History of rugby union in Scotland

History of rugby union in Scotland

This article details the History of Scottish rugby.

Early history (pre 1867)

Until the mid-nineteenth century the distinction between rugby football and association football (soccer) did not exist in Scotland so both codes share the same history.

There is a long tradition of "football" games in Scotland, and many of these such as Jeddart Ball bear more resemblance to rugby than association football, since passing and carrying by hand play a large part in them. The Kirkwall Ba game still takes place, and involves scrummaging. Scottish soccer enthusiasts also cite these games as ancestral to their sport.

Codified rugby comes to Scotland

Several new schools were formed in Scotland during the first half of the 19th century, among them The Edinburgh Academy (1824), Loretto (1827), Merchiston (1833), Glasgow Academy (1845) and Trinity College, Glenalmond (1847). It is known that unregulated forms of football were played at all of these schools, but it was in Edinburgh that the handling game first took root and spread to other areas of the country. Two young men, Francis Crombie and Alexander Crombie, came from Durham School to Edinburgh in 1854. Francis joined The Academy as a pupil but Alexander had already left school. Apparently, neither brother had played football at Durham School but they took with them a knowledge of the rules of football as played at Rugby School and this they passed on. Francis is recorded as having been the first school football captain and Alexander became actively involved in the formation of The Edinburgh Academical Football Club. He qualified for membership under a rule which allowed relatives of school pupils to become members. In 1858 he became the first captain of the Football Club - a position he held for eight years. During the same period, a boy named Hamilton came to The High School in Edinburgh (in 1856) from an English public school and brought with him the 'Rules of Rugby Football' as he had known them in the south. This document was instrumental in the High School's adapting their existing game to this new form.

The first-ever inter-school match recorded in Scotland was Royal High School versus Merchiston (in Edinburgh), played on 13 February 1858. However, the game suffered from lack of uniformity of rule and ball. In The High School, in the early 1860s, football was played with '…monstrous inflated globes of vast circumference and ponderosity…'. H. H. Almond, a master at both Loretto and Merchiston and a founding father of the game in Scotland, describing an incident in a Loretto versus Merchiston match, wrote: '…but so little did any of us, masters or boys, then know about it, that I remember how, when Lyall ran with the ball behind the Merchiston goal the resulting try was appealed against on the ground that no player may cross the line whilst holding the ball. The previous rule at Merchiston had been that he must let go of the ball and kick it over before he touched it down. It must be said in excuse for this and other similar sins of ignorance, that the only available rules were those printed for the use of Rugby School. They were very incomplete and presupposed a practical knowledge of the game.' Gradually, over several years, the game approached that then being played at Rugby. There were local variations which, inevitably, resulted in disputes. Almond again: '…well into the 1870s the only schools able to play each other on even terms were The Edinburgh Academy, Merchiston and The High School.' From the mid-1860s, senior (former pupils) clubs started to appear in both the Edinburgh and Glasgow areas and these clubs, making good use of the then new railways, began to play each other. In those early club matches play was often halted whilst captains and umpires tried to settle some point of difference. Such disputes and mix-ups were frequent. Such a state of affairs could not continue indefinitely and a group of men from The Edinburgh Academical Football Club convened a series of meetings and, in 1868, with the agreement of the other schools and clubs, set out and had printed rules for the game in Scotland. The resulting booklet Laws of Football as played by the Principal Clubs in Scotland, became known as The Green Book. Alas, no copy survives but it is worthy of note that neither the clubs nor "The Green Book felt" it necessary to include the word 'Rugby' in their title. Indeed, the Scottish Football Union, formed in 1873, did not alter its name to become the Scottish Rugby Union until 1924 - the year prior to the opening of Murrayfield.

The world's oldest continual rugby fixture was first played in 1858 between Merchiston Castle School and the former pupils of The Edinburgh Academy.


The first international and the Calcutta Cup

In December 1870, following a series of England v. Scotland eleven-a-side football matches played in London (all of which were won by England), a group of Scots players issued a letter of challenge in The Scotsman and in Bell's Life in London, to play an England XX at the carrying game. The first ever international rugby union game was played on the cricket field of The Edinburgh Academy at Raeburn Place, Edinburgh on March 27, 1871 between England and Scotland. The Scots won the encounter by a goal and a try to a solitary try scored by England, though England got revenge at the Kennington Oval, London in the following year. (See the [http://www.scottishrugby.org/library.cfm library] of the Scottish Rugby Union for details.)

The newspaper notice advertising the very first rugby international match - inconspicuous by being slotted in betweenother items. (From The Scotsman, 27.3.1871) In December 1870, following a series of England v. Scotland eleven-a-side football matches played in London (all of which were won by England), a group of Scots players issued a letter of challenge in The Scotsman and in Bell's Life in London, to play an England XX at the carrying game. The English could hardly ignore such a challenge and this led to the first-ever rugby international match being played at Raeburn Place, Edinburgh, on Monday 27 March, 1871. The Scots won the encounter by a goal and a try to a solitary try scored by England (a points scoring system had notthen been devised).

