Royal St. Luke’s Golf Club (Est. 1603)
As a golfing historian in addition to my secretarial duties here at Royal St Luke’s, I am often asked to give an opinion on matters related to golf’s origins. Now, in his magisterial Golf – Scotland’s Game, Dr. David Hamilton suggests that one of the game’s antecedents was the Roman sport of paganica.
This was a two thousand year old stick-andball affair in which wooden clubs were used to belt a leather ball stuffed with goose feathers. It had been generally believed that paganica had originated in Rome itself – until now.
In this context I have a sensational discovery to report. One of our members is the archaeologist Sir Montague Wheelock who has just returned from a dig at Pompeii where his team unearthed an airtight sarcophagus. Inside was a skeleton clutching a papyrus scroll containing a long-lost section of text from the Histories of the great Roman historian Tacitus. In it was his account of the Imperial Roman Army’s first attempt (the first of many) to subdue the Scots.
Forty years after the Roman invasion of Britannia (England) in AD43 by the Emperor I Claudius, the Legions pushed on into Caledonia (Scotland) to straighten out the locals who had been refusing to be reasonable, i.e. submissive, and had been making offensive hand and lower body gestures at Roman outposts.
It was known that in the summer of AD83, the Roman general Julius Agricola swept up the eastern seaboard and brought the Caledonii, or Scots, and their Highland allies the Picti, or Picts, to battle at a place which Tacitus calls Mons Graupius. Scholars still dispute the location of this international strokeplay event, but the majority favour the Grampian mountain of Bennachie in Aberdeenshire. The Scots army was commanded by Calgacus – the word means ‘swordsman’ – who was the very first Scotsman to have a named identity. He was also the first chief of his race to persuade the shy and intensely artistic Picts to join a coalition against the march of imperial Rome.
The Picti – the Latin word means the painted ones – were experts in the arts of total-body painting and tattooing. They had also perfected, by means of hedgehog quills, the technique of body piercing. This was all very well, said Calgacus to the (literally) colourful Pictish King Brude, but how did they feel about Roman body piercing, and preferably with something more substantial, such as a spear? In the event, the Picts’ military speciality turned out to be camouflage.
Being essentially human artworks, their ability to paint themselves into the landscape and thus vanish proved to be a major reconnaissance asset. Indeed, so adept were the Picts at disguising themselves that the appearance of any human-sized object in the Roman army’s path of advance would trigger a panicky volley of pila, or javelins, from the vanguard. Usually these missiles would simply bounce off the inanimate target, but every now and then it would be the target that bounced off, after delivering a shocking vignette of Roman sexual irregularities.
Tacitus describes how the Scots, lined up thirty thousand strong and painted head to toe with multicoloured woad, sang their tremendous battle hymn:
Hello, hello, how do youse do? We are the
The battle began with a deluge of javelins, cabers and darts from the Scots, followed by a massed infantry charge straight at the legions. The assault was accompanied by the scream of bagpipes and the even louder screams of men in kilts charging without underwear across a field of waist-high thistles.
Alas, it was to no avail. The veteran legionaries held the line, countera-tacked, outflanked the Scots and, in an hour, it was all over. Ten thousand casualties lay on the field and a wounded Calgacus was a prisoner of Rome.
Now, it is of great interest to read in the newly unearthed texts that, back in his camp, Agricola treated his noble captive with courtesy, giving him food and wine in the praetorium, and asking him for his postmortem analysis of the battle. Calgacus had no hesitation in laying the cause of defeat squarely at the door of pagh’anicadh – Latinised by Tacitus to paganica – which in the old Pictish language means ‘golf ’.
The clash at Mons Graupius had itself clashed, apparently, with a major paganica tournament at St. Andrews. The prizes, headed by an old mead jug, included a year’s supply of woad and a sensational holy relic, a metatarsal bone from the left foot of St Andrew. These tremendous trophies had attracted a huge field which, to the fury of Calgacus, had denuded his army of many of its best strikers.
With the campaigning season over, the Roman army went into its hiberna or winter quarters at Tibbermore near Perth. Calgacus, a scratch paganicaster himself, fashioned clubheads from beech and holly, shafts from ash or hazel and taught the Roman officers to play. Goose feathers for production of the original ball or ‘feathery’ were a problem until a Pict was caught disguised as a palisade post. Offered the choice of crucifixion or disguise as a mallard he opted for the latter, successfully luring geese to the nearby loch. Calgacus’ club production, however, was not without subterfuge. Early one morning, the gate sentries discovered two of their number lying unconscious beside two broken drivers, but no Calgacus – or mallard.
With the coming of Spring, back to the eternal city of Rome went General Agricola. With him went his staff, his clubs, balls and other trophies. He celebrated a Triumph and received a warm reception from the Emperor Domitian. And scarcely was his big day over when the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) by the Tiber came alive with the whack of Scots beech on Roman leather and with the first warning cries of Foro! (to the Forum!) as misdirected featheries hurtled among citizens in the nearby marketplace, or Forum.
And so, thanks again to Tacitus, the longdisputed origin of golf’s classic warning cry is settled at last.
Meanwhile, back in Scotland the Roman army’s Ninth Legion, the famous Legio IX Hispana, hunting for Calgacus, advanced into the Celtic twilight and, somewhere near Glasgow, vanished without trace from history. But that is another story...