Thirty-two competitors.



taken from 'NORTH COUNTRY SPORTS AND PASTIMES' published in 1893

Wrestling in scotland


IN the year 1827, a society styled the "Saint Ronan's Border Club," was established at Innerleithen, near Peebles, the object of which was to revive the old martial spirit of the Borders, to encourage the practice of out-door sports and pastimes, and to yield amusement to the visitors of this sequestered watering place. Lockhart, in his life of Sir Walter Scott, (after giving an account of the publication of the novel of Ronarfs Well, in 1823,) thus proceeds to describe the establishment of the annual gathering at Innerleithen :

Among other consequences of the revived fame of the place, a yearly festival was instituted for the celebration of The St. Kenan's Border Games. A club of Bowmen of the Border, arrayed in doublets of Lincoln green, with broad blue bonnets, and having the Ettrick Shepherd for Captain, assumed the principal management of this exhibition ; and Sir Walter was well pleased to be enrolled among them, and during several years was a regular attendant, both on the Meadow, where (besides archery) leaping, racing, wrestling, stone-heaving, and hammer-throwing, went on opposite to the noble old Castle of Traquair, and at the subsequent banquet, where Hogg, in full costume, always presided as master of the ceremonies. In fact, a gayer spectacle than that of the St. Ronan's Games, in those days, could not well have been desired. The Shepherd, even when on the verge of threescore, exerted himself lustily in the field, and seldom failed to carry off some of the prizes, to the astonishment of his vanquished juniors ; and the bon-vivants of Edinburgh mustered strong among the gentry and yeomanry of Tweeddale to see him afterwards in his glory filling the president's chair with eminent success, and commonly supported on this which was in fact the grandest evening of his year by Sir Walter Scott, Professor Wilson, Sir Adam Ferguson, and Peter Robertson.

The Earl of Traquair was patron of the club, and among the members not mentioned by Lockhart, occur the names of the Duke of Buccleuch, Lord Napier, Robert Gladstone of Liverpool , William Blackwood, James Ballantyne, and Adam Wilson, captain of the Six-Feet Club. (Professor Wilson was anxious to get enrolled in the Six- Feet Club, but could not manage it. He was just half-an-inch too short). At a later date, Glassford Bell, sheriff of Lanarkshire, took great interest in these sports. The games continued to be celebrated yearly in the early autumn, and lasted two days, the second day being mostly devoted to archery. Among the various athletes who entered the lists, the following are probably the most noteworthy. Professor Wilson (Christopher North,) threw the hammer; James Hogg tried his hand at the bow and the rifle, but yet in despite of Lockhart's praise the Shepherd did more doughty deeds with the greygoose quill than with either of those weapons. Robert Bell, from Jed Water, was the champion "putter" of the stone, and could have been matched against any man in the three kingdoms, in throwing the sixteen or twenty-one pound ball he upon his knees, and his opponent on his feet. An advertisement appeared in a leading newspaper, to back him for £100 against all comers, the challenge to hold good for twelve months, but there was no one to take it up. The Harper brothers, farmers near Innerleithen, held several prizes for throwing the hammer ; and Leyden of Denholme, the champion leaper, could spring thirty-two feet, at three standing leaps, including the backward and forward leaps over the same ground.

The first competition was held at Innerleithen on the 26th of September, 1827 ; and among other prizes competed for, the Six-Feet Club of Edinburgh gave a silver medal to the best wrestler in the back-hold style, as practised in Cumberland and Westmorland. The introduction of this mode of wrestling into Scotland , may probably be attributed to the great interest which Professor Wilson took in the formation of these games. The prize in 1827, was gained by George Scougal, a native of Innerleithen. On one side of the medal was the following inscription :

"Presented by the Six-Feet Club, to the St. Ronan's Border Club, to be awarded to the best Wrestler, at their first Gymnastic Competition, at Innerleithen, 26th September, 1827."

And on the reverse side, the following quotation from Waller :

" Great Julius, on the mountain bred,

A flock perchance or herd had led :

He who subdued the world had been

But the best Wrestler on the green. "

Gained by GEORGE SCOUGAL, Innerleithen.

Scougal carried off, also, the head prize for Wrestling, at the St. Ronan's Games, for the years 1828 and 1829. After performing these feats, he was "outlawed" that is, he was excluded from contending again in the same arena, for the three years which followed. When past the prime of life, he was induced to enter the wrestling ring again, which he very unwillingly did, after much persuasion, and once more succeeded in bearing off first honours.

In his day, Scougal was looked upon as the champion wrestler on the Scottish side of the Borders. At the St. Ronan's Games, he gained six medals for wrestling and throwing the hammer; and, likewise, a considerable number of trophies at other local meetings. A stout massive built man, he stood five feet eleven inches high, and weighed from fifteen to sixteen stones. With little or no knowledge of scientific wrestling, he nevertheless proved more than a match for all comers, by the herculean amount of power he possessed in the shoulders and arms. His usual mode of attack was to gather an opponent well to his breast, and then by sheer strength keep him there until a favourable opportunity presented itself to rush him upon his back. When excited or ruffled in temper, he gripped his man quickly and firmly, and then, in spite of all struggles or clicks, threw him over his hip. These movements were the nearest approach to science known to Scougal.

