Outside, the rain is falling in stair rods. Great heavy drops that drill on my car roof and then drench me in seconds as I make a run for the village hall. It's one of those dark, saturated nights when no sane person would leave their fireside, but inside, under the strip lights, I am going game hunting.

It's not big game, but it's certainly one of the rarest and most endangered historical games in the world. Twelve men and a woman, lining a long thin room in which the focus is a long thin wooden table, which gleams and roars as the players skid metal weights along it. Welcome to summer ice, a most mysterious and unique version of curling.

You won't have heard of it. Nobody's heard of it. Summer ice, the game that sounds like the title of a Robert Frost poem, is the indigenous sport of only four villages in the whole of Scotland: Gartmore, Buchlyvie, Kippen and Aberfoyle, all in West Stirlingshire. Once upon a time

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hundreds, perhaps thousands, played it: the folk living in villages stretching from Strathblane, north of Glasgow, to the wilds of Stronachlachar in the Trossachs. Once upon a time, perhaps, the whole of southern Scotland played it.

Now there are only a handful of players left, perhaps 50 in total, and the majority of them quite elderly. And here, in the annexe of Buchlyvie village hall, 15 of them have hung up their dampened caps and jackets and wait to play their long lost cousin of the roaring game: a little slice of history which somehow so far has escaped its fate. Tonight Buchlyvie are playing Gartmore in the semi final of the Tommy McLaren pairs cup. It is a needle match, played with intense

concentration. At each end, two men take turns about to send the weights sliding up the table, while the other players, seated along the wall beside the table, focus intently on the play.

You can smell the concentration and the wood polish. The air is full of competitive tension. Those watching do not drink or smoke or chat. Neither do the summer icers do anything as demonstrative as clap. When Buchlyvie eventually wins, with a stunningly accurate last stone, one that gold medallist Rhona Martin would have been proud of, the watchers stir, clear their throats in coded approval, and shift their backsides on the hard wooden bench. ''Do they ever clap?'' I ask the young man beside me, a local fireman. ''No,'' he whispers back. ''Look at them. They're like old crows on a wall.'' He smiles affectionately. His father is one of them. The chalk scratches on the board as someone marks up the score.

Summer ice, like so many little-known, intensely esoteric games, looks deceptively

simple. It's not. ''It's not difficult once you get the weight of the table, get the direction, get the delivery. It's like everything else in life,'' says Eric Billett, who has been playing summer ice in Gartmore for the best part of 60 years. The skills are as instinctive as walking or breathing to him.

He tells me the game in general follows the rules of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. The table is about 21 feet long and 33 inches wide. The wood is mahogany: oiled, polished and burnished with use. At each end there is a curling ''house'' of inlaid circles, into which the half-pound metal stones are aimed. There is no sweeping to speed up the stones. Instead of brooms the players use short sticks, worn with a century of use, to point out where their team member should aim.

It's believed the stones, which the players heat beforehand (by an open fire at Aberfoyle; on the radiator at Buchlyvie) were forged at the Carron Iron Foundry at Falkirk. They are of unknown age and regarded as irreplaceable. ''What do you call the stones?'' I asked my confidante. ''Stones,'' he says. ''What do you call the sticks?'' I ask. ''Sticks,'' he says. And that says it all, really. This is a plain yet subtle game played by plain-speaking people, understated and modest, without a starry bone in their bodies. Like Rhona Martin and her team, there is something endearingly, uncompromisingly real about them; like curling, this forgotten game with the beautiful name is a hymn to Scotland. Sticks and stones, the semantics of a more simple age. Hyperbole does not live here.

The holy grail of summer ice, I quickly gleaned, was keeping the table slippery. All kind of potions and oils and waxes have been tried in the pursuit of slippiness. Black lead was the

traditional method, but very messy. The Trossachs' tiny band of summer icers have tried paraffin and bathbrick and silicone crystals which someone got sent from America, but now the four teams stick with cedar oil, which is hard to get hold of these days. And still, like the old men's knee joints, the table protests at the weather and resists speed. They get nights like tonight, when the table is ''dour''. ''Dour?'' I ask. ''It's never as slippery as it should be on a wet night,'' says Quentin Donald, 80 past but still farming and playing summer ice. Quentin is a novice; he's only been playing 40 years.

They were all young men once, these modest, quiet summer icers. Eric Billett, a retired undertaker and joiner from Gartmore, remembers the heydey of the game before the second world war. How long has he been playing it? ''I used to get my backside kicked out of the hall because I wasn't 14, so you could say 60 years,'' he says. ''We would sneak up and play if nobody was looking. We were desperately keen. We didn't have TV, we had to make our own entertainment. There was draughts, a set of darts, and then there was the summer ice table.

