The women of Scotland needed more than brave hearts to fight for their place in the football world. In a nation famed for its devotion to the game, female players were forced to resist centuries of verbal and physical abuse and an authority that met them with ignorance and, in fact, disapproval. Nowadays, the women’s game is a prominent part of Scotland’s cultural consciousness, but to get to this point, it had to negotiate a long and rocky way. The story of Scottish women’s football is one of resistance, grit and determination in the face of hostility and adversity.
The acclaimed oldest football in the world was discovered in Scotland and incidentally, it was connected to a woman – and a very famous one at that. During renovation works at Stirling Castle in the 1970s, a leather football with a pig’s bladder interior was found in the roof space of the Queen’s Chamber. The ball has been dated to the 1540s when none other than Mary, Queen of Scots inhabited the room. It is uncertain if Mary herself actually played football or if there is an entirely different backstory to the discovery. Either way, it is a nice wee anecdote to start off on and a fitting analogy for Scottish women’s football which too goes way back but has only really come to life quite recently.
Women’s participation in football in Scotland can be traced back to at least 1628 and some even suggest that the origins of the women’s game are in fact located in Scotland. Folk football, a forerunner of the game as it is known today, was a regular part of celebrations on local fair day holidays. Women took part in these activities and indeed, in football specifically. Already back then, football had – and routinely braved – its adversaries. Carstairs minister Mr John Lindsay noted his disapproval of football being played on a Sunday in his parish in the Presbytery of Lanark Registers kirk records: “Having regretted the break of the Sabbath by the insolent behaviour of men and women in footballing, dancing and Barley Breaks, ordains every Brother to labour to restrain the foresaid insolence and break of Sabbath and to that effect to make intimation thereof into their several kirks next Sabbath day.” In other words, Mr John Lindsay was one of the first advocates of a football ban, but at least that one targeted everyone and not just women.
There are even reports of regular local tournaments between the married and unmarried local women. An annual competition up the hills around Inverness is said to have been staged in the early eighteenth century. A freshly stuffed animal bladder was used as a ball, trees served as goal-posts and men, proving that they always manged to make football about themselves, lined the field to either cheer on their wives or choose their future brides. Fisherwomen in particular were linked to such tournaments with records of events taking place in Mid-Lothian, Inveresk and Musselburgh. Rev Dr Alexander Carlisle wrote about the Inveresk activities in 1795: “As [the fishwives] do the work of men, their manners are masculine and their strength and activity is equal to their work. Their amusements are more of the masculine kind.” This quote underlines that already back then, despite the widespread female participation in football, the game was considered to be categorically male.
The prominent female interest and participation led up to what was not only the first international game played using football association rules in Scotland but also the first in the world. On 7 May 1881 Scotland and England faced each other at Easter Road in Edinburgh, although, at the time, neither side was formally endorsed by their respective national football authority. Around 1000 spectators attended in Edinburgh to witness another encounter between the old enemies. Despite the considerable interest, the match was widely coined as an entertainment event rather than a serious sporting competition. The Glasgow Herald reported at the time and described the Scottish team as looking “smart in blue jerseys, white knickerbockers, red belts and high heeled boots”. The crucial thing to note, of course, is that Scotland walked out 3-0 winners.
Another two games were scheduled with the first taking place a week later at Shawfield Grounds in Glasgow. This time, around 5000 spectators showed up, but what they witnessed was far from pretty. The Nottinghamshire Guardian reported: “What will probably be the first and last exhibition of a female football match in Glasgow took place on Monday evening … The meagre training of the teams did not augur much for proficiency of play and if the display of football tactics was of a sorry description, it was only what might have been expected and not much worse than some of the early efforts of our noted football clubs.” It is good on the Nottinghamshire Guardian to draw parallels to the bumpy beginnings of men’s football, but what it fails to mention is that the women were not given a chance that day. The normative attitude was that football was a masculine, working class activity and women should not partake in it. A lot of people were therefore not best pleased and crucially, threatened by women making their way into the game. Tragically, they did not shy away from expressing their disapproval. The match descended into chaos and eventually had to be abandoned as the crowd invaded the pitch, disrupted the game and mishandled the players. The third planned fixture was cancelled as a result and while the women’s game continued in England, it widely went into a lengthy hiatus up north.
Nevertheless, a few teams, prominently from Down South, pushed women’s football towards a more organised manner and are known to have also toured around Scotland during the 1890s. The first match played under football association guidelines, albeit without formal authority endorsement, in Scotland took place in 1892 at Shawfield Grounds, Glasgow. Reactions mirrored and essentially reinforced wider societal attitudes with media reports describing proceedings as “the most degrading spectacle we have ever witnessed in connection with football”. The Original Lady Footballers even took on a team of men, understood to have come from Bathgate, at King’s Park Football Club in Stirling in June 1896. The game ended in a draw and yet the local newspaper described it as “farcical; the ladies making little attempt to play the game seriously and the other side took matters very easily”. Cynicism from the press was no rarity with a report of the game between the British Ladies Football Team and the London Casuals at Cappielow Park in Greenock on New Year’s Day 1895 mentioning: “One of the full-backs was suspected of playing in her brother’s knickers. The fair player was frequently asked for the name of her tailor.”
