CGS Turns 90: The Origin of Team Scotland

April 30, 2021

On 30 April 1931 the Scottish National Sports Federation was formed to lead Scotland’s involvement in what would come to be known as the Commonwealth Games. 90 years on and now known as Commonwealth Games Scotland, we continue to support, prepare and lead Team Scotland at the Commonwealth Games and Commonwealth Youth Games. To celebrate our anniversary, we are delighted to share this blog from Professor Richard Haynes on the origins of Team Scotland…

Scotland’s involvement in the Commonwealth Games goes all the way back to the origin of the first British Empire Games in 1930. The reasons why Scotland had a separate team for the Games rather than a Great Britain team, as was the case for the Olympic Games, has its roots in the political manoeuvres of a Canadian journalist. Scotland’s sport administrators of  the time quickly moved to establish what we now know as Team Scotland.

There had been musings of a pan-Empire sporting festival in the late-Nineteenth century proposed by Sir Astley Cooper in The Times in 1891, but the formation of the Olympic Games in 1896 effectively undermined the idea. The concept resurfaced following an inter-Empire sport competition as part of the Festival of Empire in 1911, but the First World War soon destroyed those thoughts.

In the shadow of the First World War, and wanting to develop its independent profile, the Canadians saw sport as an important vehicle of both international diplomacy and influence. Canadians had been key advocates of the introduction of the first Winter Olympic Games in 1924 and had also proposed the idea of introducing lacrosse as a ‘demonstration sport’ in the Summer Olympic Games in 1928. It was during those Games in Amsterdam that the Canadian’s proposed the introduction of a British Empire Games to a small group of track and field administrators to be hosted in 1930, in an alternate cycle to Olympic years.

Driving forward the idea for an Empire Games was Canadian journalist and sport administrator Bobby Robinson who had secured the support of his hometown of Hamilton to host the first games. In the midst of trade wars between the United States and Canada, Robinson turned to the idea of using sport to strengthen Canadian ties to the British Empire and self-governing  states of the emerging Commonwealth of Nations formed under the Balfour Declaration in 1926. Although an Empire Games would be “designed on an Olympic model” he remarked:

“These games will be very different. They should be merrier and less stern and will substitute the stimulus of a novel adventure for the pressure of international rivalry.”

Australian, New Zealand and South African representatives agreed to confer with their respective federations, but the British were less convinced of the idea. Through the 1920s strong Olympic performance had come to signify the prestige of the British Empire and the British Olympic Association were concerned a competing international event would undermine fund-raising efforts to send a British team to the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. As Robinson later wrote, “the support from the leaders of the Old Country was but lukewarm – the result of a thought that an effort was being made to supersede Olympic competitions with a purely Empire show.”

Robinson made plans to travel to London with the aim of reassuring the BOA and associate members that their concerns were unfounded. He took with him the promise of $30,000 in travel grants from the people of Hamilton who had paid an additional ‘Games’ tax to fund the event. Although Robinson was persuasive, the BOC remained steadfast in their opposition.

A newspaper clipping in the CGS Archive from The Evening Dispatch in  February 1930 carries the headline, “A Team For Canada: Inducements for Scots to Go Separately”. The article reports on a meeting of various Scottish sporting bodies on 25th February 1930 in Edinburgh to consider the prospect of joining the Empire Games being set up in Canada. It reported that, “the Canadians want a separate Scottish team, and are prepared to help financially if one can be got together”.

Bobby Robinson as the instigator of the Games addressed members of the Scottish sports federations in the Free Gardeners Hall, Picardy Place, Edinburgh. James Warlaw, president of the Scottish Amateur Athletics Association presided over the meeting, where the initial idea for the Games to be exclusively based on track and field events was overturned following pressure from representatives of boxing, wrestling, rowing, swimming, lawn bowls, tennis, yachting and football for inclusion of their sports.

They had estimated the cost for sending each competitor from Scotland would be £60 per athlete, with a total £200 being donated by the Canadians. The article states: “The United Kingdom is now in the show with both feet. When the national committee was formed in London, the idea was to have a British team. They (the Canadians) had rather surprised them by saying that it was Canada’s desire to have teams from England, Scotland, Ireland, and possibly Wales.” The Canadian move to ‘divide and conquer’ had won the day and smoothed the way for the creation of a Scottish representative team.

