A Scottish historian has discovered that the game of football was being played as early as the 15th century, and that by the 16th century organized games were taking place just outside castles throughout Scotland. Scottish Football Museum curator Richard McBrearty has found several records relating to the game in the archives of the National Library of Scotland.
He discovered a manuscript of accounts from King James IV of Scotland that showed he paid two shillings for a bag of ‘fut ballis’ on 11 April, 1497. More evidence came with we came across several diary accounts of football being played in places like Stirling Castle, Edzell Castle and Carlisle Castle. The games were played on pitches smaller than the current regular football field, and featured between 10 and 20 men on each side.
Mr McBrearty said, “It is research I have been involved with for about 10 years. We have been looking at the origins in Scotland and how it was played. We have been looking at small closed games that were played and evidence of structure and skill. We found fragments of information which show that there has been an evolution of the game which goes back hundreds of years.”
One important piece of evidence was the diary of nobleman Sir Francis Knollis, who was ordered by Queen Elizabeth I to hold Queen Mary of Scots under house arrest in Carlisle when she fled Scotland after being forced to abdicate. The diary includes an account of a game played for the Scottish monarch in 1568, which involved 20 players and lasted two hours. The game played on a field that was 50 metres long with trees planted at either end used as goal posts.
This helps to explain why in the 1970s workers in Stirling Castle discovered a round object hidden behind the thick oak-panelled walls of the bedchamber used by Mary, Queen of Scots. The leather ball, which has been dated to 1540, is considered the world’s oldest football.
Another account of early football comes from the diary of Robert Bowes, England’s ambassador to the Scottish court in the early 1580s . He writes, “Some quarrel happened the other day between Bothwell and the Master of Marischal (George keith) upon a stroke given at football on Bothwell’s leg by the Master. After that the master had before received a sore fall by Bothwell.” The ambassador added that it almost led to a duel between to the two men, but that when King James VI heard of the dispute he put a stop to it.
Historians have believed that a football-like game was played throughout the British Isles for hundreds of years, but that it was unorganized and lacking proper rules. The first written set of rules for the game was made in 1848 by professors at the University of Cambridge.
But McBrearty says this new evidence points to a new origins for the game: “The accounts of small football matches in the grounds of castles suggest the game, in its current form, is much older than officially documented. It appears football was more of an evolution than a 19th century revolution. There are enough examples to make a case for the game being invented much earlier.”