Scougal was a butcher by trade, and is thus referred to in the Nodes Ambrosiana, in the Shepherd's parlance : " Geordie Scougal slauchered a beast last market day at Innerleithen, and his meat's aye prime." On one occasion, he actually felled a bullock with a blow from his fist ; and in the smithy, which adjoined his slaughter-house, he not unfrequently exhibited feats of surpassing strength, one of which was to lift a waggon axle and two wheels, with a heavy man seated at each end of the axle. His skill in throwing the hammer was well known, and during his early manhood he carried off most of the leading prizes. At several meetings, the Harpers came into competition with him, but never approached any nearer than second to the dual Border champion of wrestling and throwing the hammer. Old people, who remember Scougal's earliest efforts, describe him as a veritable Goliath of Gath in strength, but unless unduly excited as gentle as a woman in manner and bearing.

After Scougal's three years had elapsed, Robert Michie of Hawick, came to the fore as amateur wrestler. Michie took the belt at St. Ronan's, and kept it about two years. He was present at most of the gymnastic gatherings on the Borders, and carried off many prizes for wrestling and hammer throwing. At the Hawick Border Games in 1831, he threw Thomas Emmerson (Emmerson was a powerful built man, a mason by trade, who wrestled for several years in the Carlisle and other rings, with moderate success. He won the head prize at Hawick in 1835 ) , from the neighbourhood of Carlisle , after an exciting contest of some duration. His hammer throwing at St. Ronan's was inimitable, and has been described by the Ettrick Shepherd in the " Bridal of Polmood."

Michie is introduced anachronically into the " Royal Bridal," in Wilson 's 'Tales of the Borders', after the following fashion :

At a distance from the pavilion, was a crowd composed of some seven or eight hundred peasantry engaged in and witnessing the athletic games of the Borders. Among the competitors was one called Meikle Robin, or Robin Meikle. He was strength personified. His stature exceeded six feet ; his shoulders were broad, his chest round, his limbs well and strongly put together. He was a man of prodigious bone and sinews. At throwing the hammer, at putting the stone, no man could stand before him. He distanced all who came against him, and, while he did so, he seemed to put forth not half his strength, while his skill appeared equal to the power of his arm.

The following notice of the wrestling at Saint Ronan's, for 1831, is copied from the Edinburgh Literary Journal:

Wrestling is not a Scotch game, as will be conceded by every one who has been present at the Carlisle and Saint Ronan's games. There is strength enough among our peasantry, but it is the ore it has never been moulded for a practical purpose. Men came forward on this occasion, who never would have dreamed of thrusting their noses into an English ring ; and they set to work in a slovenly unhandsome way some of them armed cap-d-pi'e hat, coat, and shoes. Still, amid the motley crew you might recognise men who knew both how to seize and to wield their antagonists. The art only needs encouragement ; and we trust next meeting will witness a better turn-out.

There were other local athletes, who figured in the ring at Saint Ronan's, almost a match for Scougal. George Best of Yarrow, tailor, possessed far more science than the Innerleithen butcher, and was the holder of several prizes. Best, likewise, finds a niche in the Nodes Ambrosiana of October, 1828, where the Shepherd is made to exclaim : "Tibbie's married. The tailor carried her aff frae them a' the flyin' tailor o' Ettrick, sir him that can do fifteen yards, at hap-step-and-loup, back and forward on level grun' stood second ae year in the ring at Carlisle can put a stane within a foot o' Jedburgh Bell himsell, and fling the hammer neist best ower a' the border to Geordie Scougal o' Innerleithen."

In which year of grace, we wonder, did Best stand second in the Carlisle ring? Wilson's memory must have proved treacherous when he penned this sentence. At all events, if Best did wrestle second, " ae year in the ring at Carlisle ," it must have been for some minor prize, long since forgotten.

Abraham Clark of Calzie, farmer, a man of powerful frame, entered the ring after Scougal was "outlawed," and did some noteworthy feats.

Another man, also remembered as a prize taker in the ring at Saint Ronan's, was Walter Scott of Selkirk, carrier.

At Miles End, in Northumberland, athletic games were kept up until recently. Young men from both sides of the Borders entered keenly into these contests; and one noteworthy peculiarity of them was, that of keeping up the old national characteristic of Englishmen being pitted against Scotchmen, and Scotchmen against Englishmen. This mode of contesting was the means of producing many splendid feats of agility and prowess, but was apt to degenerate into mere exhibitions of warm blood, which too frequently ended in blows being exchanged by the rival combatants. Remnants of these contests may be witnessed to this day, at the annual fair at Stagshawbank, between the shepherds from the Reed, Liddle, Coquet, and Tyne , and those from the Slitrig, Jed, Oxmoor, Kail, and Teviot. Wrestling was always a leading sport at these gatherings ; single-stick, tilting, leaping, and foot- racing, were also practised; and hence the devotion shown to these and similar athletic pastimes by the sturdy race of people living on both sides of the Cheviots.