The 1930 team was hurriedly put together with next to no financial resources, and heavily dependent on the generosity of the Canadian hosts in Hamilton. The photograph is one of a few surviving images of Scottish competitors at the inaugural British Empire Games of 1930. At this time, there was no overarching federation of Scottish sports associations, so a lot of trust and faith fell upon team manager George Ferguson who was one of Scotland’s most prominent amateur sports administrators of the era.

On 6th August 1930 the Scottish team consisting of 13 competitors, team officials, and Ferguson, left Liverpool on route to Montreal aboard the Cunard liner Andania. Two months earlier, the same liner had taken Glasgow Rangers across the Atlantic on a tour of North America, and now for eight days was home to the Scottish British Empire Games team. Recalling the journey in 1970, athlete Dunky Wright remembered how the athletes kept fit during the cruise:

We were happy and excited at the thoughts of taking part in a pioneering adventure. The crew responded quickly to our mood and made a temporary swimming pool by stretching a huge tarpaulin across the hold with each corner fixed to an iron stanchion and filled with seawater. In it, the bonnie lasses of our swim team wiggled like tadpoles in a bowl right across the Atlantic. We all had our different ways of keeping in trim. For my part, I pounded round the top deck, taking the corners in the Charlie Chaplin manner, for a couple of hours each morning. The ‘heavies’ and the boxers did their training in the gym, encouraged by friendly passengers who were also willing to have a go.

Wright, one of Scotland’s most successful long-distance runners appearing in three Olympic Games would go on to win gold in the marathon. Canadian journalist and writer M. McIntyre Hood later recalled the moment Wright entered the Hamilton stadium and a rather unusual happening in international competitive sport:

 “After a lapse of 40 years, it is not possible to recapture in memory all of the thrilling moments of the 1930 Games, but a few still linger. Greatest of all is the memory of the tremendous ovation given to Scotland’s Duncan Wright as he entered the stadium to finish the gruelling marathon race, half a mile ahead of his nearest competitor, Ferris of England. Hamilton is noted as being a city with a predominance of Scots in its population. The ‘Hampden roar’ has nothing on the tremendous wave of cheering which arose as Duncan ran around the stadium. As he was passing the stadium entrance on his second lap, Ferris entered, and stopped to shake Dunky’s hand in congratulation before going on to take second place.

The only female representatives sent to the first Games in 1930 were Warrender swimmers Jessie McVey, Cissie Stewart and Jean McDowall, and former club member Ellen King. King won individual silver in the women’s 100 yard freestyle and bronze in the 200 yard breaststroke. She won a further bronze medal in the Scottish 4×100 yard relay team with Stewart, McDowell and McVey.

Scotland’s other medals in the Games included a silver for Willie Francis in the 100 yard backstroke, in boxing, gold for James Rolland (Lightweight), silver for Tommy Holt (Bantamweight) and bronze for Alex Lyons (Featherweight), and a bronze for the Scottish bowling fours. The Scottish bowling team included a Canadian, Tom Chambers, who was brought in as a replacement for John Kennedy who sadly died in the United States during the journey to Hamilton.

It was not until after the first British Empire Games, on 30th April 1931, that the new Scottish National Sports Federation (now Commonwealth Games Scotland) was formed, its first Chair was Dr John Orr, who had captained the Scottish bowls team in Hamilton. It’s first Secretary, George Ferguson, took delight in the knowledge that Scotland had formalised its association with the British Empire Games ahead of his English counterparts. In a letter to Evan Hunter of the English federation in April 1932, Ferguson writes:

“I am delighted to hear that England is at last awake and about to follow the good example of Scotland and form a Council for England of the Empire Games Federation. I accordingly, and with the compliments of Scotland, send to our weaker brother a copy of our Constitution with the advice “Go ye and do likewise”.

A fantastic bit of bravura from the Scot to the English administrators of sport. The letter notes a general agreement to form a Federation as early as 1928, and certainly by 1930, but that a constitutional arrangement was not in place until 1932 when they met at the Los Angeles Olympic Games. The first ever meeting of the Council of the British Federation took place in London in January 1933.

So the answer to the question, ‘why Team Scotland?’, is that the British Olympic movement, which was dominated by the English, was usurped by the Canadian journalist and sports administrator Bobby Robinson in his attempts to rally support for the Empire Games in Hamilton by directly engaging the Scots, Welsh and Irish to establish their own teams and circumvent any attempts of blocking the Games by the English.

Professor Richard Haynes

April 2021

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