The Stones of Destiny

Kaitlin Dryburgh

A medieval sport, where its rules were formed on the nippy ice of Scotland’s lochs, a group of women who inspired younger generations, a team that had us on the edge of our seats in 2022 and an uninhabited Scottish Island which is world-renowned in the sport.

Scotland has long been considered the home of curling. It’s perhaps not a sport or hobby that gets a lot of attention, its history is not well known or even it’s culture. But in reality it’s been a fixture in Scottish pastimes for hundreds of years and still thought to be one of the oldest team sports in existence. It’s a game of concentration, great skill and is in essence chess on ice, as it combines physical skill and a great deal of tactics. We play home to the oldest curling club and have always played a part in shaping the sport to what it is now. 

The first mention of the sport dates back to the 16th century, so a rather long time ago but perhaps the most pinnacle time was around the mid-1800s when the first ever rules of curling were recorded, on which the current rules are still based upon. This took place on a winters day when Edinburgh’s Duddingston Loch froze over and many flocked to go skating and partake in curling. This loch already had been made famous by the renowned Raeburn painting the skating minister.

Black and white photographs of times gone by depict smiling men, pipes in mouth, sporting kilts on the icy banks of frozen lochs with straw brooms in hand. It’s been a long-enjoyed hobby, however in modern times with thanks to climate change among other things we no longer rely on our lochs freezing over. We have a network of curling clubs for all ages and abilities, we host the training centre for Team GB in Stirling and hosted the World and European Championships in Aberdeen.

There is more to this sporting connection than just our curling abilities. For curlers all over the world the island of Ailsa Craig is a mystical place. This small uninhabited island which only has a circumference 3.2km sits between Scotland and Ireland, and was formed millions of years ago from volcanic eruptions. It’s said that the granite from this island is like no other and has been used in the production of curling stones for around 200 years.

The stones used on the likes of Duddingston Loch are a far cry from the standard nowadays. The granite taken from Ailsa Craig is supposed to be hardier than any other variations, withstanding the condensation and harsh surface from the ice. The granite from this Scottish Island is so resilient due to the magma cooling down quickly from the volcanic eruptions. That’s why only curling stones made from the granite from Ailsa Craig can be used in world class tournaments.

Yet Scotland’s involvement doesn’t stop there. In a small Ayrshire town sits a workshop dating 150 years, Kay’s Curling Workshop. Their curling stones using the granite found on Ailsa Craig has been producing the best stones for a hundred years and as such has provided the Olympics with their stones since 1924. They have sole rights to quarry the island, but this can only take place between the months of September to November as to avoid disturbing the breeding season of the rare seabirds found there. Their stones are used all over the world, any team that’s competed on the world’s stage will have thrown a Kays 20kg stone made from Ailsa Craig granite.

Perhaps curling doesn’t get the street cred of other sports, yet there’s no denying that it demands a great deal of mental and physical skill. First off you need to stand on the ice, for some that’s the first hurdle. Then there’s the ability to do that while sliding a 20kg weight and balancing on one leg. But there’s a great deal of mental skill, teamwork and physics to the whole game.

On the world stage of curling Scotland has always held its own, both in its elite and grassroots sections. The infamous 2002 Olympic team headed by Rhona Martin gave Team GB it’s first gold medal since 1984. Yet back then the team were not arriving to the games with a plethora of sponsorship deals, or a committed team to get them ready. The team in actuality originated from West of Scotland and did not consider themselves professional athletes. A few were housewives caring for children fulltime, while others had no option but to work even in the run up to the Olympics as there was little to no funding available. The plan beforehand was to arrive home from Salt Lake City and return to those same positions. But for most of the team their lives had changed. Although they weren’t the favourites to win, Martin’s team celebrated victory in the  ‘sitting on the edge of your seat’ final against Switzerland having played for over 40 hours that week. Having dazzled a nation with her final throw, which is referred to as the stone of destiny, Martin’s life changed as she was able to fully realise a profession in curling. Even after her professional career had ceased she went on to coach the new generation such as Scotland’s Eve Muirhead, and began championing the sport.

History went on to repeat itself twenty years on as Scotland’s Eve Muirhead led the women’s curling team to gold in Beijing. Thrashing Japan to win the final, she now stands as Scotland’s most decorated curler. Even though she’s retired now she’s bringing attention to the sport especially in it’s time of need.  

Unfortunately, the sport has been under pressure in recent times. Like just about every other sport at grassroots level funding cuts have put curling rinks at risk. And with the high costs of running an ice rink many local councils have had to close their doors and many have acknowledged that the current situation is unsustainable. Muirhead has tried to bring some light to the situation Scotland finds itself in. Having had to close Ayr’s ice rink it now seems that Scottish Curling is fighting to save the remaining 21 rinks, she has asked for further funding to ensure they can stay open. Perhaps a sport she once took for granted as a professional athlete she now sees the vulnerability in a sport that has been a part of Scottish culture for hundreds of years, no rinks, no curling.

There are plenty of examples of the popularity and spread of grassroots curling. Of the 21 remaining curling rinks in Scotland, Aberdeen remains completely a members’ owned facility. A world class facility that recently hosted the European championships, they have over 700 members and around 20 clubs associated with the venue. As a very inclusive sport no one is barred from taking part, all ages and abilities are very much able to get involved. You just have to look to the Scottish Wheelchair curling association to see the span of the sport. With clubs affiliated to the association all over Scotland with young and old involved. And of course when looking at the elite side of wheelchair curling, Team GB is skipped by a Scotsman, there’s just no shying away from our natural ability. With the success that Team GB have had and the expansion of wheelchair curling events at the very highest of levels there are predictions that wheelchair curling will only grow in popularity, with some believing that the next rising stars may have not even played the game yet. Although this sport has been around for hundreds of years it’s reach is still yet to reach full capacity.

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