The early rise of football in Scotland: how the sport galvanised a nation’s economy, society and health

The early rise of football in Scotland: how the sport galvanised a nation’s economy, society and health

This article is from chapter one of Fitba: A Thematic History of Scotland’s Beautiful Game. These Football Times will be releasing all chapters over the coming months, charting Scotland’s historical relationship with football.

Whisky bottles bobbed along in the water, slowly brought to shore by the ebb and flow of the tide. The SS Politician was wrecked in the distance, its precious cargo cut adrift. World War Two had been raging for two years and such luxuries were in short supply. Local fishermen gathered to launch a rescue operation: time and again they ventured out into the water and returned until as many as a thousand bottles had been retrieved. The recovered contraband was shared throughout the small island community, distributed by locals astride the ponies that roamed the shoreline.

This is Eriskay, home to a community of 140 people in the Outer Hebrides, where during the 18th century, Charles Edward Stuart, or ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ as he was better known, set foot on the island, scattering seeds from a handkerchief that has since provided glorious pink blooms amongst the grassy plains. He bid farewell to the island and made his way inland to lead the Jacobite Rebellion in an attempt to reclaim the throne of Britain that he felt rightfully belonged to his family.

Previously only accessible by boat, a causeway was built at the turn of the millennium giving the inhabitants links to the islands of South Uist and in later Benbecula. The island is one of Scotland’s furthest outposts but is also home to Eriskay FC, who consistently put together a team from amongst the minute population who inhabit the island. Despite having a limited pool of players to choose from, the club is part of the South Uist and Barra League. The home pitch has been named amongst FIFA’s eight most remarkable places to play football.

The club is as woven into the fabric of the island as the ponies that wander the coast. During the off-season, the animals call the pitch home, meaning one of the first duties when the new campaign kicks off is to remove several months worth of excrement. This isn’t the only challenge the pitch poses, as the man who draws the short straw to line it out realises when he gets the white wash out. To say the pitch is uneven would be somewhat of an understatement. Covered in humps, bumps, angled slopes and divots, the thought of playing on it would leave most modern-day players in cold sweats. The frequent appearance of the famed local equines combined with unforgiving gusts from the adjacent Atlantic Coast makes it a truly unique home.

The game’s reach has stretched far and wide across Scotland, from the southern border to the northernmost tip and across the many islands, some of which are closer in proximity to Norway. For a nation of five million people to have 42 football league clubs seems somewhat excessive, even more so when you take into account the Highland, Lowland and Junior Leagues. 

It’s surprising that some of them exist at all. The last decade has seen finances bite hard in the Scottish game, with some clubs staring down the barrel of the gun several times as years of overspending finally caught up and sent them spiralling towards extinction. Poor decision-making had hit clubs dramatically, reduced income and affected Scotland’s standing in the game – yet the passion and fervour of fans remain.

The sheer bloody-mindedness of supporters up and down the country in keeping their clubs afloat has led to the formation of an increasing number of supporters trusts to provide a voice if the worst were to happen. 

The role of football in Scottish society can be traced back to its very humble beginnings, a way to blow off steam at the weekend after an arduous week at the unforgiving coalface or the stifling metal foundry. The 19th century saw football sweep across the Central Belt, but the primitive and brutal pastime was already on the receiving end of abuse from dissenting voices, rugby remaining Scotland’s number one sport. However, once a set of requested rules arrived from the Football Association, teams sprouted up across the country.

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The new addiction that had entranced the working-classes threatened the role that religion had come to play in peoples lives, many of the games taking place on the Sabbath, a supposed day of rest. As the wheels of industry turned throughout the land, the swarms of men descending on pits and shipyards were replicated at pubs – and now football grounds could be added to the list. The ever-present cry for labour was eased by a desperate immigrant population who crossed over the Irish Sea to escape the Great Famine that struck their homeland in 1845.

