Golf: The True History

Golf: The True History

By Michael Flannery

Golf International Magazine (2009)

The Golf Player at Gloucester Cathedral

Excerpt:Was Scotland the Birthplace of Golf?

Nearing the end of his reign, confronted by real and present danger on his border with England, King James II of Scotland (1430 – 1460) uttered a decree intended to ensure the safety of his realm through bringing his army up to the standards required for modern warfare. For more than 150 years, in battle after battle, English Longbowmen had determined the outcome. James decided that his subjects would drill until they became the ‘Mothers of All Archers’.

Key to victory in medieval combat was the long bow, its length the height of a man or more, requiring great strength and much practise to draw and fire rapidly. It was a fearsome weapon, made even more so by customised arrows. The choice included armour-piercing tips for use against chain-mail; the barbed ‘Swallow Tail’ against horses; or flammable tips for psychological warfare. In 1188, an English knight fighting the Welsh (the undisputed masters of this particular art of killing), recounted how an arrow pierced his chain mail and clothing, continued through his thigh, saddle and finally, horse.


It would be misleading to suggest that James’ only interest was to defend his realm against the onslaughts of the eternally aggressive Sassenachs. The king, who wore the dyspeptic look of someone who had bitten into a frozen haggis, was, in fact, a masterful ruler – vigorous, popular, and ambitious, with plans to annex Orkney, Shetland and the Isle of Man. Known as ‘Fiery Face’ for a vermillion birthmark, he was possessed of a hair trigger temper. According to a 1452 eyewitness account, James, threatened by a key alliance formed by the 8th earl of Douglas, flew into a rage and stabbed his rival to death.

While encouraging archery, James, who was passionate about weaponry in general, was also developing state-of-the-art artillery – with fateful consequences. While besieging Roxburgh Castle, one of the last strongholds still held by the English following the Wars of Independence, a canon exploded killing the 29 year old king. Under his successors, longbow practice continued to be mandatory.

The James edict, designed to enhance the defence of Scotland and expand his sphere of influence, harboured the innocent words, ‘fut bawe and golf, a fact that attracted neither attention nor interest for the next 400- odd years. Finally spotted by some keen-eyed Victorian historian, these two words – particularly ‘golf’, were used to put an enduring spin on golf history.


The fateful document in which the word ‘golf’ first appeared, was Act of Parliament number 338, a hand-written manuscript published in Edinburg, 6 March, 1457. It was entitled, ‘Anent Wapinshawing’ – of the practise of arms – and read:

Item. It is ordanyt and decreyt… (th)at ye fut bawe and ye golf be Utterly cryt done and not usyt and (th)at ye bowe markes be maid at all paroch kirkes apair of buttes and shutting be usyt ilk sunday…

Click here to read this article from Nederlands Golf Archief Early Golf


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