Scotland was responsible for organising the very first rugby international when a side representing England met the Scottish national side on the cricket field of the Edinburgh Academy at their Raeburn Place ground in 27 March 1871; Scotland won by one goal.

Since that time, Scotland have been regular winners of the Calcutta Cup, the Six Nations Championship, and have participated in every edition of the Rugby World Cup. Many of the world's most famous players have worn the blue jersey.

The Calcutta Cup was gifted to the Rugby Football Union in 1878 by the members of the short-lived Calcutta RugbyClub. The members had decided to disband: the cup was crafted from melted-down silver rupees which becameavailable when the Club's funds were withdrawn from the bank. The Cup is unique in that it is competed for annuallyonly by England and Scotland. The first Calcutta Cup match was played in 1879 and, since that time, over 100matches have taken place.

Late 19th century

The Scots enjoyed periodic success in the early days vying with Wales in the first decade of the 20th century. However, their Triple Crown win in 1907 would be the last for eighteen years as the First World War (1914-18) and England intervened to deny them glory.

In 1897 land was purchased, by the SFU, at Inverleith, Edinburgh. Thus the SFU became the first of the Home Unions to own its own ground. The first visitors were Ireland, on 18 February 1899 (Scotland 3 Ireland 9). International rugby was played at Inverleith until 1925. The SFU bought some land and built the first Murrayfield Stadium which was opened on 21 March 1925.

Union-League schism

In 1895, there was a schism within the game of rugby in neighbouring England which saw the sport divided into rugby union which remained amateur and rugby league which permitted payments to players. However, no such split took place in Scotland where the clubs continued to play rugby union. Fourteen Scottish players would cross over and play rugby league in England before amateurism was be abandoned. [http://www.rfu.com/microsites/museum/pdfs/exhibitions/leagues/apart6.pdf]

While rugby league is not as popular as rugby union in Scotland, it has maintained a continuous presence for over a century in the country.

Invention of Rugby Sevens

Scotland has played a seminal role in the development of rugby, notably in
Rugby sevens, which were initially conceived by Ned Haig, a butcher from Melrose as a fundraising event for his local club in 1883. The first ever officially sanctioned international tournament of rugby occurred at Murrayfield as part of the "Scottish Rugby Union's celebration of rugby" centenary celebrations in 1973. Due to the success of the format, the ongoing Hong Kong Sevens was launched three years later. In 1993, the Rugby World Cup Sevens was launched and the trophy is known as the "Melrose Cup" in memory of Ned Haig's invention.

Origins of the SRU

The "Scottish Football Union" (SFU) was founded in 1873 and was a founding member of the International Rugby Board in 1886 with Ireland and Wales. (England refused to join until 1890).

The SFU was responsible for organising the very first rugby international, when they challenged England to a game, on 27 March 1871, which Scotland won.

In 1924 the SFU changed its name to become the Scottish Rugby Union.cite web| url=http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/sportscotland/asportingnation/article/0020/print.shtml |title=First Scottish Grand Slam |publisher=bbc.co.uk |accessdate=2007-10-27 |last=MacDonald |first=Paul] International games were played at Inverleith from 1899 to 1925 when Murrayfield was opened.


In 1925 Scotland already had victories over France at Inverleith (25-4), Wales in Swansea (24-14) and Ireland in Dublin (14-8). England, the Grand Slam champions of the two previous seasons were the first visitors to Murrayfield. 70,000 spectators saw the lead change hands three times before Scotland secured a 14-11 victory which gave them their first-ever Five Nations Grand Slam.

In 1926, Scotland became the first Home nation side to defeat England at Twickenham after England had won the Grand Slam five times in eight seasons.

The outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 brought rugby union in Scotland to a halt. The SRU cancelled all arranged trial and international matches and encouraged the member clubs to carry on as best they could. Some clubs closed down, others amalgamated and carried on playing other local clubs and, sometimes, teams from the armed forces stationed in their various areas.

Post War Period

Scotland's team has faced an uneven record since the Second World War, and has produced two notable Grand Slams.


Official internationals resumed in the 1946-7 season. In the Spring of 1946, Scotland played and defeated a strong New Zealand and Forces team.

The period after World War Two was not a successful one for Scotland. In 1951, the touring Springboks massacred Scotland 44-0 scoring nine tries, a then record defeat. Scotland suffered 17 successive defeats between February 1951 and February 1955, scored only 54 points in these 17 games: 11 tries, six conversions, and four penalties.

