top of page

Communists, killers and champions


Leith is often described as one of the most vibrant and desirable places to live. In most spheres it has a significant degree of prominence. However, one area where it does not is in relation to the world’s 8th most popular participation sport; table tennis.

Only a few league clubs have played within its boundaries, including the slightly mysterious 494 Club which played matches at the drill hall on Dalmeny Street. In recent years this same venue hosted the highly popular Wiff Waff Wednesday social ping pong event with its motto ‘friendship before competition’. It was emblematic of contemporary Leith, attracting a great mix of ages and nationalities.

A Leith Table Tennis Club did exist in the 1990s, formed and organised by Michael MacLaren, a significant figure in Scottish table tennis. As a young man he was a leading player in England and friends with the great Chester Barnes. A professional photographer, MacLaren moved to Edinburgh and became involved with Murrayfield Table Tennis Club - one of the best in Scotland.

His research into the history of table tennis in Edinburgh was cut short by his sudden death in 1999 - following a heart attack during a match. He left behind a fantastic collection of photographs and documentation. With support from the Old Edinburgh Club’s Jean Guild Grant Programme, I am in the process of following up his research and capturing some of this vanishing history.

What has emerged so far is a fascinating story. There is little awareness that Edinburgh produced, in Helen Elliot, a double world champion (in women’s doubles) or that a keenly contested league structure has existed since 1935. The history of table tennis also includes political intrigue, the role of incomers to the city and unusual episodes - including a match involving a Saughton Prison team containing two convicted murderers! ‘Killers Let Out to Play Table Tennis’ ran the headline in the Daily Mirror in April 1968.

One recurring feature has been the ‘cosmopolitan’ character of table tennis in Edinburgh, evident throughout the history of the ELTTL (the Edinburgh and Lothians Table Tennis League). The first league winners (1935-36) were a team of Indian and Chinese students and the Edinburgh Indian Association became an influential part of the league. In the 21st century, Chinese students (especially at Edinburgh University) have again become a prominent feature.

The post-war boom in table tennis in Edinburgh (and elsewhere) was energised by a group of top class Polish players stationed in Lothian during the war. This Polish influence has re-emerged in recent years with several leading players in the region coming from that country. They have again helped make the top echelons of the league more competitive and some have been closely involved in coaching, helping the next generation of players.

Another group prominent in the early years of league table tennis was the Jewish community. This parallels the situation in Manchester, as related in Howard Jacobson’s brilliant novel The Mighty Walzer, which tells the tale of a shy teenage ping pong fanatic in the 1950s.

In Edinburgh, the Jewish influence was strongest at Gambit which emerged as an offshoot of Stockbridge Chess Club and had become Scotland’s top table tennis club by the mid 1950s, the Macabi club was also prominent in the leagues in the early decades.

There is also the political aspect manifested in Ivor Montagu, the key figure in the establishment of the ITTF (International Table Tennis Federation). His tale as a ‘communist aristocrat, Soviet spy and activist filmmaker’ is well told in Nicholas Griffin’s Ping-Pong Diplomacy, which shows how the sport has been interwoven into significant political events. Montague saw table tennis, with its simple, inexpensive equipment, as an essentially proletarian game and promoted the sport as a way to spread communism. It’s no accident that China adopted the sport so enthusiastically.

Even genteel Edinburgh was not immune to this ‘red wave’. One team which caused a bit of a stir was the Mason Memorial Club. They were named after an Edinburgh Communist (and rubber worker) who was killed in the Spanish Civil War in the ranks of the International Brigade. Mason Memorial Club’s players were members of the Young Communist League, and their rooms (in an old factory on St. Mary’s Street) ‘were decorated with pictures of Stalin and other Russian celebrities’.

More broadly, the sport has retained a working class identity, with strong clubs emerging in areas such as Craigmillar, Muirhouse and Gorgie. Two of Scotland’s strongest clubs are based in Drumchapel and Saltcoats, where the North Ayrshire club (which currently dominates the Scottish National League) has recently received funding as part of the government’s levelling up strategy.

As Richard Yule, one of Scotland’s greatest ever players, has recently written in The Herald, works teams used to be the backbone of local leagues, with matches taking place in canteens and social clubs.

For instance, the electrical engineering company Ferranti had several teams in the leagues. De-industrialisation hit the sport hard, with local leagues waning in its wake. League participation in Edinburgh & the Lothians peaked in 1981 and went into steady decline after that, though there has been a bit of an upturn in the last decade or so.

In short, the history of table tennis reveals much about changing social and economic times in the city. ■

Illustration for an international match between Scotland & Wales in 1947


A Saughton Prison team provoked a ‘Killers Let Out to Play Table Tennis’ headline in the Mirror


I'm a paragraph. I'm connected to your collection through a dataset. Click Preview to see my content. To update me, go to the Data

I'm a paragraph. Click here to add your own text and edit me. It's easy.


I'm a paragraph. Click here to add your own text and edit me. It's easy.

Xyxyyxyx xyxyxyyxyxy xyxyxyxy


bottom of page