Monday, January 30, 2012

Where would you rather curl?

Back in the 'good old days', it really was very simple: if it froze outside, you curled. If it didn’t, you didn’t. Oh, I know that the romantics out there yearn for the time when curling was only ever played when the plough was frozen in the furrow, but really? Years passed with stones lying unused and forgotten. Check your club’s old records and spot the gaps.

The 'indoor curling on artificial ice revolution' really started when some wise men in the west constructed the first Scottish Ice Rink at Crossmyloof, a suburb on Glasgow’s south side. It was opened in October 1907. Curlers were quick to take advantage – indeed the first visiting Canadian team came over and played for the Strathcona Cup in January and February 1909. Most of the test matches were played at the new indoor rink. In 1912, Edinburgh followed suit and Haymarket ice rink opened for business. Not long afterwards, a rink was opened in Aberdeen. When the original Crossmyloof rink was severely damaged by fire in 1917, Haymarket became, and remained, the only indoor venue in the Central Belt until 1928 when a new rink opened its doors on the old Crossmyloof site.

And that was kind of it until Great Britain upset the Canadian reigning champions and favourites by winning the ice hockey Gold Medal at the 1936 Winter Olympic Games in Garmisch Partenkirchen, Germany. Funny how completely unrelated events conspire to help another sport! Ice hockey took off in Britain and for a heady three years before the Second World War put paid to things, ice rinks, most with spectator facilities, sprang up all over the place. In 1936, Perth opened its doors for the first time and in 1938 new rinks opened in Ayr, Edinburgh (Murrayfield) and Kirkcaldy.

Throughout the forties and fifties, the sport of curling in Scotland was played (indoors) at Ayr, Crossmyloof, Falkirk, Edinburgh (Haymarket), Kirkcaldy, Perth, Dundee and Aberdeen. There were occasional games at other rinks like Paisley, but in the main, those eight rinks catered for the sport. They were all mixed use and the curlers had to share their ice (though not at the same time!) with skaters and ice hockey players. The rinks were run as businesses and ownership tended to be by shareholders and latterly, by individuals. There were no council-run facilities as far as I can ascertain and there was probably enough business to go around. Games took place over three hour sessions and it was not uncommon for there to be fifteen ends played on what we would now consider slow ice.

Starting with Kelso in 1962, there followed a rash of ice rink building in Scotland and it was during the next ten or so years that new rinks were built at Lockerbie, Stranraer, Ayr (replacing the original), Hamilton, Aviemore and Inverness. The sixties was a time of real and – important this – sustainable growth in the sport’s facilities and it is no surprise to report that all of those rinks, with the exception of Aviemore, are still in existence and that they all have contributed to the well-being of the game. Typically, a group of keen curlers, often lead by a 'worthy' – one thinks of Willie Wilson in Kelso, Bob Grierson in Stranraer or Tom Dickson at Hamilton, would get together, often after returning from a tour to Canada, and lobby the local community for a rink, which would duly be built.

Hammy McMillan started a new trend in 1970. He already owned the North West Castle hotel and had been approached by Bob Grierson about the possibility of building a rink attached to the hotel. Hammy went ahead and built it! It proved a winning formula with the weekend curling competitions attracting curlers from all over Scotland to compete. Others copied Hammy and new 'attached' rinks sprang up in places like Lochgoilhead, Letham Grange, Forest Hills and Brora. Sadly, they have all gone and we are left with the Green Hotel rink in Kinross and Greenacres in Renfrewshire. Interestingly, John Stevenson started Greenacres off as an addition to his hotel, but it has since developed as a rink in its own right – the only example of an ice rink outliving the original hotel!

The two original indoor rinks at Haymarket and Crossmyloof have since been replaced. In Edinburgh, curling now takes place at a dedicated rink attached to the original 1930s Murrayfield ice rink and in Glasgow, Braehead took over from the Summit Centre in the 1990s.

Four other privately-run rinks deserve a mention. Gogar Park was owned and run by the Gumley family. Sadly, it shut down and is now a garden shed for RBS. The Stirling rink replaced the old Falkirk rink and was financed by a share issue - £200 per share. I know this because I bought one. Interestingly, ownership bought you a free sheet of ice in lieu of interest. The rink finally closed down a couple of years ago when the new council-funded Peak Centre replaced it. The Curl Aberdeen facility replaced a rink at Dyce which in turn had replaced the old Donald’s rink. It was financed by a combination of private donation and lottery-funded grant money. The Inverness Ice Centre has been bought by the users (curlers and skaters) and is run by a board chaired by my old mucker, Tom Pendreigh.

Council-run facilities began to be used by curlers around about the nineteen-eighties and the sport has found new homes in centres like Harvies in Stevenson (the Magnum in Irvine having closed), the Galleon in Kilmarnock and the Dumfries Ice Bowl. There are, of course, others as well.