The teams from 1955-63 were an improvement. There were no win over England, but three of the games were drawn and only twice was the margin of defeat more than a single. 1964 was a good year for Scotland New Zealand were held to a 0-0 draw, the last international match in which no points were scored. The Calcutta Cup was won 15-6, the first time since 1950 and they shared the Five Nations title in 1964 with Wales.

In 1971 the SRU appointed Bill Dickinson as their head coach, after years of avoidance, as it was their belief that rugby should remain an amateur sport. He was officially designated as an "adviser to the captain".

Scotland were the first of the Home Unions to run a truly nationwide club league. This was introduced in 1973 and still flourishes today with several of the country's original clubs still very much in evidence, such as Heriots, West of Scotland, Watsonians and the famous 'border' clubs such as Gala, Hawick, Jed-Forest, Kelso and Melrose. However the advent of professionalism saw Scotland's District championship abandoned and two (later three) 'Super Districts' formed, which have resulted in the top players generally being unavailable for their clubs. These teams play in international club competitions such as the Heineken Cup and the Celtic League.


Jim Telfer became national coach in 1980.

Scotland toured Australia and won the first test, which to date is Scotland's only away victory against any of the big three Southern Hemisphere sides. After this, the 1983 season was a disappointment, with only one victory at Twickenham in the last match.

The 1983-84 season brought a draw with the All Blacks 25-25 in the late autumn and their second Grand Slam captained by Jim Aitken. Jim Telfer stood down after the Grand Slam to concentrate on his professional career as a school master. He was succeeded by his assistant, the former Hawick fly-half, Colin Telfer.

Scotland went to the first World Cup, played in New Zealand and Australia in the summer of 1987. Rutherford, the team’s general and controlling influence, badly injured his knee on an unauthorised tour of Bermuda. He broke down after less than a quarter of an hour of the first World Cup match against France and never played for Scotland again. Scotland had been in the lead but the match finished level and Scotland had to face New Zealand in the quarter-final. They lost.

Their greatest year in the modern era, however, was 1990 when, captained by prop David Sole, their season came down to one game, a Grand Slam decider at Murrayfield against the "auld enemy" and hot favourites, England. Sole famously walked his men onto the field with quiet but steely determination, to the delight of the partisan home crowd. Scotland won 13-7, and with it their third Grand Slam.

The second World Cup took place in 1991 with matches shared between the Five Nations. Scotland won their pool, though the game against Ireland was close, and then beat Western Samoa in the quarter-final. They went out to England in the semi-final held at Murrayfield to a Rob Andrew drop goal. In the third place play-off they were again beaten by New Zealand.

The third World Cup, held in South Africa, came around in 1995. The tournament followed a familiar pattern: a narrow defeat by France, thanks to an injury-time try, meant that, as second in the pool, they faced a quarter-final against New Zealand and were eliminated.


Rugby union became professional in the 1990s. Several teams were set up, including Border Reivers, Glasgow, and Edinburgh.

The SRU owns Murrayfield Stadium, which is the main home ground of the Scottish national team, though in 2004 international rugby games were played at Hampden Park in Glasgow and McDiarmid Park in Perth, as part of the SRU's campaign to reach out to new audiences outside the traditional rugby areas.

When the Heineken Cup was suggested SRU officials were concerned that Scottish club sides could not compete against the best teams from France and England and that centrally funded so-called 'super-district' teams might do better.

The four traditional districts—the South (renamed Border Reivers), Edinburgh, Glasgow and the North & Midlands (rebranded as Caledonia Reds)—were given the go-ahead to take part in Europe. For the first two seasons, players were still released to play for their clubs in domestic competition, but eventually the districts became full-time operations.

Then financial difficulties—the SRU's high debt, partly as a result of the redevelopment of Murrayfield—called for retrenchment. After two seasons, financial difficulties forced the SRU to merge the four teams into two. Edinburgh merged with the Border Reivers to form a team to be known as Edinburgh Reivers. Glasgow merged with Caledonian to form a team to be known as Glasgow Caledonian.

The Borders was resurrected in 2002 and joined the second season of the Celtic League. As a consequence Edinburgh Reivers became simply Edinburgh Rugby and Glasgow became Glasgow Rugby. In 2005, all three teams adopted new names. The Borders readopted the name Border Reivers; Edinburgh became Edinburgh Gunners, but would revert to Edinburgh in 2006; and Glasgow became Glasgow Warriors. Caledonia will be re-established when the SRU believe financial circumstances permit.

Changes for the professional era

When professionalism was introduced into rugby union in the 1990s, and the Heineken Cup created for clubs across Europe, the SRU decided that the existing clubs operating in the Scottish leagues were not competitive enough. They were predominantly amateur, or at best paid small wages; they had low supports and small old-fashioned venues; and the quality of their play was, by the nature of these factors, comparatively low versus new professional clubs and super-teams in other countries. As a rule their players trained only two nights a week.

