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Scottish Golf News from 1744

by Niamh Wood

The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers

The 13 Rules of Golf were set in 1744 by the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith. In 1754 they were adopted by the Royal & Ancient and are now set as standard by all golf clubs around the world.

The Honourable Company of Edinburgh golfers, originally named gentlemen golfers of Leith, is one of the oldest golfing societies in the world founded in 1744. The group established the earliest known rules of the game, the thirteen ‘rules of golf’. These were adopted witho

ut change in 1754 by the royal and ancient golf club of St Andrews – which later became the governing body for the sport in Great Britain. They also petitioned the city officials of Edinburgh for a silver club to be awarded to the winner of an annual golf competition on Leith Links. The prize was inspired by The City of Edinburgh when they gifted a silver arrow to The Royal Company of Archers in 1709.

The silver club trophy is the oldest in the golfing world.

On the 2nd of April 1744, eleven players, all from the Leith golfing society, took part in the first competition, a five-hole course on the Links of Leith. They included John Rattray, Robert Biggar, James Carmichael, Richard Cockburn, William Crosse, David Dalrymple, Hew Dalrymple, James Gordon, Hon James Leslie, George Suttie, and James Veith. All the players were well-known people in Edinburgh. Several were even mentioned in a mock-heroic poem about the golfers at Leith called The Goff, written by Thomas Mathison in 1743.

John Rattray, an Edinburgh surgeon, and champion archer was the first winner and was declared the ‘Captain of the Golf’ and had a silver ball attached to the silver club inscribed with his name. After winning the golf competition in 1744 and again in 1745, he was caught up in the Jacobite Rebellion after becoming a physician to Bonnie Prince Charlie. He was arrested following the Battle of Culloden. He was initially released but was arrested again and held in London until 1747 when he was finally freed. He was exceptionally fortunate to have escaped execution, as this was almost the inevitable fate of others who got caught. It is believed that this was thanks to the intervention of Lord Forbes of Culloden, who was a fellow member of Leith's golfers.

A bronze statue depicting the victor, John Rattray, about to begin in the first-ever golf competition was made by the Scottish sculptor, David Annand. It stands on the north of the links near the bowling greens surrounded by mounds. It took the Leith Golf Society ten years to make it happen. Hundreds of golfers around the world contributed to the making of it. Nearby the statue stand three bronze plaques. They show the first set of rules, the biographical details of Dr. John Rattray, and notes on the statue itself. This first set of 13 rules, depicted on one of the plaques, was signed by Rattray himself and still exists at The National Library of Scotland, and copies of it hang in golf clubhouses all over the world.

Leith Links was a renowned gold course of 5 (later 6) holes for about 400 years, but it eventually became a formal park crowded with visitors. In 1833 the original society of Leith Golfers decided to depart to Musselburgh. It was during this period that golf became increasingly popular. After much deliberation, in July 1892, The Honourable Company voted to move to Muirfield on the outskirts of Gullane in East Lothian. The decision to move was brave and far-sighted considering there was no course and no clubhouse. However, in May 1891, the Tom Morris designed course was opened and in 1982 the grounds hosted the first 72 holes open championship.

In 1922, Harry colt along with the past captain and twice champion at Muirfield, Robert Maxwell, re-designed the layout and for the first time in two centuries, The Honourable Company owned its golf course. It has since been enhanced by Tom Simpson in the 1930s and refined by Martin Hawtree in 2011. The club recently (2017) accepted females to join the club and has since been an internationally admired golf course that consistently ranks among the leading courses in the world.

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