Game of the Month: Curling

by Dagonell the Juggler

Curling was introduced to the Winter Olympics in 1998. After seeing it in the 2002 Winter Olympics, I decided to research the sport to see if it was period. One NBC commentator likened the sport to shuffleboard. I thought it resembled Bocce. Surprisingly, all three sports have their origins in period and are played nearly identically, but they have three separate origins.

Curling gets it's name from the obsolete verb 'to curr' which means 'to grumble'. It's a reference to the low-pitched rumbling sound a stone makes as it slides across the ice. Both Scotland and Continental Europe claim to have originated the game. Early references are few.

In the Smith Institute, in Stirling, there is a stone (playing piece) with the date 1511 engraved in it. It was discovered along with another one engraved with the date 1551 when a pond in Dunblane, Scotland was drained.

The Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel, in 1565, did two oil paintings titled "Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Birdtrap" and "Hunters in the Snow" both of which show people playing eisschiessen (ice shooting), a Bavarian game similar to curling except the stones are pushed with a long stick. An engraving by Baudous (1575-1644) entitled "Hyems" ("Winter") shows players sliding wooden discs along a frozen river.

An assembly of Presbyterians in Glassgow accused Bishop Graham of Orkney of a terrible sin in 1638, "He was a curler on the ice on the Sabbath." The 17th century eulogy of James Gall read in part, "His name was M. James Gall, a citizen of Perth, and a gentleman of goodly stature, and pregnant wit, much give to pastime, as golf, archerie, curling and jovial companie." Interestingly enough, those same three sports are mentioned in M.H. Adamson's poem "The Muses Threnodie" published in 1638.

Reverend John Ramsay of Gladsmuir, Scotland published "An Account of the Game of Curling" in Edinburgh in 1811. In it, he claimed that most of terms used in Curling were of Dutch or German origin. "... the whole of the terms being Continental compel us to ascribe to a [European] Continental origin." In 1890, Reverend John Kerr wrote "A History of Curling" which argued that the game was Scottish. He stated that many of the terms were actually of Celtic origin. "If Flemings had brought the game to Scotland in the 1500's, why did Scottish poets and historians make no special mention of its introduction before 1600?" Robert Burns and Walter Scott both refer to the game as "the manly Scottish exercise."

There are no records that I could find of medieval rules. Casual games were apparently often played on frozen rivers with imperfect pieces. What follows are a simplification of modern rules. The playing field is a sheet of ice 146 feet long by 14 feet wide. At each end is a target, the center of which is called a button. The ice is shaved to make it perfectly flat and level. A fine spray of water gives it a slightly 'pebbly' surface.

Curling stones are carved from solid granite. They weight 44 pounds, have a one foot diameter and are 4.5 inches high, not counting the handle. Each player has two stones, for a total of eight stones per team. Different teams will have stones marked in different colors to distinguish them.

There are four players per team, the 'Lead' (pronounced 'Leed', not 'Led') who goes first, the 'Second', the 'Third' who is also known as the 'Vice-Skip', and the 'Skip', the team leader who goes last. Play alternates between teams with each team throwing one stone per turn. Generally, each player will play two turns in a row, throwing both of his stones before the next player on his team gets his turn.

The object of the game is to get as many stones as possible closer to the center of the target than the opposing team's stones. As each player 'throws' his stone, two players from his team are allowed to precede, but not touch, the stone with brooms. The brooms remove any debris from the track in front of the stone, and by applying pressure, warm the ice slightly reducing the friction which allows the stone to travel farther.

When both teams have thrown all eight stones, that's an 'end' or round. The team which has the stone closest to the center receives one point for each stone closer to the center than the opposing team's closest stone. Only one team can score on each end. Play resumes from the opposite end of the playing field back to the starting point. An end generally takes about fifteen to twenty minutes. Social games are played to eight ends. Tournament games are played to ten ends. Additional ends may be played to break ties.