With them came the necessary skills and tools to further not just the industrialisation of central Scotland, but also their culture, traditions and religion. Large Irish communities settled in Glasgow and Edinburgh with a strong Catholic influence emanating across the cities to the chagrin of some locals. Some job adverts declared ‘Irish need not apply’ as tensions bubbled away in the towns and cities of the industrialised Central Belt of the country. The popularity of the game showed no sign of abating, and with the growing population, there was a desire to build on this and make the game professional. 

Glasgow was awash with footballing activity. Queen’s Park stole a march to become Scotland’s first established team in 1867, and only the fifth on record in Britain. A meeting was held on 9 July with the minutes stating: “Tonight at half-past eight o’clock a number of gentlemen met at No.3 Eglinton Terrace for the purpose of forming a football club”. 

The game had been confined to the public schools until this point, when the Spiders laid down the basis for what would develop into the modern game. They operated out of Hampden Park on Glasgow’s Southside and became the team to beat, early success bringing ten Scottish Cup wins in their formative years. Where Queen’s Park were left behind was in their refusal to turn full time, their amateur status remaining in place for 152 years. With the game growing, Scotland were losing players, many of whom headed south of the border to take up professional positions in the game, a dream to those combining work and football.

Queen’s Park remained adamant: they would not be joining the status quo, the club’s motto, “Ludere Causa Ludendi” – to play for the sake of playing – summing up their attitude to the fast-approaching professional game. Within two years membership had risen to 40, each person paying one shilling towards the upkeep of the club. Around this time, they played their first organised game against the now-defunct Thistle Football Club before an away trip to face Hamilton Gymnasium. Word was spreading: 1869 saw Kilmarnock form and play a hybrid game that was more similar in style to the 15-man code, hence Rugby Park becoming the name of their home ground.

With adequate opposition still relatively thin on the ground, Queen’s Park ventured to both England and Ireland for games. In 1871 they entered the FA Challenge Cup, where they added a new dimension to the competition and sport, twice ending up as losing finalists.

The Scottish Cup was founded in 1874 as the game’s popularity surged; Glasgow alone had produced six teams. The city’s premier side had fast become the team to beat. Such was their standing in the game that, when the first friendly match between Scotland and England was organised, the entire side was made up of players from Queen’s Park.

In 1872 Rangers and Dumbarton formed, with the likes of Hamilton Academical, Heart of Midlothian, Hibernian and Falkirk following suit over the next four years. In 1890, the Scottish Football League was formed with 11 member teams, although Queen’s Park wasn’t one of them. Despite their stance of remaining amateur, they soon found themselves overtaken by the other clubs. Eventually, they reluctantly joined the league’s ranks but still refused to take the path of professionalism. 

Whilst honourable, the decision consigned the Spiders to a future in the lower leagues, as they drifted further and further behind. Their legacy remained as they held the keys to the crown jewel of Scottish football, Hampden Park, until finally striking a deal with the Scottish Football Association in 2019 to relinquish ownership.

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Their move to Lesser Hampden, in the shadow of the national stadium, coincided with a members’ vote on turning professional. The vote went in favour of ending their amateur status, many believing it was the best way of maintaining their place in the senior leagues whilst protecting themselves from losing players without recompense. Despite heading into uncharted waters, Scotland’s oldest club helped forge a path for others to follow and can claim a hand in the set-up of both the national team and league.

Scotland’s bustling shipyards, mills and mines had seen the country placed at the forefront of industrialisation in the early part of the 20th century. As a result, tenements rose in the big cities, housing the thousands of workers required to keep up with demand. However, any progress was interrupted by the two wars that engulfed the world, with the docks and shipyards primary targets during the Luftwaffe’s 500 air raids on Scotland. The tenements fell into disrepair and large families were packed into squalid conditions, forced to rely on friends and neighbours to put food on the table. The poverty they experienced galvanised an entire generation of Scots to strive for more and prepared them for further challenges to come.

The 1960s saw a new source of industry arrive when oil was discovered off the Scottish coast. As a result, Scotland demanded more control over decisions that affected their country, rather than hundreds of miles away in the halls of Westminster. The burgeoning oil industry, combined with the government’s privatisation of energy companies, had a huge knock-on effect in the numerous communities throughout Wales, Scotland and the north of England. 

