Author: Sandrine Wyndrich
The acclaimed oldest football in the world was discovered in Scotland and incidentally, it was connected to a woman. 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. Said ball has been dated to the 1540s when none other than Mary, Queen of Scots inhabited the room. Although it is uncertain if Mary herself actually played football or if there is an entirely different backstory to the discovery, it serves as a nice anecdote to start off on and as a fitting analogy for Scottish women’s football which too goes way back and experienced resurgence in more recent times. 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. In a nation famed for its devotion to the game, female players resisted centuries of adversity with grit and determination, fighting an authority that met them with ignorance and, in fact, hostility.
Women’s participation in football can be traced back to at least 1628 in Scotland and some even suggest that the origins of the women’s game are indeed Caledonian. Folk football, a forerunner of the game as it is known today, was a regular part of celebrations on local fair day holidays and women famously took part in these activities. Already back then football had – and routinely braved – its adversaries. Mr John Lindsay, local minister in Carstairs, Lanarkshire, noted his disapproval of the game being played on a Sunday in his parish: ‘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,’ it read in the Presbytery of Lanark Registers kirk records. In other words, Mr John Lindsay was one of the first advocates of a football ban, although his suggestion at least targeted everyone participating in the game, not just women. Other evidence documents annual local tournaments played between the married and unmarried local women up the hills around Inverness 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. The earliest report of a formal women’s football game in Scotland, however, was discovered in The Berwick Museum, a literary magazine, and recounts a match between the ladies teams of Lennel and Coldstream, located in the Scottish Borders. Titled ‘The World Turned Topsy-Turvey’, the article describes the women as playing with ‘uncommon keenness’ on Ash Wednesday of 1786. Fisherwomen in particular were linked to early women’s football tournaments with records of events taking place in Inveresk, Musselburgh, and other locations in Midlothian. 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.
Fuelled by the prominent female interest and participation as well as by the efforts of theatre entrepreneur Alexander Gordon, the early development of the women’s game culminated in what was not only the first international match played using football association rules in Scotland but indeed in the world. On 7 May 1881 Scotland and England faced each other at Easter Road, Edinburgh. Notably, the branding as Scotland versus England was by name more than nationality and served to create interest with no formal endorsement from either national football authority and some players even changing sides in the subsequent fixture. Records further suggest that a substantial amount of the players were of a theatrical rather than a footballing persuasion, their occupations listed as actors, dancers, or ballerinas, which underlines the influence of Gordon and his artistic contemporaries in fostering the women’s game. Around 1000 spectators attended in Edinburgh to witness the encounter, but despite the considerable interest, the match was widely coined as an entertainment event rather than a serious sporting competition. Reporting at the time, The Glasgow Herald described the Scottish team as looking ‘smart in blue jerseys, white knickerbockers, red belts and high heeled boots’. Although some may have chosen to focus their attention elsewhere, the spectators were treated to an entertaining footballing display. While the England side had the brighter start to the game, Lily St Claire eventually broke the deadlock for Scotland and became the first recorded goal scorer in women’s football history – she is likely to have toured as a stage actress and singer under the name Lillian Davis. Henceforth, the game swung firmly in Scottish favour and Louisa Cole added a second goal before Maud Rimeford secured a 3-0 win. Another two games were scheduled with the first taking place a week later at Shawfield Grounds in Rutherglen near Glasgow. Alas, what the spectators witnessed this time round 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.’ The Nottinghamshire Guardian can be commended for drawing parallels to the bumpy beginnings of the men’s game, but what it fails to mention is that the female footballers were not given a chance that day. The normative attitude of football being a masculine, working class activity and unsuitable for women meant a lot of people were outraged and, crucially, threatened by women making their way into the game. Regrettably, 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 in Kilmarnock was subsequently cancelled and the tour moved south of the border where they continued to play as Scotland versus England (or now rather England versus Scotland).
Despite the adversity, a number of teams, prominently from Down South, continued to push women’s football towards a more organised manner and are known to have also toured around Scotland during the 1890s. In the face of resentment, the first match played under football association guidelines in Scotland took place in 1892 at Shawfield Grounds in Rutherglen, albeit without formal authority endorsement. Alas, reactions mirrored and effectively reinforced wider societal attitudes with media reports describing proceedings as ‘the most degrading spectacle we have ever witnessed in connection with football’. Still, teams continued to appear across Scottish grounds, among them women’s football pioneers such as British Ladies FC, Mrs Graham XI versus London & District, and the Original Lady Footballers who even took on a squad of men, understood to have come from Bathgate, at King’s Park Football Club, Stirling in June 1896. Although the game ended in a draw, the local newspaper derogatively 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 on the game between the British Ladies and the London Casuals at Cappielow Park, 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 for the women’s game 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. Still, the women’s game made its scattered appearance with records for instance showing a Scotland versus Ireland match staged at the 1909 International Imperial Exhibition.
