Early Golf: A Q & A with Neil S. Millar


‘It’s true that there is a single contemporary historical document claiming that Mary acted inappropriately by playing golf shortly after the murder of her husband. However, this is a document that was drawn up by Mary’s enemies, with the aim of discrediting her prior to her trial and execution in England.’

Throughout the history of golf, there are numerous myths and misconceptions – Neil Millar challenges these by revisiting the evidence supporting the sport’s earliest history, showcasing how the game blossomed in Scotland and its spread across subsequent centuries. We talk to Neil to learn a bit more about the history of golf, and the truth behind some of these most enduring myths. 


Early Golf: Royal Myths and Ancient Histories
By Neil S Millar
Published by Edinburgh University Press 

Can you tell us more about what we can expect from Early Golf? 

Early Golf (which is subtitled ‘Royal Myths and Ancient Histories’) is a book that aims to dispel some of the widespread and popular myths associated with the early history of the game. The book’s primary focus is the period from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, when golf flourished in Scotland and was subsequently exported from Scotland to other parts of the world. 


What drew you to this topic? Have you always had an interest in golf? 

By profession, I’m a scientist (a Professor of Molecular Pharmacology) but I’ve had a long-standing interest in the history of golf and I’ve read numerous accounts of the game’s early history. I became increasingly frustrated by the frequent repetition by many golf writers of anecdotes that were rarely, if ever, accompanied by the citation of supporting documentary evidence. This book re-examines and reassess the evidence, with the aim of providing a reliable account of early golf history.  


You say yourself that fact-checking the early history of a sport can be laborious but can also reveal fascinating new information – what do you enjoy about the process of diving deep into these histories? How do you approach a topic so vast? 

Trawling through early written documents in libraries and archives can certainly be time consuming. However, finding long-forgotten historical evidence is exhilarating and is also very rewarding. Recent advances in the digitisation of historical records and the better cataloguing of historical archives have meant that undertaking the research for this book was considerably less daunting than it might otherwise have been. The starting point for topics discussed in the book was, typically, prompted by unsubstantiated claims that had been made by previous writers and then repeated in numerous subsequent publications. 


The book challenges myths and misconceptions about golf, including Mary Queen of Scots’ supposed love of the sport – what are some notions people have had about golf and its history that aren’t quite true? How did they come to be believed? 

With Mary Queen of Scots, it’s more of a case of writers making unsubstantiated and increasingly exaggerated claims. It’s true that there is a single contemporary historical document claiming that Mary acted inappropriately by playing golf shortly after the murder of her husband. However, this is a document that was drawn up by Mary’s enemies, with the aim of discrediting her prior to her trial and execution in England. It’s a document that is now seen as providing an unreliable account of Mary’s activities. But, despite this, there have been claims that Mary played golf in some twenty different locations in Scotland. The claims concerning Mary’s enthusiasm for golf have become increasingly exaggerated and, at times, almost absurd. It has even been claimed that she designed the Old Course in St Andrews. This is a good example of the romanticisation of golf history. 


Your research is underpinned by historical documents, many of which are included throughout; are there any documents or historical artefacts that you found particularly interesting or pertinent to the topic that stand out, or that you enjoyed learning more about? 

Of particular significance is a letter that was written in 1513 by Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of King Henry VIII. This letter, which still survives in the British Library, has long been seen as providing evidence that golf was played in England (as opposed to Scotland) about a hundred years earlier than might otherwise have been thought. It is a claim that has been repeated endlessly but it is a story that arose as a consequence of a transcriptional error that was made in the nineteenth century when attempting to decipher the letter’s sixteenth-century handwriting. The letter was assumed to contain a reference to Catherine of Aragon being ‘busy with the golf’ but, on re-examination, it’s clear that she wrote ‘busy with the Scots’ (Catherine was writing about preparations for a forthcoming battle between England and Scotland). Whereas there are written references to ‘golf’ in Scotland in the 1400s, there is no evidence of golf being played in England before the union of the Scottish and English crowns in the early 1600s. 


The book, naturally, focuses on the early days of golf and its origins – how do you think the sport has evolved over the centuries? What roots of the game can you see in these earliest records? 

Although the first part of Early Golf takes a chronological approach and focusses primarily on the re-examination of myths that are associated with early golf history, the second part of the book is more thematic and addresses issues relevant to how the game has evolved. This includes a discussion of the origins of golf societies (and their claimed foundation dates), the development of women’s golf and the evolution of golf balls and clubs. The final couple of chapters address two particularly contentious topics: whether golf has its origins in Scotland and the extent to which early golf in Scotland may have been influenced by early stick-and-ball game played in other countries.  


What do you hope readers take from Early Golf? 

I hope that readers of Early Golf will discover that golf is a game with a long and a fascinating history, but that much of what has been written about early golf in popular histories is incorrect. 


Early Golf: Royal Myths and Ancient Histories by Neil S Millar is published by Edinburgh University Press, priced £24.99.

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