Early Rules of Golf

In July, The Open returns to Muirfield, home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.  If we owe the governance of the game of golf from the late 19th Century onwards to The Royal and Ancient Golf Club, then it is to the Gentlemen Golfers of Edinburgh (later the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers) that we owe the earliest recorded Rules of Golf. 

Written in 1744 and known as the Thirteen Articles, these rules were conceived for the first Challenge for the Silver Club, played over Leith Links.  The rules were copied almost identically ten years later when a similar Challenge was instituted at St Andrews.  The rules appear on the very first page of the St Andrews Golfers’ first minute book and are entitled The Articles & Laws in Playing the Golf.  The first competition, played on 14 May 1754, is taken as the start date of what eventually became known as The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.

The first winner at Leith in 1744 was John Rattray, an Edinburgh surgeon.  It was Rattray’s signature that appeared at the end of the Thirteen Articles, which were enshrined in the minute book of the Edinburgh GolfersBy virtue of his victory he became ‘Captain of the Golf’.  Rattray won again the following year and for a third time in 1748.  In addition to cementing his place in golfing history as the signatory of the first written Rules of Golf, in the years separating his second and third victories, Rattray found himself playing a part, albeit against his will, in the Jacobite Rebellion.

Rattray was persuaded to tend the Highlanders wounded at the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745.  When Prince Charles Edward Stuart decided to make his way to England, Rattray was prevailed upon to accompany the Jacobite troops.  He made it to Derby before returning with the retreating army to Culloden Moor, where he was forced to surrender himself.  He was imprisoned in Inverness and only escaped slaughter due to the fact that his role was to tend the wounded and not bear arms.  He was released thanks to the intervention of the Lord President of the Court of Session, Duncan Forbes, a friend and fellow golfer.  Forbes had played his own part in the campaign.  Following the 1745 Silver Club Challenge, he travelled north to try and persuade the Highland clans not to join the Jacobite cause.  He later died, on 10 December 1747, at Culloden.

The annual Silver Club Challenges were the bedrock on which early golfing societies were founded and flourished.  In the 18th and for most of the 19th century, each society was at lib