One such community sat between Glasgow and Edinburgh and saw some 13,000 people from the local Motherwell area employed at the largest steel mill in western Europe. The plant was called Ravenscraig, its huge letters emblazoned on an 80-metre-high gas holder that dominated the North Lanarkshire towns skyline for four decades.

The plant produced upwards of two million tonnes of liquid steel a year as mass investment occurred throughout the 1960s to keep up with the huge demand. Millions were spent on the plant as the government sanctioned a 19-year loan to increase capacity and keep the three cooling towers chugging away around the clock. As the book closed on the ‘Summer of Love’, and as the harsh realities of the 1970s came into view, the nation’s steelworks found themselves under state control. The government split the British Steel Corporation into four divisions, with the likes of Ravenscraig now working for a new paymaster who had produced a ten-year plan to double the plant’s steel making capabilities.

The government’s squeeze on the steel industry continued throughout the decade, culminating in the steel strike of 1980 which saw the appointment of a new British Steel chairman who recommended the site’s closure by the following year. Clashes between police and miners were beamed across the nation as the pit closures under Margaret Thatcher’s government ripped away generations of livelihoods as unemployment in these communities soared overnight. 

Ravenscraig was one of two constant sources of pride for the people of the steel town. The other was Fir Park, the home of Motherwell FC since 1895. Founded in 1886, the new club was a result of two works teams merging, settling at their current home after bouncing around several unsuitable playing fields. Success was few and far between for the claret and amber side, and it wasn’t until the aftermath of World War Two that they would add to the single First Division title they won in 1931. Whilst the struggles of the steel industry became evident, the town’s football club had established itself in the top flight.

Despite record levels of production at the site, the writing was on the wall for Ravenscraig after another strike hit the works in 1984. Cuts had been made to the staffing levels and, by 1990, a mere 800 workers remained, a minuscule amount compared to its heyday. As it was finally announced that the steel plant would close, the town’s other Steelmen, its football team, were about to provide a seismic lift at a time when it was least expected. Having not lifted a trophy since 1952, no one could envisage the journey they were about to embark on in the Scottish Cup in 1991. 

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The arrival of Graeme Souness at Rangers in 1986 saw a complete revolution in how Scottish teams were set up. Having spent the majority of his career there, Souness plundered clubs south of the border as he utilised his expertise in the market, and combined with the deep pockets of David Murray, laid the foundations for the club’s record-equalling nine successive titles. As Celtic scrambled to stop the blue juggernaut next door, most of the other clubs in Scotland’s top-flight had yet to embark on spending big to bring success, a seat at the high-stake tables still several years away.

For Motherwell, the majority of their players lived in the area, and the team trained next door to the Dalzell plant so were acutely aware of the issues that faced the town. It contained Tom Boyd, who would leave for Chelsea at the season’s end, 17-year-old midfielder Phil O’Donnell who played with composure that belied his age, and mercurial winger Davie Cooper. The 34-year-old had enjoyed 12 years at Ibrox with Rangers before he headed to Fir Park for one final hurrah.

With victories over title challengers Aberdeen and Division Two leaders Falkirk, Well seemed to be on a roll as another second-tier side stood in the way of a semi-final appearance. Morton didn’t lay down easily, first forcing a replay before taking that game to a penalty shootout, when they were finally vanquished. Celtic, who awaited at Hampden Park, had disposed of Old Firm rivals Rangers in the previous round. 

A neutral ground did Motherwell no favours as it was still to be played in the same city Celtic called home. The first game was a nondescript stalemate, before they returned to Hampden Park for the replay. A rain-sodden night saw Celtic twice take the lead, but each time, Motherwell pegged them back before finally taking the lead to secure their place in the showpiece event. The game would also see a return to the home of Scottish football to face perennial bridesmaids Dundee United in a game dubbed the Family Final due to brothers Jim and Tommy McLean managing the sides. 

