Shrove Tuesday 1895 in Scotland: Cockfighting: Sports of Scholars


– Gameness til the End

Cock fighting and the first ever women’s football match: old Pancake Day traditions in East Lothian

By Ruth Fyfe, archivist, John Gray Centre, Haddington

Fishwives at FIsherrow Harbour circa 1900

WHILE many of us indulged in pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, now probably more familiar as ‘Pancake Day’, in times gone by it would have been more common for Scots to eat beef or beef broth.

The day was known as Fastern’s E’en, when it was customary to feast on meat and eggs and milk, foods which would be forbidden during Lent.

In England, a three-day festival of ‘Shrovetide’ preceded Lent. Writing in Musselburgh in 1889, the Rev A Wright described what he thought was the rather peculiar tradition of eating pancakes: “The day was devoted to eating pancakes and tarts. One funny custom connected with this gluttony of pancakes was that of tossing them in mid air out of the pan before eating them. This and the eating of pancakes was looked upon almost in the light of some great religious observance. Another strange custom was to present the first pancake to the greatest slut or lie-a-bed of the party.”

As well as feasting, Shrovetide was marked by the playing of sports, especially football. One particularly significant fixture that took place on this day was the annual match between the married and the unmarried fishwives of Fisherrow. The best source of information is the entry Rev Dr Alexander Carlisle wrote in the 1795 Statistical Account for the Parish of Inveresk.

He records: “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.

“On holidays they frequently play golf and on Shrove Tuesday there is a standing match at football between the married and unmarried women, at which the former are always victors.”

This is the first known football fixture of teams composed entirely of women. The first records of the women’s game being played south of the Border date from the 19th century and so we can say that the women’s game has its roots firmly in Scotland and East Lothian.

It has been suggested that the fact that the married women always won meant the game was more of a ritual than a competition.

Another sport which was traditionally indulged in on Shrove Tuesday was cock fighting. Cock fighting was a blood sport – a vicious fight between two roosters or gamecocks. Although the sport was banned in Scotland well over 100 years ago, it was very popular in the 18th and early 19th century and every large town would have a cock-pit.

According to a correspondent writing in The Haddingtonshire Courier in 1895, East Lothian meetings were held “in the old riding school at the West Port”, Haddington. It is hard to imagine today, but on Shrove Tuesday schoolboys would bring birds in to fight and the master’s salary would be supplemented by the penny each boy brought in that day.

The correspondent continues: “Every year as Shrovetide approached, the scholars of our schools, both grammar and parish, prepared each one his bird. On Shrove Tuesday the birds were brought to school… the dominie or master presided with unwonted geniality, for he had a most personal interest in the affair. Besides receiving certain fixed sums of money, the ‘cock-penny’, from each scholar, he claimed all the killed and defeated birds or ‘fugies’ as they were called. These, doubtless, kept the worthy pedagogue for many days well supplied with cockie-leekie, than which no finer soup can be imagined.”

If you know of any other local customs or traditions connected to Shrove Tuesday we would love to hear from you. Visit us at the Archive and Local History Centre at the John Gray Centre in Haddington (open Monday, Tuesday and Friday).

poultry gamefowl chicken gamecock

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