Scotland | As foretold in scripture: ‘The queen of the South will rise up …’

One day we will find
All our dreams are viable
’Cause we’ve got God on our side
We’re the only team in the Bible, Bible, Bible …
—“Queen of the South” (© Chris Belford)

“I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it.” (Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, 1 Kings 10:7)

Dumfries, Scotland | Few football anthems have succeeded in pairing “viable” and “Bible,” but Queen of the South are a side of multi-millennial pedigree. Via a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon–type exercise, one can date the west Scotland team’s heritage to the 10th century BCE, following the links from a 19th century politician and poet to festival traditions of the Middle Ages to the synoptic Gospels’ allusion to the “queen of the South,” itself a reference to the visit of the Arabian queen of Sheba to King Solomon, recounted in the Hebrew Bible.


Belford’s tribute song “Queen of the South” accompanies part of this reprisal of the Apr 12 Scottish Cup semifinal versus Aberdeen at Hampden Park, Glasgow. Some 10,000 made the trip from Dumfries. (9:11)

They do seem to be the only team mentioned explicitly in the biblical canon—excluding apocryphal works. Numerous sides are named in passing: Bury, Arsenal, The Strongest and so on (see the Guardian survey). “Corinthians,” naturally, forms the title of part of Paul‘s epistolary output, so strong conceptually that his correspondence to the troublemaking residents of ancient Corinth extends to two volumes.

Unlike the other coincidental connections between football teams and the Bible, however, “Queen of the South” seems to have been selected based on the appearance of the phrase in Matthew 12:42 (and parallels)—or was it? Research suggests that the connection is not a direct one—hence the need for the Kevin Bacon game.

Journos and supporters have mentioned the scriptural imprimatur often over the past week as, for the first time in its 89-year history, Queen of the South has advanced to the Scottish Cup final. Its opponent will be Rangers on May 24 in Glasgow.

Long-time supporter Murray Ritchie, writing in the Scotsman, asked for “divine intervention” before the Apr 12 semifinal versus Aberdeen. The only comparable occasion took place in 1950, when Queen of the South—known as the Doonhamers, from a traditional Scots reference to Dumfries as “doon hame”—played Rangers in the Cup semifinal, also at Hampden. The teams drew 1–1, with Rangers easily winning the replay.

Supporters at QOS v. Aberdeen might have borrowed from the red-letter words of Jesus as he speaks prophetically of the “queen of the South.” The queen had testified to Solomon’s wisdom and riches, as recounted in 1 Kings 10 (and 1 Chronicles 9), but would have had something different to say had she arrived in Jesus’ day or at Hampden Park on this April afternoon: “See, something greater than Solomon is here!” Four times the Doonhamers took the lead; three times Aberdeen equalized. Five goals came in one 12-minute span: “It was like a game of Pro-Evolution Soccer,” said midfielder-defender Ryan McCann. The 60th-minute goal by John Stewart, on loan from Falkirk, finally finished the scoring.


Geoff Thomas, a Middlesbrough season-ticket holder, does not mention Queen of the South’s biblical connections but describes a conversion experience at a Nov 07 trip to Palmerston. The visit formed part of Thomas’s “football education,” an effort to escape the stranglehold of England’s major clubs by seeing a team that, previously, had been little more than “a quirky name on the ‘World of Sport’ vidi-printer.” After the Apr 12 QOS victory, he writes, “Pay my respects to those who refused to let the soul of football die.” (© Queen of the South Website)

Ritchie’s affection for Queen of the South, which plays in the 6,412-capacity Palmerston Park (featuring Scotland’s tallest floodlights), went against his father’s wishes. Having grown up in the Borders, Ritchie’s father referred to rugby as “football.” “When he meant football,” Ritchie continues, “he called it soccer.”

For him soccer wasn’t really a game for men. He also worried, I suspect, that a little Dumfries boy like me, at the impressionable age of eight, might be lured towards the cultural darkness of Glasgow’s Old Firm. So [my parents] agreed that if I was to follow football it would be as a Queens supporter. Queens fans have a saying that “yer hame team’s yer ain team” and it was probably on that basis that my mother took me along to the only Scottish Cup semi-final that Queens have played—until today.