As the town geared itself up for its first Scottish Cup final in decades, Ravenscraig was rocked with further redundancies, the site’s fate now sealed. To add further distress, news broke that Tom McLean, the father of both managers, had passed away. Under elder brother Jim, Dundee United had lost five Scottish Cup finals, yet were still considered favourites as some 57,000 fans piled through the gates for one of Scottish football’s most memorable finals. 

Both sides traded blows like heavyweight boxers and, just as Motherwell seemed to have the game tied up at 3-1, the side from Tannadice clawed their way back wihth two late goals to send the game into extra time.

Motherwell had played most of the second half with an injured goalkeeper, Ally Maxwell suffering a sickening blow in an accidental collision with John Clark. No substitute glovesman meant another 30 minutes to play through. Striker Stevie Kirk, who had already obtained something of a super-sub tag, rose from the bench to beat United goalkeeper Alan Main to the punch with his head and secure the North Lanarkshire side its first major trophy in almost 40 years.

The cup-winning side of 1991 went down in Motherwell folklore yet memories of that squad are tinged with sadness. In 1995, Davie Cooper tragically died aged 39, suffering a brain haemorrhage whilst filming a coaching video. Further heartache followed when three more tragedies struck Motherwell between 2006 and 2009. Homegrown hero Phil O’Donnell, then 35, collapsed and died on the pitch having returned to Fir Park following spells with Celtic and Sheffield Wednesday. Jamie Dolan suffered a heart attack whilst jogging and, when striker Paul McGrillen succumbed to suicide the following year, four members of the famous squad had all passed away before the age of 40. Cooper and O’Donnell have both been immortalised at Fir Park, with two stands having been named in their honour.

A year after the final, Ravenscraig was decommissioned, officially closing on 27 June 1992. Almost 4,500 people were made redundant in the final two years and the cooling towers were razed to the ground in 1996 as green balloons were released in the workers’ honour. It was the end of an era for Motherwell, but for one glorious afternoon five years earlier, the town rose as one behind its other Steelmen, who repaid that faith.

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At the same time, England’s Premiership was sky-rocketing in popularity, sponsors queuing up as TV deals hit record levels. This sprung the SFA into action as they reorganised its league structure in the hope of attracting some of this money north of border. The realignment saw the number of leagues increase, which meant two new clubs would be added to the league pyramid – and the powers that be were keen to look further afield for the new additions, the most viable options coming from the north. 

Whilst the Scottish Football League began in earnest during 1890, three years later the Highland Football League was formed at the Inverness Workman’s Club by local railway workers. From this, eight teams emerged, five from the region’s capital Inverness: Thistle, Union, Citadel, Clachnacuddin and Caledonian. Forres Mechanics, The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders and Ross County made up the eight.

A hundred years on from the league’s formation, some of its founding members began to get itchy feet. Ross County, who had left to join the North Caledonian Football League, returned to their roots in the Highland Football League in 1929. They had designs on being one of the two new members of the SFL, yet their chances looked slim. The population of the Highlands sits at only 80,000 people; Ross County hail from the town of Dingwall, where a mere 5,000 live.

One thing was certain: one of the new teams would be from Inverness. The question was which one. Highland sides had a respectable record when it came to facing SFL teams in the Scottish Cup, yet the belief remained that if they were to make a sustained run at progressing in the leagues, a more outside-the-box approach may be needed. 

It was suggested that the best way for a Highland side to make the jump was to pool resources and form one northern Scottish club. The three clubs were Caledonian, Inverness Thistle and Clachnacuddin, although the latter quickly fell out of the race. The two remaining clubs had wanted to join the league for the last 20 years and realised there may not be a better way than to merge their clubs.

As expected, fans of both clubs were furious with the suggestion. Caledonian seemed well set to go it alone as the bigger club with better infrastructure, but fans felt they were strong enough to succeed without the need to merge with their rivals. In response, the clubs decided to put the decision in the supporters’ hands by staging a vote. Inverness Thistle fans were concerned that the move was more a takeover than a merger, with Caledonian the bigger of the two sides.

