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On course for a swing through golf's history

It was seen as a rowdy and dangerous sport that would only lead to its enthusiasts shirking church on a Sunday.

Back when golf was a sport without rules, the mantra of players was that "anything goes" and players enjoyed practising their game anywhere they could find space.

The golfers even caused disturbances in Edinburgh churchyards and the government at the time took a dim view because the local menfolk should instead have been honing their skills in case of the outbreak of war.

"The problem was that people were playing games when they should have been practising archery as they might have been called upon to fight for their country," says historian Olive Geddes.

"It was also seen as a dangerous game - the danger being that people could be hit by golf balls."

The problem of unruly golfers was something that distinguished Edinburgh physician Sir Robert Sibbald was to discover for himself as he made his way past Leith Links after visiting a patient in 1690. Suddenly, without warning, he was hit in the face with a golf club which left him bleeding heavily from a half-inch wound.

Sir Robert, being a determined sort, was not going to stand for it and indeed his protest eventually led to a Scottish Act of Parliament that banned golf. The fascinating twist and turns of this popular and quintessentially Scottish sport are revealed in Olive's book, A Swing Through Time: Golf in Scotland 1457-1744.

But incredibly, despite dedicating herself to detailing the history of the game, Olive, a mother-of-two from Tranent, does not enjoy taking to the fairways herself.

"My interest is in the history of the game but I haven't been moved to play," says the 52-year-old. "My husband does though."

Olive, a senior curator at the National Library of Scotland, says her passion for golf lies with its significance to Scottish history.

Notably, she says, keen golfer Mary Queen of Scots attracted controversy when her enemies alleged she had played the game openly at Seton Palace, shortly after the murder of her second husband Lord Darnley.

Olive's book also details documents that show that golf clubs and balls were bought for King James IV in 1503.

The royal connection also continues with the news that James V played at Gosford in East Lothian. She says her research has repeatedly brought her back to the sport's connection to Edinburgh and the Lothians.

"A lot of the sources in the book are based on golf in Edinburgh which was home to the first known golf club, the Company of Gentlemen Golfers, based at Leith Links," she adds.

Although it later changed its name to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, the Leith Links club, founded in 1744, still exists today and its members now play at Muirfield, Gullane, in East Lothian.

It was council officials in Edinburgh in 1744 who eventually persuaded the golf enthusiasts to draw up regulations for the sport in exchange for an expensive trophy - a highly prized silver club.

Almost 60 years earlier and, despite there being no rules, the earliest known tips for good golfing technique were set down in Edinburgh by medical student Thomas Kincaid in 1687.

Olive says the student played golf several times a week at Bruntsfield Links.

Despite golf's growing popularity, Olive says the sport had its staunch opponents, including the fearsome leaders of the Church of Scotland who were convinced it would encourage people to miss church.

In 1610, the South Leith Kirk issued the warning that those who ignored the church's disapproval of playing on the Sabbath would have to pay 20 shillings to the poor and "make public their repentance before the pulpit".

The design of golfing equipment has also evolved significantly and, in the 16th century, balls were wooden or made from strips of leather sewn together and stuffed with feathers, which quickly became misshapen or burst.

Early golf clubs were wooden and made by bow makers though from the 17th century blacksmiths were crafting iron heads onto clubs.

Olive says that many Edinburgh merchants in the 16th century were known to have been keen golfers, with clubs and balls listed in the inventories of their possessions upon their deaths.

Among them was Sir John Foulis of Ravelston, a keen sportsman, whose account books reveal his passion for golf at Leith Links.

"He always mentioned what they did afterwards too," says Olive. "They went out for supper and they played golf mainly in winter.

"I think it was because in summer the grass would have been too long."

A Swing Through Time: Golf in Scotland 1457-1744 by Olive M Geddes is available at £12.99 in paperback or £15.99 in hardback, from all good bookshops.

Source: Joanna Vallely, Evening News, Tuesday, 4th September, 2007