‘It wesnae a goal, Geoff’ | Worldwide, Scots lend ‘fitba’ their distinctive style

On 13 Apr 1946, Scotland defeats England 1–0 at Hampden Park, Glasgow, before 139,468. The Mount Florida ground in 1937 had, at another England friendly, set the attendance record for an international match: 149,415. The total remains a European record. (www.britishpathe.com)

Dundee, Scotland | Author and presenter Billy Kay has helped produce a series of programs for Radio Scotland on the spread of Scottish culture worldwide. He has considered the Scottish diaspora in the American South (The Scotch South), the place of Presbyterianism in world mission (The Scottish Mission in Malawi) and is at work on a series on Freemasonry’s influence in early America.


His two-part broadcast in the summer of 2006, It Wes Us, proclaimed Scottish footballers and managers as the progenitors of an artful passing game that in the late 19th century lifted association football from its dreary origin in the nonstop dribbling of English public schools. The passing form of football (“fitba,” in Scots)—spread via Scottish commercial agents, engineers and religion workers—cast its influence to Sweden, Spain and Russia and across seas and continents to the United States, South America, southern Africa, Manchuria, India and Australia. Kay found a picture of Dundee whalers kicking a ball, presumably made from seal skin, on Arctic ice in 1894. These tales appear in a chapter of Kay’s recent book, The Scottish World: A Journey into the Scottish Diaspora (Mainstream, 2006) (see May 8).

In an interview May 22—contained in our second podcast (below)—Kay suggests some reasons why the land with one-twelfth of England’s population found itself wielding influence out of proportion to its size.

We Scots like to pride ourselves in the egalitarian nature of our society. Lots of people see that as an expression of Presbyterianism, of the national church. Some people might suggest that it’s anti-individualism, because it goes for community and culture rather than the individual. Football in England developed very much as an expression of the individual in the elitist public schools … which are actually very extensive private schools. It was in those playgrounds that the game of football in England developed in places like Eton and Harrow and Rugby schools. There it was rampant individualism. There was a famous incident where one of the pioneers of the game in England [Alfred Lyttleton in 1877] is criticized for not passing the ball. He suggests that he’s doing it for his own pleasure, why would he pass the ball?

If you contrast that with the “a man’s a man for a’ that” philosophy of Robert Burns and the egalitarianism that comes from a Presbyterian instinct, where everyone can communicate directly with his God in the Presbyterian world picture, a different ethos is definitely there. So you could see the communal spirit of Scotland coming out in the … passing game, an idea that there are no superstars. Whereas in England it was very, very different. To be unkind to my southern neighbors, you could see that some of the arrogance English people are often accused of could be revealed in their way of playing football in those early days.

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