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Grand welcome given curlers from Scotland — arrived in city to play in “monster bonspiel” of 1903
Feb 21, 2008

by Bruce Cherney

Manitobans eagerly awaited the arrival of the first ever group of curlers from Scotland. Their landing at Halifax, disembarkation from the steamer Bavaria and progression across Canada en route to Winnipeg was enthusiastically reported in local newspapers. Nearly every word they spoke in public and all results from their curling matches in cities such as Halifax, Montreal and Toronto was reported as the Scots crossed Canada. 

In Winnipeg, reporters sought out anyone who had encountered the Scots while they were in Eastern Canada. In the rotunda of the Clarendon Hotel, a Morning Telegram reporter ran across an unnamed local man who had seen the Scots play in Toronto.

The Winnipeg man warned local curlers that the Scots “were the finest body of men he had ever seen together.” He told the reporter two of the Scots were six-foot-five and many of the others exceeded the six-foot mark. 

Yet, he also said he believed the prowess of local curlers would be more than the Scots could handle. In Eastern Canadian cities, the Scots had discovered New World curlers were very capable opponents. The Scots soon realized the advantage of coming from the Royal Caledonian Curling Club — the “Mother Club” of all curling where the rules for the roarin’ game originated — was of limited value in Canada whose curlers had already mastered the game imported from the Old Country.

Curlers in Winnipeg had been playing the Scottish game as early as 1860 on the Red River. When the Manitoba Curling Club (Bannatyne and Ellen) was established on November 9, 1876, Winnipeggers curled in an indoor facility. By 1903, the indoor curling clubs included the Granite (six-sheeter at Ellice and Hargrave), Thistle (four-sheeter on Alexander Avenue near Main Street) and Assiniboine (three-sheeter on Mayfair Avenue). Actually, the creation of indoor facilities in Canada and Winnipeg was a matter of survival — curling is difficult during winter blizzards or when the thermometer drops to -40°C.

In Montreal, the Scots, who were used to a more moderate climate and curled on lochs and ponds that froze over in the winter, were reported to have difficulty dealing with the better ice conditions in Canada’s indoor facilities. 

“When the man with the broom is used to sweeping away water he finds hard ice a little difficult,” according to a January 12, 1903, special dispatch in the Telegram. “That is what happened on the Heather (Curling Club) rink yesterday.”

The Manitoba Morning Free Press reported that Rev. John Kerr, author of the History of Curling and the captain of the contingent from Scotland, said: “It was altogether another game to stand on the ‘crampit’ and throw a ‘stone’ with foot anchored in a commodious hack (used in Scotland, a crampit is a sheet of iron on which a curler stands to deliver a rock), on ice not shielded from the effect of continuously changing climate conditions than it is to play a stone on ice carefully watched, cleaned and ‘doctored’ (as in Canada).” 

The dispatch said the Scots did well in their afternoon matches, but had little luck in the evening. 

One leveller on the ice for the Scots was that they were accustomed to using granite rocks. In Eastern Canada, curling stones forged from iron were preferred.

“The visitors are hampered considerably by the ice, but the local men, who always play with irons, should be given credit for the good work which they are doing with granites. When the Scotchmen get into the West, where granites are used, it seems safe to predict that they will be beaten.”

In Manitoba, iron stones — made by the Vulcan Iron Works — had also been used, but the battle between iron and granite curling clubs had years earlier been decided with the latter emerging as the winner among curlers. Winnipeg’s last iron throwers, who had in later years used the ice at the Granite Curling Club, the only curling club in the city from 1883 to 1887,  folded their club in 1883.

The Telegram boasted on February 5, 1905, that the “game in Winnipeg and the West has made rapid strides during the past two decades, and it can be safely asserted that the province today possesses the best collection of curlers in the world.”

If the Scots had difficulty defeating Canadians on the curling ice, the Winnipeg man said they would be victorious when it came to consuming a “wee drop of whiskey.”

“The visitors may not get all that’s going on the ice, but they will more than hold their own in the little functions that follow the games,” he said. “I ran up against the Scotchmen in Toronto, and never in my life did I see so large a crowd of men with an unanimity in their taste and capacity for whiskey. They can play on the ice all day, and then spend half the night at the table with the decanters always on the move. In the morning they will turn up fresh as daisies. I’m not going to stay in Winnipeg when they are here. My experience with them in Toronto was enough for me. They simply drank everyone under the table. They must have been weaned on the stuff.”

The fact the Scots came to participate in the 1903 Winnipeg Bonspiel was a bridge between Old and New World sporting traditions. At the time, the annual event established in 1889 was billed as the biggest and best bonspiel in the world. From its beginning, the bonspiel attracted rinks from across Canada and the United States, and local organizers felt the arrival of curlers from Scotland was the final component needed to make it a truly international event.  

“The bonspiel will be notable,” said a Telegram report, “first for the presence of the five rinks, who represent the parent association ... and second the immense attendance.”