''I remember the men standing two or three deep down the sides of the table if there was a game on. The war years killed it a bit. Oh, every village in the area had a team then ... Port of Menteith, Kinlochard, Brig O' Turk, Drumlean, Drymen. In Balfron even the bus drivers had their own team. We used to have a great night when we went up to Stronachlachar to play the waterboard workers. They used to lay on a banquet for us. Every damn night we were up there it seemed it was snowing, and we used to sit wolfing down great venison sandwiches and worrying about whether we'd be able to get back down the road again.''

There were the famous summer ice ''tea and sugar nights'', a tradition that began about 50 years ago, in the days of rationing, and continues in a symbolic form to this day. Still, some nights, they play with the prize of a packet of tea and sugar sitting on the edge of the table. There is also fiercely coveted silverware: the Cayzer cup, a knock-out competition for the clubs; the Bilsland league cup; the George Stewart Cup, a knock-out championship played on neutral tables; the Tommy McLaren pairs cup. Each one of them as coveted as a Hampden trophy.

Then there was Tommy Simpson, one of the greatest players, who dropped dead at the summer ice one night at Buchlyvie, about 15 years ago. ''I just caught him out of the corner of my eye sliding down the wall. He was playing tremendous that night too,'' remembers Eric, who later buried him. ''What a way to go ... playing summer ice. Tremendous. Tommy was a real old character, as fair as they come. He was moves ahead of you. He knew what you were going to do before you did.''

The Balfron summer ice club died too, in the 1970s; a slice of unique history gone forever, drowned by the ebb tide of social change.

And so the game lingers on, this remarkable little microcosm of village heritage, like a tiny cultural tic, a lost relic of Scottish rural life

dating from centuries ago. It is rooted within West Stirlingshire like a special rural dialect: the sporting equivalent of a burred ''r'' or an obscure local pronunciation of a name.

But this is also a mystery story. Maybe even a controversial one. For this game hunter, it was time to play detective and delve into the misty origins of summer ice.

It is not easy. In the Trossachs, there is only oral history, save tiny snippets like that from the Gartmore Gazeteer for 1904 which talks about the new summer ice table being installed ten years previously. Today's remaining players believe it came over with the Irish who built the water pipe from Loch Katrine to Glasgow in the late 1800s. Why else should the game have been confined to the villages which lie beside the course of the pipe, snaking down through the mountains to the city? ''When you get a game called summer ice that's played only in the winter, how can it be

anything else but Irish?'' says Eric.

The summer icers proudly tell a story which now has apocryphal force. Some years ago, one of the Buchlyvie team, Nicol McCafferty, was on holiday in Canada. After the meal, his hosts invited him to play a game called shuffleboard, their entertainment during the long months of being snowed in. Nicol went down to the basement and there, lurking amid the central heating pipes, he saw to his amazement a summer ice table. The men put on smocks to protect their clothes from the black lead. As the story goes, Nicol kept schtuum for the first few shots, and then suggested they liven things up by playing for money. Some time later, when he had cleaned out his hosts, the puzzled Canadians asked him: ''Have you played this game before?'' ''Aye,'' said Nicol. ''Only we call it summer ice.''

It's proof enough, say the summer icers,

nodding sagely, that the Irish exported the game to North America. And so, next day, to the

internet, to look up shuffleboard. Sure enough, there it was: www.shuffleboard.net and a host of details about a hugely popular game played from Texas to Manitoba. You could buy tables, enter championships, correspond with fellow enthusiasts, even subscribe to Board Talk, the magazine for shuffleboard players. This was a big sport. But wait. Here, on the website, was worrying stuff. Back in 15th century England, I read, folks played a game of sliding a groat down a table. The game was called shove groat or slide groat. Later a silver penny was used and the name of the game became shove-penny or shovel-penny. The game was a favourite pastime in the great country houses of Staffordshire, Winchester and Wiltshire.

Shuffleboard was exported to the US and by the early 1800s grew as popular as prizefighting and baseball. By the time of the second world war, it was a boom sport. Hollywood went shufflebard crazy and tables were found in homes of the stars like Betty Grable, Harry James, Merv Girffin and Alan Ladd.

