August 10, 2009

Curling in Edinburgh

Robin Copland describes curling in Scotland's capital city, and how the Edinburgh International came to be:

A parcel of land adjacent to the railway station of Haymarket in Edinburgh’s west end became available in 1912 when James Swan and Company Ltd, the famous animal auctioneers, relocated to a greenfield site in Chesser on the western edge of the city. The baleful bleeting of sheep and cattle on the way to their final date with destiny was replaced by the roar of curlers in their splendid new Haymarket Curling Rink.

The rink was strategically placed on the main road out of Edinburgh going towards Glasgow and beside the busy, bustling mainline railway station at Haymarket. In addition, it was well-served by local and national bus services, indeed it was the rink’s proud boast that it was easily the most accessible ice rink in Scotland.

The rink quickly established itself as the home for many famous east of Scotland curling clubs. In those far-off days, the rink provided the ice but the curlers provided their own curling stones. Lockers for the stones were available and, as well as preparing the ice for curling, the ice rink staff used to keep a record of who was curling and ensure that their stones were ready for them on the ice, suitably cooled and ready for play.

The First 'Worlds Curling Championship'

At that time, each of the large ice rinks in Scotland had a number of 'open' competitions where all the top curlers of their day would gather and play. Curling in those days was essentially an insular sport played by two great nations, Scotland and Canada. Links between the two had developed to the extent that regular organised tours took place between the two countries. The Strathcona Cup was keenly contested by curlers of the two nations and regular tours were already taking place every five years or so.

Those tours apart though, Scottish curlers lived in something of a vacuum and the sport had not yet made the inroads into Europe that would happen later. Each of the main ice rinks held one 'major' open championship each year and they each attempted to outdo the others in naming their trophies. Thus Falkirk Ice Rink hosted the 'British' – a competition that is played for to this day in Stirling Ice Rink; Crossmyloof, the first of the large indoor city rinks built in Scotland had the 'Queens' Trophy; Perth had the 'Scottish'.

Against this backdrop, Edinburgh Ice Rink Ltd, the holding company that owned and operated Haymarket Ice Rink, decided to put up a trophy for annual competition. This trophy was the somewhat grandly named 'Worlds Curling Championship'. A magnificent solid silver trophy was presented by the Edinburgh Ice Rink Ltd and it is this trophy that is now presented to the winners of the Edinburgh International Curling Championship each year.

From 1922 until 1975 the competition was hotly contested each year. The first winning rink was skipped by one of Scotland’s all time greats, W K Jackson. Indeed, his name appears on the trophy more than once. In his first winning rink there is an equally illustrious name, T B Murray. Later, Murray donated the magnificent Murray Trophy for curlers under the age of 25. Since 1975, this trophy has been presented to Scotland’s Junior Mens Champions (Under 21).

Other winners included top curlers like Willie Young of Airth, Bill Muirhead from Perth, Bob Grierson from Stranraer and Alec Torrance from Hamilton.

A scene from the second last end of the 1954 'Worlds' final at Haymarket, between teams skipped by James Sanderson and James Sellar. From the December 1954 Scottish Curler magazine.

A A Wighton, Chairman of the Edinburgh Ice Rink, presents the trophy to (L-R) James Sanderson, John Cooper, Alec Allison and Robert Moffat. From the December 1954 Scottish Curler magazine.

The Edinburgh International Curling Championship

An accommodation had to be reached with the International Curling Federation which was anxious to have exclusive use of the name 'World Curling Championship' for their own event. Up until 1967, the fledgling World Curling Championship had been growing each year. In 1968, new sponsors for the World Championship, Air Canada, presented a new trophy, the Air Canada Silver Broom, replacing the Scotch Cup.

By 1975 matters came to a head and, 53 years after W K Jackson won the first 'World Curling Championship', Edinburgh Ice Rink Ltd agreed to relinquish the name and replace it with the 'Edinburgh International'. The competition, instead of being run as a midweek knock-out tournament, became a weekend invitation tournament on the domestic circuit along with other new generation competitions like the Perth Masters, the Famous Grouse at Inverness and the Benson and Hedges at Lockerbie.

The competition thrived in the latter years of the by now old Haymarket Rink and regularly attracted foreign teams like the future World Champion Swiss rink skipped by Jurg Tanner.

Few will forget the Jurg’s sportsmanship during the 1976 final against the local rink skipped by Jimmy Sanderson. One of Jimmy’s stones picked up on what later transpired to be a Swiss coin. Immediately on learning what had happened, Jurg marched the stone back down the ice and insisted that Jimmy replay it. The big crowd that lined the barriers cheered the act as if he had won the game! Playing third on Jimmy’s losing side that day was none other than Iain Baxter, now Murrayfield Ice Rink’s manager.

The Search for the Competition’s New Home

Haymarket eventually shut down for good in 1978 and there followed a period of uncertainty as Edinburgh was without a curling venue for the first time since the Second World War. A temporary home for the competition was found in Ayr until Murrayfield Curling Rink opened its doors in 1980 and for the next seven years, the competition moved on from strength to strength as television took a serious and live interest in the sport.

Each year, STV broadcast the event showing a highlights package each night and the last five ends of the final live on the Sunday afternoon. Indeed, the Scotsport programme was hosted in Murrayfield and Arthur Montford, the legendary Scottish football commentator, regularly trod the boards in the new rink.

In the meantime invitations went out every year to the semifinalists at that year’s World Championships, so many famous curlers played for the famous old trophy. Eigil Ramsjfell, Peter Attinger, Jurg Tanner and others made the pilgrimage to the curling’s spiritual home, there to cross swords with the top Scottish curlers of the day like Chuck Hay, Colin Hamilton, Graeme Adam, Ken Horton, Willie Jamieson, Hammy McMillan and David Smith. At this stage, in the 1980s, the Edinburgh International was one of the top weekend competitions in Europe and certainly the most prestigious of the Scottish weekend competitions.

Retrenchment and Rebirth

As often happens in life, things tend to come and go in cycles. When television lost interest in the sport in the late 1980s, large-scale sponsorship dried up and the Edinburgh International, in common with other domestic competitions, had to cut its cloth. Gone were the regular visits by glamorous foreign teams; gone were the big prize pots; gone were the spectators even; and the event became just one of many on the domestic curling circuit – indeed for a couple of years, it became a mixed event!

The organising committee has been determined to raise the profile of the Edinburgh International as befits its long and illustrious history. To that end, they approached Armin Harder of the World Curling Tour – Europe in late 2007 to find out the circumstances in which the competition could be included on the growing WCT-E circuit. As it happened, the WCT-E had a window in its diary for late November and the Edinburgh International took its place again at the top table of European curling.

The competition is now a member of the newly-branded 'Champions Tour' of competitions. The 2009 event will take place at Murrayfield Ice Rink, November 27-29, 2009.

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