Now here is a big problem for our sport. On the one hand we should welcome any additional facilities that enable our sport to grow in a particular area, but on the other, we need to be careful where a situation pertains like that in the south of Scotland. There is an existing facility (Lockerbie) that is owned by shareholders. The rink has to 'clean its face' financially and has to set aside monies for the rainy day that the stones need replacing, for example. Perhaps, as at Murrayfield, the curlers are in the throes of 'buying the rin'”, so there is an additional cost that needs to be funded. The banks do not go away in all of this and if there are loans, then they need both to be serviced and, ultimately, paid off.

And along comes a cuckoo! The council build a brand spanking new rink at Dumfries Ice Bowl with all of the mod cons that you would expect of a new-build facility, and curling availability seven days a week. Hopefully, it will attract new curlers to the sport, but there cannot help but be leakage of existing business from the old to the new rink. All’s fair in love and war; competition is what makes the world go around, but ... There is not the same financial imperative on a council-run facility as there is on a business. It is not a competition of equals. Greenacres is a privately-owned ice rink that has to show a return. The Waterfront is a council-run facility that does not need to show the same return.

It would be a terrible shame if one of our existing rinks went bust because a council-run facility opened up next door. Where would you rather curl – a curling club over which you have some control, or a sports centre over which you have hee-haw control? Interesting question for us all to ponder this crisp winter’s morn.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Swan

In 2012, the Edinburgh Curling Club celebrates its centenary. Plans are well advanced for the centenary dinner at the city’s Corn Exchange on Saturday, February 25, and before that a series of ten centenary bonspiels at the Murrayfield Curling Rink on January 28 and 29. The bonspiels are all but fully-subscribed as I write and we have sold over three hundred tickets for the dinner. All of these celebrations were made possible by a linked, but totally separate series of events in 1910.

By that time, the west end of Edinburgh was built up as we know it today. If you were to travel back in time, your twenty-first century olfactory sensibilities would be assaulted by the different smells of the time and you might notice a smoky pall in the air; almost everyone would be smoking something or other and the noises you would hear would not be the sounds of idling internal combustion engines waiting interminably at the traffic lights, but instead be the clip-clopping of horses’ hooves on cobblestones mixed with the screech of metal wheels on tram lines. But the buildings that you see today were already built and the Haymarket station was a longstanding feature of the landscape, having opened in 1842 as the original terminus for the Edinburgh and Glasgow railway.

Just beside the station, John Swan and company had their Edinburgh operation, but it was landlocked and too small for purpose, so they moved their auctioneering business out to Gorgie, near the newly-developed Corn Exchange building. The new Haymarket ice rink was built on the freed-up parcel of land and opened for business in February 1912. The directors of John Swan and company presented a magnificent trophy to the Edinburgh Curling Club for double rink competition. To this day the trophy is presented to the winners of 'the Swan', as the competition is known.

It really is a great format, perhaps because it is so little used. A club presents two teams; they play against another club’s two teams side-by-side and the game scores are totalled. No ends or points come into play – just the shots-up. You have to keep a wary eye on your own game, but adjust your tactics in case the other game is going (or not going) according to plan. Great fun.

This year – the centenary year of the competition – the two semi finals pitched Midcalder CC against Haddington CC, and Currie and Balerno CC against Oxenfoord CC. Currie and Balerno and Midcalder prevailed, so the scene was set for a thrilling final. Currie and Balerno’s Andrew Galloway skipped Robin Copland, Raymond Preston and Caitlin Barr against Midcalder’s Stewart Barr, Basil Baird, Andrew Brash and Lesley Barr. The game started off tight but a big steal of two in the fourth end gave the Midcalder team a two-point lead which they added to in the next couple of ends. In the meantime, Currie and Balerno’s Brian Fleming skipped club president Dave Munro, Bob Barr and Andrew Cargill to a small lead in a tight game against Midcalder’s Alan Russell, John Baird, Scott Baird and Graham Young.

Come the eighth end Midcalder led in one game by three shots in the Barr versus Galloway game but were down in the Fleming versus Russell game by two shots. Try as they might, the Galloway team could not get a stone in the four foot behind the cover. They had plenty of chances and did not take one! Meanwhile, on the other sheet, Midcalder had put the squeeze on and managed a two-shot steal to peel their game. A great performance by Midcalder’s two teams; they drew one game and won the other. In so doing they stopped a Currie and Balerno hat trick.

Jack Clark, the managing director of John Swan Ltd presented the trophy at a happy prize giving ceremony in the club rooms immediately after the games. The celebratory party went on well into the night!

Top: Winners of the Swan Trophy, Midcalder CC. Back L-R: Jack Clark (managing director of John Swan Ltd), Stewart Barr, Alan Russell, John Baird, Scott Baird and Andrew Brash. Front: Graham Young, Lesley Barr and Basil Baird. Photo by Ian Millar.