Ballots were cast and the result came back in favour of the merger with a majority of 54 percent. Perhaps surprisingly, a large number of older fans voted in favour of the merger, unwilling to wait any longer to see their team in the national leagues. There was uproar amongst the younger generation who hit out at the results, some even going as far as burning their season tickets.

The newly merged Caledonian Thistle and Ross County were the two teams chosen by the SFL to join their ranks, the latter’s selection bringing protests from those that missed out. Questions were raised over whether such a small town would be able to sustain a league side whilst being situated a mere 14 miles away from Caledonian’s ground, Telford Street Park. Despite the proximity of the two clubs, they pulled their fans from different areas. Inverness drew their core support from the city, while County relied on the rural areas to fill Victoria Park.

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Ross County won the North of Scotland Cup during their inaugural season but it wasn’t until the 1966/67 campaign that the Stags would win their first Highland League Championship. Another barren spell meant they had to wait 23 years before they captured their next title, a triumph they repeated the following season. These championship victories gave them the confidence to apply for the SFL, backed by the finances of oil tycoon Roy MacGregor. 

Both sides enjoyed early success. Caley Thistle captain, the late Alan Hercher, scored the club’s first hat-trick in a 5-2 drubbing of Arbroath. Back-to-back promotions saw off any remaining naysayers as they scorched a trail through the league pyramid and were soon within sight of the top-flight. Several delays with their proposed new stadium tempered expectations, though, and Thistle had to wait until 1996 before they could set foot in their modern home.

Steady progress seemed to be the key to the Highland clubs’ success. Celtic suffered cup humblings at both their hands before they reached the top. Trips to Hampden Park also saw each club take a trophy back north with them, Caley Thistle’s Scottish Cup final win over Falkirk in 2015 christening them as the first Highland club to win a major national trophy, a year before the Stags claimed the League Cup.

Whilst the success stories of Ross County and Inverness Caley Thistle promote the sport in the Highlands, spare a thought for a team who are no strangers to the bottom end of the football league. Fort William FC, based in the shadow of Ben Nevis, seem to have sat in last place of Scottish football’s fifth tier for time immemorial. Without a win to their name in over two years, they reached a crossroads in 2018: keep going or give up.

There is no relegation from the Highland League so to leave they would have to resign, with a plethora of clubs waiting in the wings to step in. Following a series of emergency meetings, a group of locals volunteered their time and energy to keep the club alive. Some 68 miles away from Inverness, they have a history of struggling to attract players, the recent results doing nothing to improve the odds of prospective young recruits turning to another Highland pastime – shinty. 

After fielding an ineligible player three times, the Fort found themselves rooted to the bottom of the league with numerous drubbings against their name, a 14-1 defeat to Formartine United the pick of the bunch. A minus-224 goal difference ensured they finished bottom for the 15th time in 21 seasons. Week after week, the players, fans and staff returned to Claggan Park, refusing to let the club go under. Some players had to travel almost two hours for training, with one making his way from Edinburgh, a 300-mile round trip.

This determination was finally rewarded when, on 31 July 2019, they defeated Nairn County 5-2 in the North of Scotland Cup to record their first win since 2017 – 707 days to be exact. It was a result that rewarded a town’s faith and commitment to keeping their club alive.

The decision to incorporate two new sides was a step forward from the SFA and has led to the current playoff system which allows both Highland and Lowland League sides the opportunity to join the now renamed Scottish Professional Football League. Whilst the inclusion of teams from the north can be deemed a success, there is a club who had been a constant in the Scottish leagues for decades before their relegation in 2019: Berwick Rangers. 

They’re a club based so far south that they are, in fact, in England, an anomaly in Scottish football that often provides the answer to a popular question in pub quizzes across the land. Whilst several Welsh teams play in the English leagues, Berwick Rangers stand alone in their position in Scottish football. 

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The town of Berwick-upon-Tweed sits two-and-a-half miles away from the Scottish border in the top corner of Northumberland. It has been under English control since the 15th century, yet when it came to football, their geographical position left them little choice of where they would have to play their games.

After being founded in 18