After a short spell using District teams (effectively select teams drawing together the best amateur players from clubs in a given area), the SRU decided to create professional clubs to compete in the Celtic League, a competition which grew out of an Anglo-Welsh league (and for a time had a cup competition, the Celtic Cup. It is now known as the Magners League and consists of Scottish, Welsh and Irish sides. The aim of creating these 'pro-teams' or 'super-teams' was ensure that Scotland had fairly competitive sides operating in the European competitions, the Heineken Cup and European Challenge Cup (as well as the European Shield during its short existence), and to drive up standards of rugby in the country.

Originally, before the Celtic League started, the SRU created four pro-teams, based roughly on the old districts: the Border Reivers based in Galashiels (with occasional matches elsewhere), the Caledonia Reds based in Aberdeen and Perth, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Late 1990s

Scotland also won the last-ever Five Nations Championship in 1999 with some dashing displays of 15-man rugby and to a last minute win by Wales over England, but that year’s World Cup ended the usual way, with a quarter-final defeat by New Zealand.

They endured a torrid Six Nations in 2000, losing their first four straight games. Nevertheless at the last hurdle, they pulled off a magnificent 19-13 win under captain Andy Nicol over an unbeaten England at a rain-soaked Murrayfield to prove that there is still plenty of pride and passion in Scottish rugby.

In 2007, The Borders was disbanded yet again due to continuing financial difficulties. Also in the same year, the SRU began organising the Edinburgh 7s, the final event in the annual IRB Sevens World Series.

2003 season & the future

After a poor start in the Six Nations 2003-04 in which Scotland did not win a single match and so qualified for rugby's version of the wooden spoon, things were believed to be steadily improving once again under the Australian coach Matt Williams, the first foreigner to coach the national team.

Despite setbacks, many new and talented young players are coming through to the top level. Yet the record for 2004 was disappointing: Played 12, Won 2, Lost 10. Williams also attempted to introduce a controversial "Fortress Scotland" policy, whereby only those currently playing in Scotland were eligible to play in the national team. Meanwhile the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) is under new management, Chief Executive Phil Anderton (known as 'Firework Phil' for his pre-match entertainment spectacles) was leading the way back to financial solvency and implementing major reforms to reverse the decline of the game in Scotland, but he resigned in January 2005 after his boss David Mackay was forced to resign by the SRU's general committee. Since then, much effort and thought has gone into restructuring the way the game is governed in Scotland.

Under Frank Hadden

Frank Hadden, the head coach of Edinburgh Gunners (previously a PE teacher at Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh), was appointed interim coach for the 2005 summer internationals against the Barbarians and Romania, winning two from two and instilling confidence in the national side again. On the 15 September, 2005, he was appointed national coach of the Scotland team up to and including the 2007 World Cup and has so far done an excellent job with limited resources compared to most of his opponents.

In the first match of the 2006 Six Nations campaign, against France, Scotland won 20-16, and this was the first time since 1999 that they had beaten France. Scotland also beat England 18-12 at home at Murrayfield on February 25, 2006 to reclaim the Calcutta Cup.

In the 2006 Autumn internationals Scotland won two of three fixtures. They convincingly beat Romania and put up a solid first half performance against the Pacific Islanders. In the final match against Australia, Scotland failed to impress. A sound first half performance was squandered with an uncharacteristicly poor defence in the second. Australia went on to win the game 44-15. The series provided a mixture of advances and setbacks. Scotland lost several key players through injury, notbly captain Jason White was suffered a knee injury and missed the entire 2007 Six Nations Championship.

Scotland suffered a humiliating defeat on February 24, 2007 when they became the first Six Nations team to lose at home to Italy, 17-37. This was Italy's biggest ever victory over Scotland, home or away. After only six minutes of the match Scotland were already trailing 0-21, due to a clearance kick being charged down and two interceptions by the Italians (caused by poor choice of game plan and sloppy passing in the 9/10 channel). Man of the match was awarded to Italian Alessandro Troncon, who scored a late try to put the match out of reach.

Later that year, the side travelled to France for the rugby world cup. They fought their way through a difficult group and made it to the quarter finals where they were knocked out by Argentina.

Despite the promising World Cup, Scotland did not emerge into the Six Nations as the dark horses the media had predicted. Scotland opened their campaign at home but lost 27-6 to France. Pressure on Frank Hadden started to intensify after round 2 as Scotland lost 30-15 to a rejuvenated Wales side who could have scored more. Scotland finally managed to score a try, against Ireland, despite losing. They didn't need to score a try against England however as they regained the Calcutta Cup with a 15-9 victory in a dull contest. Scotland scored two tries against Italy but lost thanks to a drop goal in the last minute to go down 23-20. Scotland managed to avoid the wooden spoon on scoring difference but it was a disappointing campaign. They then toured Argentina to play two tests against Argentina. They lost the first test 21-15 and won the second 26-14.


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