Above: Currie and Balerno CC, the runners-up in the competition. L-R: Jack Clark (managing director of John Swan Ltd), Andrew Galloway, Robin Copland, Andrew Cargill, Dave Munro, Brian Fleming, Raymond Preston, Caitlin Barr and Bob Barr. Photo by Ian Millar.

The two winning skips, Stewart Barr, Jack Clark (MD of John Swan Ltd) and Alan Russell, with the Swan trophy. Photo by Ian Millar.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

A Wee Look at the Seniors

I have been having a wee look at the Scottish Senior Championships as I see that their playdowns take place in Greenacres and Forfar, January 6-8.

I can do this now that I am no longer involved. Well – for this year at least! It is always interesting for the serious student of the sport to see how champions of yesteryear face up to those who have come to the competitive game later in their lives. Interesting also to see how knees and joints have faced up to the trauma that the years have bestowed on them. Some wear better than others though it is astonishing, to these eyes at least, to note that the deliveries that served their masters well twenty and thirty years ago still seem up to the task all this time later.

I swear, for example, that if you were to look at Ken Horton throw a stone now and compare his delivery to the Ken Horton that was winning Scottish and Scottish Junior Championships back in the seventies and eighties, you would see not a lot of difference. He is still early into his delivery position and is able to release the stone accurately fairly early by today’s fashion. He was never one of these players who gave the hogline judge much trouble - except maybe on a hack-weight takeout on really keen ice - but the balance and accuracy is still there, witnessed by the fact that he has now won the Scottish Senior Championships twice – once as third to his old mucker, Graeme Adam, and once as skip in his own right.

The rest have to get past Ken and his champion rink of Gordon Butler, Angus Storrie and Eddie Binks before they can say they have done it and are crowned champions. I fancy that Keith Prentice – still smarting after losing two early games in last season’s finals at Hamilton and finding himself out of contention before he really got started – may be one of teams that Ken has his eyes on. Keith has a strong rink in front of him - Lockhart Steele, Robin Aitken and Tommy Fleming – and they have played together for a number of years. This is important at any level of curling. In their first season as champions, they went out to Canada and took on the famous Al Hackner/Rick Lang combination not once, but twice; and twice they won to bring back the gold medals.

Those of us old enough well remember just what a class top end Hackner and Lang were. They represented Canada in the 1985 Silver Broom at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow and were streets ahead of their opponents. Another advantage that Keith has is that he coaches the junior team skipped by Jay McWilliam. These boys keep him young, but the fact that he coaches at that level has kept him informed and aware.

Last season’s runners-up, Colin Hamilton, Mike Dick, Trevor Dodds and Colin Baxter (replacing Ian MacPherson) will also be there or thereabouts when the fat lady starts warbling. Mike and Colin H are two other examples of the 'same delivery thirty years on' theory and are both fiercely competitive. Trevor and Colin B will be as strong a front end as will be on show – another formidable outfit.

Willie Jamieson returns with the same team from last season. Whisper this, but David Kelly at second has been for lessons with David Murdoch at Greenacres. He has had to change his delivery from tuck to flat foot to stop his leg from falling off and David McGann at lead has resorted to quite the most ridiculous pair of spectacles ever seen on a curling rink. Who knows though? Gordon Kennedy brings steel and tactical nous to the party; all four are good chums on and off the ice; they were semifinalists last season. They could very well challenge.

Graeme Adam has teamed up this season with Bob Kelly, reverting to his favoured team position of third, Stuart Naismith and Jean Lesperance. Many argue that Graeme was the finest tactician of his generation; if he and Bob click, and if the front end play up to their reputation, then he may very well mount a serious challenge as well to pick up his second senior title.

There are others to consider. Old-school teams like Barton Henderson (but will Greig be skipping that team?) will need to face up to newer names (comparatively speaking) like Gary Macfarlane and Ian Gillespie. Past champions like Ronnie Peat will face off against the likes of David Clydesdale and Alan Durno. All to play for!

Now to the ladies and I will be blunt – I don’t know what to tell you! No qualifiers here, all twenty teams go through to the Finals at the Lanarkshire Ice Rink, February 7-12. To me, the championship is as open as the Russian Steppes. More about the girls later.


Since writing this, I have learned that my services are, in fact, required for the district championships! The poor team involved had apparently been right through the card of eligible players that they decided to cut their losses and phone me. They knew I was desperate for a game. I will spare their blushes. Suffice to say that any remote chance they may have had has now vanished – a bit like the snow and ice off the Russian Steppes come the spring.

Get me a phone – quick now. I need to speak to my gym chap. Barman – another gin, please. And I’ll leave the size to your good self.