Organizers originally expected 200 rinks (the final total was 171) to participate in the annual two-week-long bonspiel, which in later years became known as the MCA (Manitoba Curling Association) Bonspiel. “Never before has such a crowd assembled to play the national game of Scotland.”

With so many curlers in town, it was decided to accept the offer of the American Abell Company and flood its warehouse on Dufferin Avenue to create an  extra 14 sheets of curling ice. The warehouse was “somewhat remote” from the centre of the city, but it was served by a streetcar line. William Whyte, the vice-president of Canadian Pacific Railway, placed at the disposal of the curlers playing at the warehouse two comfortable heated rail cars. The two rail cars were also outfitted as restaurants for the curlers.

Since 1898, through a special arrangement with the Manitoba Branch of the RCCC, the CPR and other railways also provided fares at a reduced rate for curlers — called “bonspiel specials.” In 1903, a round trip ticket from all points in Ontario was set by the CPR at $43.75 per curler. 

In anticipation of the Scots’ arrival, dignitaries from Winnipeg took the train east to Rat Portage (now Kenora) to meet the Scots. The delegation included CPR vice-president Whyte, alderman Barclay, G.W. Murray and Alexander Black who would accompany the Scots to Winnipeg.

When the Scots disembarked from the train at the Winnipeg CPR station on February 4, they were greeted by  Mayor John Arbuthnot, members of city council, as well as the “brazen music” of the 90th Battalion band.

A Telegram reporter managed to interview Rev. Kerr, who related that curling in Canada was “too scientific” to his liking. He said the games played in Canada were “better exhibitions of clever curling but you don’t have half the fun we do in Scotland.”

In Scotland, he said the ice conditions were “rough.” When outdoors, curlers exerted greater effort to get the stone to the other end of the rink.

“On the covered rinks here the slightest swing of the arm will send the stone to the other end of the rink. Then again our ice will not permit the fine playing of in- and out-turns.”

He said Canada had the further advantage of a climate allowing curling to be played for months during the winter rather than the norm of 10 days in Scotland.

“I’ll venture to say however, that if the Canadian curlers came to Scotland they would have a hard time to secure the honours from our players when they contend with the natural and climate conditions that we do. I think we could beat them there.”

Kerr told the reporter that Scotland had tried to build covered rinks, but such facilities were not successful as the Scot curlers “preferred the open air and did not take kindly to the confinement of covered rinks.”

The only covered rink he knew that could attract sufficient patrons to be successful was in London, England.

Another disadvantage for the Scots, according to Rev. Kerr, was that they were unaccustomed to using hacks. “The ice on the ponds on which they practiced curling was too thin to permit them,” he added. 

When the Manitoba branch of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club (the provincial curling association was associated with the “Mother Club” in Scotland) held its semi-annual meeting at the Clarendon Hotel on the evening of February 4, its agenda included greeting the “23 sturdy gentlemen of Scotland,” who were given a reception “which raised the roof.”

The grand welcome given to the Old World curlers reflected the origins of many of the residents from Winnipeg and Manitoba. Actually, the city was originally founded by settlers from Scotland — along with a smattering of Irish — who were first brought to Manitoba by Lord Selkirk in 1812.  In addition, a number of “Scots” from Ontario had come to Manitoba just before and immediately after the new province was created in 1870. In fact, Manitoba was a province with a long tradition of Scottish immigration, starting in the 1670s with the Orkneymen and Highlanders who remained behind after they completed their service with the Hudson’s Bay Company. As a result, many Winnipeggers would have felt they were greeting kin from the Old Country when the Scots arrived in town.

An editorial in the Telegram said their visit “will do something toward making Western Canada better understood in the Mother Country and toward increasing, if possible, the good feeling existing in the West for the Mother Country ...”

“Perhaps the crowning success of Scottish nationality in Western Canada is the spread of the great Scottish game of curling,” wrote early Manitoba historian George Bryce (1844-1931).

Winnipeggers feted the Scots during the bonspiel’s annual banquet — then referred to as “smokers” or a “smoking concert” — at the Winnipeg Theatre located at the corner of Notre Dame and Adelaide. (In the early 1900s, the theatre was criticized by newspapers as a fire trap. It burned down in December 1926 and four firemen were killed while fighting the blaze). 

At the banquet, Barrowclough’s Orchestra played a selection  of Scottish tunes, including Auld Lang Syne.  While singing Rule Britannia on the stage, Mary Burnett of the Scottish Concert Company was draped in the Union Jack and the Canadian Ensign. A spectator, caught up in the enthusiasm of the patriotic moment, stood up and shouted through a megaphone, “All together in the chorus ...,” and the crowd rose as one to sing the second chorus with Burnett.