The obvious contempt culminated in 1902 when the English Football Association (FA) warned its member clubs to not play charitable matches against “ladies teams” or to allow women to play in their stadia. The Scottish Football Association (SFA) immediately carried out said warning as well and women across Britain once more faced considerable headwind.
The outbreak of World War I brought opportunity to Scotland’s women who filled the jobs of men sent to the front, particularly in local armament factories which gave them the name “munitionettes”. As a side product, this opened the doors to new leisure pursuits – including football. The sport was still considered masculine, but women were encouraged to play in their breaks at the factory, albeit at least partially to improve their general fitness and equip them better for the heavy manual labour they were now carrying out. Nevertheless, these localised “kick abouts” led to teams beginning to form. Much like their male counterparts, the “munitionette teams” began to play against each other all across Scotland. The first large-scale Scottish munitionette competition took place at Glasgow’s Celtic Park in August 1917. There also were international fixtures with Scotland taking on England in March 2018 at Celtic Park. They lost 4-0 but triumphed in the return leg a couple of weeks later in Barrow. The munitionette games were played to raise money for war charities with the Glasgow Bulletin noting that the 1918 International raised £200 for war relief which equals more than £11600 nowadays. These matches were well-accepted in both society and the press as they contributed to the war effort and for the first time since playing folk football on fair day holidays, women practising the sport were met with something that came close to approval.
The munitionettes continued to compete in the interwar period across Britain and there was enough participation to form local teams and leagues. Earnings still went towards war relief charities and crowds in their thousands were attracted to the matches. The growth and professionalisation even warranted the organisation of games further afield and a ground-breaking fixture between Aberdeen and Belfast took place during Christmas Week in 1920. However, the end of World War I had brought with it a, predominantly male, desire to return to the pre-war societal status quo and the connected demarked roles of women and men. Women were expected to return to their pre-war occupations and more ladylike pursuits. Crucially, they were supposed to stop playing football. Arguments were raised about the sport being too physically demanding, physically dangerous and unfeminine. Ultimately, the football authorities established two main reasons to justify their campaign against the women’s game: the money made at the charity matched was being misappropriated (although there never was any evidence to substantiate this claim) and football in itself was simply “unsuitable for females”. The FA implemented a UK-wide ban on women’s football in 1921, a policy that was subsequently adopted by the SFA in 1949. This official disapproval of female participation in football prohibited women in Scotland from playing on any pitches of SFA clubs or use SFA registered referees. Local teams were pressured into withdrawing access to football grounds and changing facilities, severely restricting the ability of many women to play. The development of the women’s game was substantially retarded and it was not until the end of the 1930s that large numbers of women’s clubs reformed and sought out non-SFA affiliated pitches to play on. In 1970, the women’s teams contested their first edition of the Scottish Cup, a national knockout competition well established in the men’s game since almost 100 years prior. Stewarton Thistle won the premier staging of the tournament with a 4-2 victory over Aberdeen Prima Donnas. The Scottish Women’s Cup has since been held every year until the Covid-19 pandemic brought an enforced halt to it in 2020.
After two unofficial women’s world cups in 1970 and -71, UEFA increasingly felt that women’s football needed to be formally recognised and an international structure needed to be developed. They brought the European national associations together in 1971 to grant the women’s game formal recognition. The associations voted 31 to 1 in favour of the suggestion – the one contra voice shamefully coming from Scotland. But ever undaunted and inherently Scottish, the established women’s teams in Scotland defied the SFA’s hostility and formed their own organisation instead in 1972, the Scottish Women’s Football Association (SWFA). Despite now having a recognised authority and being eligible for international games, the Scottish players still didn’t have it easy and the SFA tried their best to hinder their progress by keeping up the stadia ban. Elsie Cook, the first secretary of the SWFA recalls that the girls used fishing nets as goal nets and put newspapers down their socks to act as shin guards.
