Curling in the Grisons, about 1940.
Curling in the Grisons, about 1940. Swiss National Museum / ASL

From Scottish gentlemen to the «Eisgenossinnen»

How a traditional game from Scotland became a glamour sport in Switzerland, and then went back to being a traditional game ‘of the people’: A brief history of curling in Switzerland

Simon Engel

Simon Engel

Simon Engel is a historian and is responsible for public relations work at Swiss Sports History.

Sports historians are often asked about the origin of a particular sport. Frequently, however, these origins are very vague, as is the case with curling. A painting by Pieter Bruegel dating from 1565 shows people playing a kind of curling. However, there are no written references to the rules and prevalence of the game in the Netherlands from this period. All of the earliest evidence comes from Scotland. For example, a process report relating to Bishop John Graham dates from 1638. Graham had desecrated the Sabbath by playing curling: “He was a curler on the ice on the Sabbath day.” Curling was a traditional sport in Scotland very early on; it is believed there were 42 clubs in the 18th century. Curling games were also advertised in the church at times.
Pieter Bruegel: People on the ice.
Pieter Bruegel: People on the ice. Wikimedia
On the other hand, the place and year of birth of curling in Switzerland are clearly recorded, at least if one believes an oral tradition: St Moritz in 1880. Twelve years later, the newspaper Alpine Post & Engadin Express provided the first written verification: “In the days when St Moritz was still in its infancy as a winter health resort, the manager of the Kulm Hotel, Caspar Badrutt, was anxious to make the resort more attractive for sportsmen. A Scottish guest who had noted the climatic and topographic conditions at the resort got wind of his interest, and proposed that the game of curling be introduced. In order to give Herr Badrutt an idea of the game, he sent several curling stones [...] to St Moritz. This gave the interested resort guests the opportunity to try the game, which they did.” Whether you want to believe this story or not, it is certain that Switzerland’s first curlers were Scottish gentlemen who knew the game from their homeland and played it during their winter holidays in Switzerland. So, like many other sports, curling came to Switzerland via tourists from the British Isles. As a result, Switzerland became increasingly popular among those tourists as a curling Mecca, especially because of its keen ice: due to the high altitude the ice had a long lifespan and was of exceptional quality, because the resorts outdid each other in creating artificial ice rinks.
In Arthur Noel Mobbs’ 1929 guide ‘Curling in Switzerland’, tourists found precise details of all existing curling rinks in Switzerland.
In Arthur Noel Mobbs’ 1929 guide ‘Curling in Switzerland’, tourists found precise details of all existing curling rinks in Switzerland. Bildarchiv BASPO
Presentation of the curling personalities in Arthur Noel Mobbs’ ‘Curling in Switzerland’ from 1929: all upper class gentlemen from Great Britain.
Presentation of the curling personalities in Arthur Noel Mobbs’ ‘Curling in Switzerland’ from 1929: all upper class gentlemen from Great Britain. Bildarchiv BASPO
While Swiss names do occasionally crop up in the first registers of members, the vast majority of those listed are members of the British nobility or professional soldiers – there’s barely a rank missing, from captain to admiral. In its early days in Switzerland, curling exuded exclusivity in terms of status and wealth, especially in the context of winter tourism. Initially, curling was not a ‘sport of the people’ as it was in Scotland. Nonetheless, the sport became increasingly popular among the local populace. In the early 1920s the CC Wengen Jungfrau and the CC Engiadina St Moritz were founded, among others. According to its foundation minutes, the new St Moritz Curling Club sought almost to democratise the sport: “The new club shall be open to everyone, not only the English, and shall afford an opportunity to learn the game of curling according to the proper rules and to promote it. It shall under no circumstances be in competition with the old Curling Club St Moritz or be a weapon against that club. On the contrary, friendly competitions shall be held between the two clubs and good relations shall be cultivated.”
Curling match in St Moritz, 1938. YouTube / British Pathé

Slow ‘Swissification’ of the sport

However, one can only speculate as to the precise motivations of those who set up this first club. It was hardly a statement by patriotic ‘Eisgenossen’ with a simultaneous shift away from the elite gentlemanly image, because the Club was intended to be open to “everyone” and, in addition, the clothing and club banquets closely resembled the customs of the British upper class. It is therefore more likely that the local curlers were not admitted to the existing, exclusive curling club, and so they set up their own club. The ‘Swissification’ of curling then progressed slowly; in 1929, of the 40 existing curling clubs only six were so far ‘Swiss’. This didn’t change until the 1950s when, with the building of indoor ice rinks, the aura of exclusivity linking curling with winter health resorts gradually began to break down and the sport became attractive for a broader range of social classes. Because of the long British dominance, it wasn’t until 1942 that the Swiss Curling Association (Schweizerische Curling-Verband, now SWISSCURLING Association) was founded. Until then, the Jackson Cup, initiated by British tourists in 1897, was the equivalent of the Swiss national championship.
Curling for everyone, 1965 in Grindelwald.
Curling for everyone, 1965 in Grindelwald. Wikimedia
On the other hand, curling had less need for democratisation in terms of gender, as photos from as early as around 1900 show women playing the sport. In many sports, women used to be barred by men on the grounds they were physically too weak, but that argument counted for nothing in curling: wits and dexterity are more important than strength, and besides, it fitted nicely with the (male) concept, widespread at that time, of the ‘elegantly athletic woman’. Among the women too, it was female British tourists who first indulged in curling at Switzerland’s winter health resorts. In the 1920s, there were actually three women-only competitions in Switzerland.
‘When ladies curl’: Photographic report on female tourists playing curling in Arthur Noel Mobbs’ 1929 volume ‘Curling in Switzerland’.
‘When ladies curl’: Photographic report on female tourists playing curling in Arthur Noel Mobbs’ 1929 volume ‘Curling in Switzerland’. Bildarchiv BASPO
While curling was more popular among the upper class British women due to their sport-loving social milieu, for the ‘normal’ Swiss female curlers it took a little longer until they were accepted and were able to motivate other women to play. From time to time there were women who became club members thanks to their connections, and broke into the male bastion. Due to the small number of active players, for a long time there were no women’s teams; it wasn’t until 1952 that the first women’s curling club was founded in Grindelwald. There still seemed to be great reluctance among certain curling menfolk, because for seven years the Grindelwald women were denied admission to the Swiss Curling Association (for unknown reasons). Their acceptance increased after it became the norm for top-flight female curlers to represent Switzerland in international competition. And thanks to the comparatively early integration of women, curling is one of the few sports in which mixed-sex teams are standard. With the integration of the country’s women, curling definitively became a people’s sport in Switzerland, edging closer to its ‘origins’ in Scotland. The upper class, meanwhile, has been seeking out new, exclusive types of sport: the game starts all over again.

Swiss Sports History

This text was produced in collaboration with Swiss Sports History, the portal for the history of sports in Switzerland. The portal focuses on education in schools and information for the media, researchers and the general public. Find out more at sportshistory.ch

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