The outbreak of World War I brought professional opportunities for Scotland’s women who filled the occupations of men sent to the front. In particular, positions arose in local armament factories and the female workers flocking in to support the war effort from home were soon christened the ‘munitionettes’. As a side product, this opened the doors to new leisure pursuits – including football. The sport was still considered masculine, but women were now 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 across Scotland. Sides formed all over the country, but the regularity in which these teams played varied significantly. While some formed on an ad hoc basis specifically for events such as workplace fun days, other outfits frequently faced their local rivals. The munitionette teams continued to develop and reached a first peak in August 1917 when the first large-scale Scottish tournament took place at Glasgow’s Celtic Park. Serving to raise funds for the war effort, the munitionette games were largely well-accepted and for the first time since playing folk football on fair day holidays, women practising the sport were met with something resembling approval.
Fixtures are also known to have been staged across the border with the women of the cordite production plant in Gretna taking on munitionette giants Carlisle in June 1917 to raise funds for the local V.A.D. hospitals. Another Galloway team, the Mossband Swifts, even travelled south to participate in a tournament in Maryport held as part of the Alexander Day Sports Fete in August 1917. They returned to Scotland dejected following a 1-0 defeat in the first round to eventual champions Cockermouth but rebuilt their pride a mere month later when drawing with the Carlisle Munition Girls. Interest in the munitionette games was huge and soon organisers jumped at the chance to brand another popular Scotland versus England fixture. Selection matches were staged and a Scottish line-up was drawn from the Renfrewshire Beardmore Company and affiliated works that faced English side Barrow at Celtic Park in March 1918. A crowd of 15,000 witnessed Barrow win 4-0 in Glasgow, but Beardmore retaliated in the return leg at Holker Street where they led 2-1 before a last minute goal tied the game. The Glasgow Bulletin noted that this munitionette international raised £200 for war relief which equals more than £11500 nowadays.
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 matches 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 ban on women’s football in 1921, a policy that, interestingly, was not initially adopted by the SFA. Rather, the Scottish authority held the belief the women’s game would naturally fade away and largely met it with indifference. Although the SFA actively discouraged clubs from holding women’s matches, no sanctions are known to have ever actually been handed out. The same applies to established figures from the men’s game, including players and match officials, who took on officiating roles in women’s matches and do not appear to ever have been sanctioned.
Rutherglen Ladies swiftly developed into the major women’s side in Scotland and dominated the scene under the patronage of John Chatham, a board member of Clyde Football Club, who secured Shawfield as their home ground and organised his own competitions. Rutherglen entertained crowds in the thousands and received substantial media coverage, although the interest gradually dwindled after the initial novelty. A highly anticipated first international match came in October 1922 against Bradford side Hey’s Brewery Girls but ended in disappointment for Rutherglen who suffered a tough 3-0 defeat in front of a big crowd at home. Retaliation was not far to seek though and when Rutherglen beat Ayrshire Ladies 4-0 to the Chatham’s Female Football Championship and were effectively crowned Scottish champions in spring 1923, their next challenge was the famous Dick, Kerr’s Ladies team. The Preston outfit had recently declared itself the English champions and the imminent encounter was somewhat Anglocentrically dubbed the match for the world championship. Naturally, the game in September 1923 was well publicised and a host of amazed spectators witnessed how Rutherford stunned the recently strengthened favourites Dick, Kerr’s and took a 2-0 win. Despite the importance of the match, records are scattered and even the team lines are uncertain. Rutherglen played all across Scotland and expanded to Ireland in 1927, constituting tours of a magnitude paralleled only by Dick, Kerr’s and France’s Fémina outfit. Where possible, they faced local teams and contested their own B-side where in situ opponents were unavailable. Soon, the matches were branded as ‘Rutherglen versus Ireland’ or ‘Scotland versus Ireland’ to increase interest, a tactic that certainly worked. The tour was so successful that a team of Irish players subsequently toured Scotland and northern England with Rutherglen and Edinburgh Ladies, among them Winnie McKenna and Molly Seaton, where they maintained the Scotland versus Ireland narrative for their displays. 1928 saw a repeat of the Ireland tour, but by 1929 Rutherglen had suffered a clear, direct impact from economic depression and games were few and far between until 1932. The team was revived with moderate success, but while fortunes were on the wane for Rutherglen, they were on the rise for the newly formed Edinburgh City Ladies Football Club who had taken over as Scotland’s premier women’s team by the time World War II broke out. Scotland and England were now the only places to host more or less formal international women’s games and a return of the Anglocentric ‘world championship’ now saw Edinburgh City and Preston, formerly Dick, Kerr’s, compete for the title without the rest of the world participating.
