You might have passed these stones at Burns Cottage and not even noticed them. One is under the bench at the garden entry door, one is in the Byre, and one is holding open the door between the Spence and Kitchen. These curling stones probably date from the mid-nineteenth century. They could be ‘sporting relics’ from when the cottage was run as an inn, but it is also not unusual to see old curling stones used as garden ornaments or as doorstops. Curling was once the most popular sport in lowland Scotland.
The earliest curling stones were simply riverbed boulders, with holes bored in the sides for finger and thumb. Later, iron handles were added. In Darvel, Ayrshire, it is recorded that the weavers would use the stone weights from their looms. Some stones would be hammer-dressed into a circular shape, with the lower surface polished to enable it to better slide along the ice.
Apparently the earliest written account of curling dates from the 1540s, when a Notary of Paisley relates that a monk at Paisley Abbey had challenged a colleague to a match of ‘quoits’ on the ice. Visual references to a game similar to curling can be found in the works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, most noticeably in ‘The Hunters in the Snow’ (1565).
Fast-forward to the 18th century, and in John Sinclair’s The Statistical Account of Scotland (1791-1799) entry for Muirkirk, Ayrshire we find the following:
‘Their chief amusement in winter is curling, or playing stones on smooth ice; they eagerly vie with one another who shall come nearest the mark…’
Robert Burns mentions curling in two of his poems:
‘The sun had closed the winter day/The curlers quat their roaring play…’ (The Vision)
‘Roaring’ refers to the noise the granite stones make as they move along the ice. Curling is sometimes referred to as ‘The Roarin’ Game’.
‘When to the loughs the curlers flock,
Wi gleesome speed,
Wha will they station at the cock? —
Tam Samson’s dead!
He was the king o a’ the core,
To guard or draw or wick a bore,
Or up the rink like Jehu roar
In time o’ need;
But now he lags on death’s hog-score,
Tam Samson’s dead!’ (Tam Samson’s Elegy)
- The ‘cock’ was the term for the ‘tee’ where the curlers start from.
- To ‘guard’ is to place a stone in front of another to protect it from being knocked out
- A ‘draw’ is a shot that lands but does not hit another stone out
- To ‘wick a bore’ is to get a stone through an opening in previously placed stones
- The ‘hog-score’ is the line on the curling rink that stones must pass or be removed from the ice
Burns was not the only poet to celebrate curling. Allan Ramsay’s 1724 poem ‘To Robert Yarde of Devonshire’ begins thus:
‘Frae northern mountains clad with snaw,
where whistling winds incessant blaw,
in time now when the curling-stane
Slides murm’ring o’er the icy plain […]’
The Ayr and Alloway Curling Club was established in 1854. The curling pond was situated in the Rozelle Estate, in between the current duck-ponds and the Slaphouse Burn in neighbouring Belleisle. The sides of the pond can still be found in the woods.
In 1934, the Burns Chronicle published a letter between two friends of Burns (John Syme and Alexander Cunninghame) that provide evidence for Burns having been a curler, or at the very least, participated in a match:
[John Symes; 5 January 1789] ‘I missed a match with [Burns] last Friday at Dumfries where he played a Bonespeel with the curlers there…’
There is a bench seat in the Burns Monument Gardens that bears a depiction of curling stones. This is a memorial to Allister Boyd, a young curler who died from a brain tumour in 2009. The Culzean stonemasonry apprentices designed and made this bench, creating the curling stone detail out of Ailsa granite.
Ailsa Craig has been used as a source of granite for curling stones since the mid 19th century. The two types of granite found there are Green Ailsa granite and Blue Hone granite. Although blasting is no longer permitted, there is still plenty of loose granite to be used. The train track used to transport the stone to the small jetty is still visible underneath the grass, and much of the equipment is simply left to the mercy of the elements. The last ‘harvest’ of granite took place in 2013 by Kays of Scotland, who now have exclusive access to Ailsa granite.
(Rebecca Stapley, Curator)