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Golf is an ancient game and its origin is obscure. This exhibition shows how the game developed after it arrived in Scotland from Holland between 1400 and 1500 AD.

The visitor can see the simple beginnings, the natural materials and the craft and skill of the early makers: some successes and failures in early experiments and the beginnings of the modern game.

This display tells the story from the time when only a few people here in the East of Scotland coaxed their "featheries" round the rough links to the present day when multitudes of men and women spend vast fortunes on this pastime of beauty and skill.

Early Golf 1300 - 1700 AD

We begin with the Dutch derivation and by means of paintings, prints and photographs show the variety of conditions and costumes in which the game was played. It was played in churchyards, on the streets and roads, on the fields after harvest and on the ice in winter.

Who brought it to Scotland? It may have been soldiers or sailors. There were many Scots mercenary soldiers in Holland and dozens of marriages with Dutch girls are recorded. Scotland's main export was wool and, if the wind was unfavourable, Scots sailors would be forced to stay in Holland for days or weeks. The Van der Velde painting of 1668 shows two kilted players with clubs.

The flowering of Dutch landscape painting coincided with the popularity of the game and in most outdoor scenes one figure at least carries a club. The game disappeared about 1700 and was succeeded by an indoor variation.

The spread to Scotland from Holland looks likely when the early Scots links are marked on a map. They are all near East coast ports e.g. Dunbar, North Berwick, Aberlady, Musselburgh, Leith, Elie, St Andrews and so on up the coast to Dornoch. The earliest inland golf was at Bruntsfield Links, just South of Edinburgh Castle.

In all these places there were rolling links land where rabbits and grass vied for existence. Smooth areas nibbled short and marked by rabbit "scrapes" (the 1st hole?) alternated with rough grass. The "greens" were connected by sheep paths of varying widths. Rabbits and sheep were therefore the first golf course architects!

The Feathery Ball Era

Up until 1850 the feather ball was used. It was a leather stitched case stuffed with a top-hat full of boiled feathers. It was a skilled and arduous job to make and a man could only complete 2 or 3 in a day. This made them more expensive than a club and controlled, to some extent, the popularity of golf.

Because the "feathery" was easily damaged by iron clubs irons were only used in sand or in a rut. The player carried nearly all wooden clubs and there was a great variation in loft and length. The first club makers were bow makers who fashioned beautiful delicate woods and carpenters who made heavier clumsier clubs. There were no “sets" of clubs. The player chose or ordered one to his preference, and no two clubs made before 1890 were the same. The heads were long, narrow and shallow. The face was concave or "hooked". They were made from beech, apple, pear or thorn. The shafts were ash or hazel. Hickory did not appear until 1820. Persimmon was rare before 1900. The wood heads were attached to the shaft by a long diagonal splice or "scare". These are known as "scared head" clubs. They had lead poured into the back and a strip of horn was fined into the leading edge of the sole.

Very early clubs had no grips and the shafts were thick enough to grip. Sheepskin was used as a grip from about 1800. Leather became popular much later, about 1880.

Early irons were made by blacksmiths and were heavy and cumbersome. They were only used "in extremis" for fear of damaging the leather cover of the feather ball. The hosel was thick and the shaft fitted into the socket which was "knurled" to help grip the wood shaft. The cruder the "nicks" the earlier is the iron. During the "feather" era there were two main irons, the sand iron with a large concave face and the rut iron with a very small head to play out of the tracks formed as carts brought sand back from the beach.

The courses at this time were as nature made them. There was very little green keeping and they played the ball as it lay. Rules were simple and about 14 in number. Stroke play was very rare; match play was almost always the game. Societies were few, only 17 being formed by 1850. Dress was a personal choice except that most societies made the wearing of red jackets compulsory so that golfers could be seen easily on the busy links. Coloured facings and lapels were often described and silver or brass buttons with club insignia and motto were increasingly popular,

What Gutta-Percha Did For Golf

Just before 1850, probably in Musselburgh, the first gutta-percha balls were produced by immersing the gum-like substance in hot water and hand rolling until round. They were cheap and tough and a man could make dozens in a day. But they would not fly properly while they were smooth. At first they were hand hammered to produce a rough surface then they were made in moulds with a wide variety of patterns. Bramble. dimple. squares and circles are only a few. They were never painted successfully and survivors are all dark brown. Like the featheries they were made in varying weights and sizes. Their moderate price and resilience allowed golf to grow quickly. The Scots had kept the game alive for 400 years but now it expanded rapidly.

Golf Clubs and Societies

            1850 1870 1890 1910

            17 34 387 4135

This expansion was aided by the spread of the railways but the "gutta" and its composition successor the "guttie" made it possible.

They also changed the shape and the choice of clubs. The long nosed woods that swept the "feathery" along could not stand up to the "gutta percha". Leather faces and vulcanite insets, brass soles and broader heads all appeared. Irons became more popular and blacksmiths who made clubs became "cleek-makers" and refined the sand iron and the rut-iron into niblicks, mashies and cleeks. They even made iron putters!

Greenkeeping became a necessary and canny craft. The skills became more specialized and numerous so that the local club makers or professional had seldom the time or the inclination to "keep the green ".

Rubber Core

At the turn of the century from the USA came the "Haskell". This was made by winding hundreds of feet of elastic on to a central core and then coating it with gutta percha. These balls flew further and a bad shot could still go a long way. The rubber core went so far that golf courses had to be changed to contain it.

The cover was easily cut and many improvements were tried over the last 95 years. Recently some solid one-piece balls have gained in popularity and the manufacturers are always trying to improve them further.

During the gutta and rubber core domination the club face design was to become important. Lines or dots on the face enabled back spin to be applied to the ball. When the grooves became too deep the R & A ruled them illegal.

Hickory shafts finally gave way to steel in the 1920s partly due to steers superiority, but mostly because the hickory forests were depleted.


The story of golf clothing is more varied than the clubs and the balls.

In the "feathery" era red coats with swallow tails and even the occasional top-hat were seen. A man's everyday suit was con­sidered correct and the ladies wore the long skirted gowns which were fashionable at the time. An unbuttoned jacket is rare before 1920.

Water-proof clothing and spiked shoes are fairly recent innovations. There is surely a wonderful book to be written on golfing costume.

William lnglis on Leith Links as Captain of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers - by David Allan.   c,178O.

Wm. Park. Senior, t834-1903


Being essentially a solo game, golf has had its share of personalities. The Parks and the Morrises; the Triumvirate, - Braid. Taylor and Vardon; Harold Hilton and John Ball. – Hoylake’s tremendous pair; the Prince of them all. Bobby Jones; Joyce Wethered and Babe Zaharias; Hagen and Hogan; Player and Palmer, Nicklaus and Watson, are only a few. Any golfer could add a hundred names because no two people ever played this game the same way. The people, like the problems, have an infinite variety.