The side’s current form—“punching above their weight,” in the time-worn saying—becomes more extraordinary on learning that only this season have Queen of the South players become full-time footballers. The club’s chairman, Davie Rae, is a retired farmer. As Hunter Davies comments in the current New Statesman, all the players but one are native Scots—the exception is from England. They are the kind of team for whom the domestic cup competitions offer the prospect of breaking, if only for a moment, the perception of unassailable Old Firm dominance that Scottish football offers the world.

Natalie Stitt
Queen of the South ’06

Dumfries, a medieval rampart overlooking the River Nith, has held status as a royal burgh since William the Lion, king of Scotland, issued the charter in 1186. The chartering acknowledged the town’s strategic importance to the southwest part of the country and allowed Dumfries self-governance, celebrated each June as part of the Guid Nychburris (Guid Neighbours) Festival. At each festival, held the third Saturday in June, criers proclaim the charter; then, the Queen of the South is crowned, heralding mid–19th century politician David Dunbar, who, whether drawing on the Bible or indulging in sentimental pandering, gave Dumfries its nickname.

The festival itself is a catch-all of civic pride and kitsch, offering rugby players in drag as well as handwriting and best-dressed-window competitions. One local, writing anonymously, confesses a love-hate relationship to such events and to the place in general, which she labels “Dumpfries.” Of Guid Nychburris, she says:

In the week leading up to the main Saturday all the horsey types flee about the boundries of Dumfries and the main roads on horseback. This is called the Riding of the Marches. It is an old tradition dating to when the English would come over the border and burn down Dumfries. The principal players in this are the cornet who has a horn-type thing and his lass. On Guid Nychburris Saturday the Queen of [the] South is crowned. She is a girl from one of the four secondary schools.

Like the football team, the festival suggests a tradition older than what can actually be documented. A librarian, according to the BBC, invented the festival in 1932 as a riposte to such communal events in the Borders. The first “Queen of the South” football club, the Wanderers, formed in 1873 but is not related to the present side, which in 1919 amalgamated three area teams into a new Queen of the South United. The “United” quietly dropped from use.

But though the historical traces might be weak, there is no shame in milking the literary allusion to the messianic figure of Christianity and to the ancient kingdom of Sheba, located in Marib, a Yemeni province in southern Arabia. From Sheba came the finest aromatics of the second millennium BCE: frankincense, a white resin obtained from trees, and myrrh, harvested from bushes. The queen of Sheba’s gifts to Solomon of gold, spice and gems thus prefigure Jesus’ birth narrative: gifts across time to two different Israelite kings.

And, if you like, she also serves as the mysterious eponym of a Scottish football club with eyes on European competition. Borne by dromedaries in caravan, this queen is up for the cup.

Update

Despite suffering a “bizarre bout of beginners’ nerves,” Queen of the South fought back in the Scottish Cup final on 24 May to equalize. Nevertheless, Rangers prevailed 3–2.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (4)

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  1. Donhamer says:

    If you pay attention to Queen’s history you should be able to see that they are not currently punching above their weight. Granted the cup final is an exception. However, it is only with Willie Harkness becoming chairman in 1967 that the club went into stagnation and decline. Since his departure in 1994 the club have been rebuilding steadily. While the league season of 1999/2000 was disappointing the revival back to the top half of Scottish football as they were pre-Harkness is the harvest of the efforts put in at the club in the post-Harkness era.

  2. [...] writes about stories you won’t find elsewhere such as amputee soccer players in Liberia, the connection between Queen of the South football team and the bible, and remembering New Jersey’s soccer immigrant [...]

  3. General Lee says:

    The semi-final … what a day! Doonhamer before and Don-hamer after … brilliant! What made it a great day was the way we and the Aberdeen fans could have a bit of crack together after the game.

    Coincidences and symbolism. All footies are superstitious, aren’t we?

    We are the South. Iffen we whoop [... Rangers ...] next month we are fulfillin’ a biblical prophecy, how about that?

  4. Doonhamer says:

    First (to all) apologies for the typo in my zeal to add my comment (it should of course have been signed as Doonhamer).

    I have to agree on the comments about the Dons fans in defeat. A credit to Aberdeen, to Scotland and to football. I wish them well.

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