Two months after the foundation of the SWFA, the Scotland squad headed to their first-ever international match. In accordance with the general dramaturgy of the story, that game, of course, could have only been played against one opponent: England, the Auld Enemy herself. With official stadia still being off the cards, the fixture was set to take place at Ravenscraig Stadium, an athletics facility in Greenock near Glasgow. Getting to the venue already proved the first challenge for the Scotland players. When their team transport didn’t arrive, Elsie Cook stopped a furniture van and asked the driver if he could take them to Greenock. Sitting on sofas and other bits of furniture and giggling all the way, the squad headed towards the Firth of Clyde. Rose Reilly, one of the players, later said she would have travelled on a donkey or a horse if she had to, so eager were she and the rest of the team to play. The Scotland team captained by Margaret McAuley Rae descended onto the park wearing tops with Scotland badges that Elsie Cook had paid for and sewed on herself. It was bitterly cold, the pitch was icy and half the game took place in a snow storm. England’s Sylvia Gore opened the scoring before Scotland swiftly took the lead through Mary Carr and Rose Reilly. Two further goals from Lynda Hale and Jeannie Allott decided the match 3-2 in the visitors’ favour, but the defeat could not overthrow Scotland’s achievement and pride. Since the SFA did not recognise the women’s side at the time, it took an astonishing 47 years until the Scotland players formally received international caps for the game.
1972 also saw the first domestic league season kick off with six teams registered for competition: Aberdeen, Edinburgh Dynamos, Westthorn United – who eventually won the campaign – Motherwell AEI, Dundee Strikers and Stewarton Thistle.
Years of bravery and resilience finally and formally paid off in 1974 when the SFA’s hand was forced and they grudgingly gave official recognition to the women’s game. The SWFA had widely established themselves in a relatively short amount of time due to their international outing and two of their member clubs, Stewarton Thistle and Westthorn United, reaching the finals of the FA Women’s Cup in 1972 and -73, making it impossible for the SFA to suppress them anymore. Societal attitudes were also changing and the common narrative was no longer a predominantly male one. Calls for equality put pressure on companies and the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act by Westminster in 1975 put an end to at least the most blatant displays of misogyny. The SFA assumed direct responsibility for Scottish women’s football in 1998, although this was more of a starting shot than a finish line of a marathon towards equality.
The domestic league continued to develop and professionalise until the Scottish Women’s Football League (SWFL) was introduced in 1999. At the time, the SWFL was the highest level of competition in the country, but that only lasted until 2002. Aiming to introduce a more professional attitude and to increase media interest, the top 12 SWFL teams broke away to form the Scottish Women’s Premier League (SWPL) as the new top division. The SWFL still operates as the third tier, split into two regionalised leagues (North and South), and the fourth tier, consisting of three regionalised leagues (West, Central and East), of the Scottish league system. The SWPL took over as top tier and initially operated as a single division of twelve teams. Kilmarnock became the first SWPL champions in 2002-03 followed by Hibernian and Glasgow City. Hibernian secured back-to-back trophies in 2005-06 and 2006-07 before Glasgow City went on a dominant winning streak and bagged their incredible 15th title at the end of the 2020-21 season. The league introduced a two-division format with the creation of the SWPL2 in 2015 and operates that system to this day. 10 clubs compete in the SWPL1 for the league title and a direct qualification for the UEFA Women’s Champions League Round of 32, granted to the top two teams. Another seven clubs play for promotion in the SWPL2.
Scotland’s National Team went from strength to strength too and only narrowly missed qualification for the European Championships in 2009 and 2013. They finally succeeded and stormed into the tournament in 2017 after winning seven of their eight qualifying matches. The journey reached its present pinnacle when the Scottish squad under Shelley Kerr qualified for their first world cup in 2019, a feat that Scotland, women or men, hadn’t achieved for 20 years. “Our Girls, Our Game” became a popular slogan and although the campaign ended in the group stages, the players had pushed women’s football into its rightful place in Scotland’s cultural consciousness.
The current SFA chief executive Ian Maxwell invited the women who took to the pitch at Ravenscraig all those years ago to Hampden Park in 2019 and publicly apologised to them. He promised the sport would now get the attention and investment it deserves. After years of verbal and physical abuse, women’s football is gradually becoming just football, dropping the previously obligatory preface. An historic broadcast deal was introduced in 2021 that guarantees at least one match of each SWPL round to be shown live and free-to-air on BBC Alba. The Scottish women’s and men’s National Teams share the same social media accounts and Hampden Park, the men’s side’s national stadium since 1906, has been named the regular home ground of the women’s team too in July 2021. Crucially, the visibility and popularity of the women’s game is sparking participation and breaking down barriers. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said in the wake of the 2019 World Cup: “There is no doubt that young girls across the country now have footballing role models in the way that their male peers have had for generations.”
In many ways the story of women’s football in Scotland mirrors the history of the country itself. Centuries of oppression by a self-proclaimed superior power, relentless resistance and the bravery to fight for equality and freedom. They may take our stadia access, but they’ll never take our football. The women’s game’s story is one to be proud of and one that should feature prominently in Scotland’s cultural heritage – not only is it a tale of inherently Scottish values, historic records after all suggest Scotland as the birthplace of female participation in football.
Like most countries, Scotland still has work to do to achieve outright equality. But the nation is finally on the right path and if history proves anything, it is that the Scots will not stop to fight until they have reached their targets.