When “graceful Little Miss Sloan” sang Coming Through the Rye, she danced a Highland fling. Harold Jarvis’ rendition of The Highlandman’s Toast was called the “greatest musical event of the evening ... which thrilled every Scotchman present and made him feel the prouder of his nationality,” according to the Telegram.

Mary Burnett’s singing of Angus Macdonald aroused such “delight” from the audience that their applause compelled her to return to the stage and sing The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond “in the true Scottish tone.”

The program ended with a “trapeze performance by two local athletes and a boxing match of five lively rounds between Gardner and Goddard.”

But what everyone really wanted to witness was the Scots curling, which occurred on February 7 at 1:30 p.m. at the Granite Curling Club. On that day, Scotland took on Canada represented by members of the Manitoba Branch of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, the “first match of its kind played in Winnipeg.” 

Technically, it wasn’t an all-Canada competition against the Scots, since “(G.) Mackenzie’s Duluth (Wisconsin) combination” also played against the Scots. However, Mackenzie’s rink was a member of the Manitoba Branch of the RCCC, which then represented curling clubs from as far afield as Northwestern Ontario, the North West Territories (the  provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta had not been created at the time), British Columbia and the northern U.S. At the time, the branch’s territory was said to be “larger than many a world-famous kingdom.” The Manitoba branch’s “curling kingdom”in 1903 included 97 clubs and 3,000 members. Duluth curlers came to the Winnipeg Bonspiel for the first time in 1894.

The rinks representing the Manitoba branch were from the host Granite club in Winnipeg, Boissevain, Fort William (Ontario), Indian Head (Saskatchewan) and Duluth. The Granite team was skipped by W.H. Rourke supported by B. Latimer, E. Barrett and Isaac Pitblado. The rink from Boissevain was skipped by J. Steele and included E.A. Stirton, J.A. Munro and C. Walkinshaw.

“The team representing the Manitoba branch inflicted a most decided defeat on the team of the parent organization (in Scotland) on Saturday afternoon,” reported the Telegram, “when at the end of sixteen ends of play the score stood 98 to 49 in favour of the vigorous offshoots.”

The score may seem incredibly high by today’s standards, but it was a total of the results in five matches, none of which was won by the Scots. The number of ends played may also appear high when compared to today, but early curling games started out as 24-end affairs. The number of ends played dropped to 20 and then 16 in the 1890s. By the mid-1900s, 12 ends were normal. In modern major competitions, just 10 ends are played while play in many bonspiels and clubs features just eight-end games. 

The only close game in 1903 was between the Scots skipped by Provost Gordon and the Duluth rink skipped by Mackenzie which ended in  a 14-14 tie. The Free Press reported that the Mackenzie rink “made a lucky five on the eleventh end,” which put them four up. Over the next four ends, the Scots managed to score six points, so they were two up playing the last end (extra ends were not played to decide a winner).

In the last end, the Duluth rink had two rocks in the inner rings which were “guarded against a runner. They were open to a draw, which the genial Provost attempted, but was a shade heavy. Mackenzie failed with his last stone to make the extra count to win. The finish was watched by a large crowd, who, in their keen interest disregarded the regulations and crowded round the ring on the ice.” 

The Boissevain rink defeated the Scots skipped by R. Bramwell 17-8. The most lopsided game involved the Granite rink skipped by Rourke, who defeated the Scots skipped by Rev. Kerr 27-6. The Fort William rink skipped by W.H. Whalen defeated A.T. Simpson of Scotland 22-10.

It was reported that 2,000 spectators showed up throughout the day to watch the five matches at the Granite club.

“The rink was crowded to the doors with spectators eager to see the match ... anxious to see the Scots make a good showing, and cheered loudly whenever any of their number made a good shot.”

“Undoubtedly,” said Kerr, “Winnipeg is the very fireplace or hearth of the game in the Dominion.”

The visitor from Scotland called Winnipeg “the mecca of curlers ... What St. Andrews is to golf, so is Winnipeg to that other royal and ancient game.”

The Liverpool Post on March 2, 1903, reported the return of the “Scotch curlers.” To mark their return, “gentlemen from Scotland who came to meet the tam” formed an arch of “curlers’ cowe” — “a specie of broom made of heather, which is used for sweeping the ice at curling matches” — which the curlers passed under as they came down the gangway. 

The Post reporter  wrote that the  Scots praised Canadians as “enthusiastic curlers,” and said their curling tour of Canada and the U.S. “had been a most enjoyable one.”

The only item they wanted to correct was “the talk about the ‘dramming’ habits of the Scotch, as cabled from the Dominion, (which) had been greatly exaggerated.

“Scotchmen, he (one of the curlers interviewed who remained in Liverpool to visit) admitted, liked a ‘wee drappie’ when it was ‘guid,’ but they were no ‘aye dramming’ as people tried to make out.”

Scots would periodically return to curl in Winnipeg’s “big bonspiel,” but for many years local curlers fondly remembered and talked about “the monster spiel” of 1903.