So now I possessed the answer to one question I was sure never to be asked: What do Betty Grable and Gartmore have in common? Deep down, though, I was not happy; and I knew Eric and the boys wouldn't be either. On all the shuffleboard illustrations, there was no ''house'', just lines. The game was not only allegedly English, instead of Irish, it had entirely different rules.

I decided to try another tack. The summer icers believed the game had once been played in North Ayrshire. First stop, Kilmarnock library. Nothing. The local history department in Ardrossan were very helpful, but they'd never heard of summer ice, and put me onto the local heritage lady in Cumnock. She'd never heard of it either, but if it resembled a dry form of curling then Sheriff Smith might help. Growing weary, and ever more convinced the historical trail was cold, I phoned the number.

''Summer ice?'' boomed the voice that once cowed criminals. ''Of course. What do you want to know?'' David B Smith, retired sheriff and author of Curling: An Illustrated History, was about to shine a light down the years. According to him, summer ice was a summer substitute for curling. It was a bit like shovelboard, he conceded, but it wasn't. He was a treasure trove. He had even once played the game himself in a pub between Ayr and Mauchline, though the table was no longer there. He told me that in the miner's library at the Lead Mining Museum at Wanlockhead, there was a post card of summer ice in the 1800s.

''My research has to rely on oral history, and as a retired sheriff I'm not as enamoured of oral history as many historians are, as I heard it every day in court and it wasn't always reliable,'' he said. ''The evidence suggests summer ice was widespread in Southern Scotland and has now died out. My research tells me that working men's clubs in Ayrshire had summer ice tables, generally lubricated with black lead. I know of some tables still in existence.

''There is one in Drumlanrig Castle and as you can imagine it is a superior job with curly carved legs. There's another one at Beil House in East Lothian, and another one at Newton Don, a country house north of Kelso. There is a summer ice table at a weird antique shop outside Glen Luce, which I tried to get for the new museum of Scottish Country Life. And there is an early 19th century watercolour of a family house party at the Earl of Selkirk's house, which shows them playing summer ice. ''I have seen a silver medal of Ayr summer ice club, with an engraving of people playing the game on a table, dating from 1870. I've even held it in my hand; but the gentleman wouldn't sell it,'' he said.

The detective in me pressed on. What about these Irish origins? Sheriff Smith did not spare his exasperation. ''Baloney! Summer ice was just a way of exercising in miniature the skills people exercised in the winter on the ice. It was to keep their hand in. Curling hasn't always been called curling, you know. The Troon curling club used to be known as the Troon ice club. They were known as ice players and folk in the 19th century would talk about 'playing at ice' or

'playing at the ice'. Curling stones were often known as ice stones.

''If folk played shove half-penny someone might have thought this would be a nice curling substitute for the summer. So they played it on long tables with concentric circles.''

The sheriff was on a roll. ''My view is that there's a curious aspect to the Scottish psyche which must find a foreign origin for everything, when if fact it's a product of Scottish genius. This idea it was Irish is a non-starter. Curling was almost unknown in Ireland. Curling is a Scottish game. There is no evidence for this theory that it came from the low countries to Scotland and - and I say this as scornfully and dismissively as I can - it didn't take a Dutch genius to think of sliding a stone across a frozen water. Curling evolved in Scotland as a pastime, and so did summer ice.''

Okay, so the game hunting was almost over. Some puzzles, though, remained. Why, on examination, were the miners in the picture at the lead mining museum using curling stones, not small lead weights? And why the little brushes to sweep? Could this be an example of a refrigerated table with ice on top, as Sheriff Smith said once existed? Why, if summer ice was a summer substitute for curling, is it played in the winter by the last players left in the Trossachs? ''Maybe they started playing it in the winter too,'' says Sheriff Smith. Simple. Back in the Trossachs, the players have as simple an answer. ''Summer ice stops at the end of March for the lambing,'' says Quentin Donald. ''Farmers have no time from then on.''

This is a mystery story. One of those stories which, in the greater scheme of things, won't alter the course of history, or change people's lives, or ever be solved. As you grasp at the facts, they run through your fingers like sand. But it's a unique story of Scotland, a precious little

monument to ordinary men and ordinary lives, and the way they passed their leisure time. There's a poignancy too, because in the space of another generation the summer ice in the Trossachs may have gone the way of all things.

''I love the competition nights. You can hear a pin drop. Club nights, now, they're a lot of fun and banter, just about keeping your eye in,'' says Eric Billett. But he admits age is now a factor. ''I have angina now. Some nights when the

summer ice is on I just haven't got the energy to get out of my chair and go up the street for the evening,'' he says wistfully. And up the street, the tide of history ebbs. n