The SFA eventually adopted the FA’s ban on women’s football policy in 1949, prohibiting females 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 took great effort for clubs to reform and seek out non-SFA affiliated pitches to play on. Nevertheless, women braved the SFA’s ongoing and now formal disapproval. Already back in the 1930s, Linda Clements, at the time playing for Edinburgh Lady Dynamos, remarked: ‘The SFA don’t recognise us – they don’t like us playing but we shall carry on and soon there will be many more women’s teams in the country. Already there are more than six in Scotland.’ Despite the formal ban, she would be right. Research found that 36 teams played regularly across Scotland during the 1960s, leading to the formation of an informal six-team national league in 1968. By 1972 the domestic league had an official structure with Aberdeen, Edinburgh Dynamos, Westthorn United – the eventual first national champions – Motherwell AEI, Dundee Strikers, and Stewarton Thistle competing, and the number of participants rose to 14 by 1978. Teams were established in local communities, often workplaces, and played regularly to scout the best line-ups that would ultimately join the national league. Gradually, a cohesive women’s football community developed in Scotland and laid the foundations for the structures we know today.
Crossing the border, a number of Scottish teams were involved in the inaugural Butlin’s Cup 1969, a women’s tournament involving regional competitions hosted by Butlin’s holiday resort chain and a grand finale held in London. Butlin’s Heads of Ayr camp hosted the Scottish competition with participants such as Bowden Ladies from Fife or Forth Valley Bluebirds from Stirling, but unsurprisingly, the tournament culminated in a clash between Scotland’s top sides Stewarton Thistle and Westthorn United. However, with Thistle star player Rose Reilly side-lined, Westthorn took a fairly uncontested 5-1 win. They earned the right to head to Willesden Sports Ground in North London for the final where they held Cheshire side Foden to a 0-0 draw after extra time. In a tight replay in Greenock Foden had the edge and secured the title with a 1-0 win. The following year saw a repeat of the Butlin’s Cup showdown between Westthorn and Foden. Once more, nothing much could separate the teams, but yet again Foden came out on the better side of a 2-1 at Manchester’s Belle Vue stadium. The Butlin’s Cup was subsequently discontinued and ‘replaced’ by the Women’s Football Association’s British Isles Mitre Trophy.
Meanwhile domestically, the first edition of the women’s Scottish Cup was contested in 1970, a national knockout competition well established in the men’s game since almost 100 years prior. Stewarton Thistle took the historic honour of winning the premier staging of the tournament with a 4-2 victory over Aberdeen Prima Donnas. Ever since, the Scottish Women’s Cup has been held every year, except for an enforced break in the 2020-21 and the 2021-22 seasons due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
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. Subsequently, they brought the European national associations together in 1971 to grant the women’s game formal recognition. The associations voted 31 to one in favour of the suggestion – the one contra voice shamefully coming from Scotland. But ever undaunted and inherently Scottish, the established domestic women’s teams defied the SFA’s hostility and formed their own organisation instead: in 1972 the Scottish Women’s Football Association (SWFA) was born. Despite now having a recognised authority and being eligible for international games, things still were far from easy for the Scottish players 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 did not 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, Scotland’s star player, later recounted she would have travelled on a donkey or a horse if she had to, so eager were she and her teammates 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.
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 a number of international outings and two of their member clubs, Stewarton Thistle and Westthorn United, reaching the finals of the FA Women’s Cup in 1972 and -73. This widespread recognition as well as the impending introduction of the Sex Discrimination Bill made it impossible for the SFA to suppress the women’s game any longer. Societal attitudes were changing and the common narrative was no longer a predominantly male one. Increasing calls for equality put pressure on companies and the eventual 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 it only lasted at the top 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 first 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 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, promising 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 guaranteed 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 goals.