Clan Chief, and the Royal College of Surgeons were there. And the City Council, with a lively interest in making this a landmark not only in Leith but also on the worldwide golfing maps, was there. Everyone wants a piece of him.

There’s something that needs explaining to modern golfers. That stance of John Rattray as he addresses the ball, is all wrong, with his left foot forward. The long-nosed and long-shanked club he’s holding was made using technology that was similar to the making of bows and arrows: strong, supple wood had to be securely spliced. It was not swung over the shoulder, with feet slightly apart and evenly spaced from the ball, as we do now. It was swung round the back of the golfer in a wide sweep.

The nearby mounds, introduced to help resemble the dunes on which the 18th century golfers played, are not ready for public access yet. Marram grass was planted, but it hasn’t taken well. Leith Rules Golf Society is still responsible for the site, but before long the council will adopt it and it will be open-access.

We’re going to start a rumour that if you rub the ball at the end of the club, next time you go golfing you’ll have a hole in one. That’ll pull ‘em in! From America, Japan, India, everywhere. Already tour buses have had to be told they can’t yet call in on their way to FRY Britannia. Let’s take John Rattray to our hearts – he’s a Leither now.


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