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Interview: curling veteran prepares to open the Grand Match

THE nanny state put the block on a venerable Scottish institution earlier this year when health and safety regulations prevented the Grand Match from taking place.

However, a substitute has been devised for those who thirst after upholding curling tradition, which is why the event has moved indoors today.

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Fifteen rinks across the country, with some 2000 competitors, will stage simultaneous competition between North and South, under the auspices of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. It’s not quite the real thing – in the good old days that would have meant some 2000 bottles of whisky on the ice – but some fear it may soon become the only thing.

Somewhere, doubtless, a Health and Safety jobsworth is calculating the weight of 2000 bottles and perhaps even considering the case for introducing a breathalyser test for being in charge of a curling stone.

Among the great suppporters of the tradition is Ian Rutherford, who will proudly deliver the first stone at Braehead today where some 200 players are expected to take part. Ian is 94, sharp as a tack if a little frail, and a veteran of every Grand Match, indoors and out, since 1959.

A retired lawyer from Lenzie, he is currently researching a history of his club, Cadder, which will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2012. The sport’s governing body, the RCCC, is 172 years old, pre-dating the Olympic movement, and every football and rugby club in Scotland. Cadder is by no means the oldest club. There were already 42 by 1800.

Each year the RCCC sets up a committee to organise the Grand Match, in the hope weather will prove favourable. Yet there have been just three outdoor versions since the sport’s traditional home at Carsebreck, in Perthshire, became too expensive to maintain in 1935.

Rutherford has played in all of them: Loch Leven [1959], and the Lake of Menteith [1963 and 1979], plus indoor editions in 2000 and 2005.

“We thought we were on for a Grand Match in January of this year,” he says. “We had the necessary depth of ice, then Health and Safety ruled it out. We are a nanny state now.”

Reports suggest that some 20,000 people defied advice and the police and went to the Lake and played or spectated.

Rutherford’s former colleague, Cadder club secretary Cumine Ross, was at the 1935 match, he recalls. Their pre-war clubrooms were an old railway wagon on the edge of the Gadloch. “We talked about it a great deal. Our club sent a rink – possibly two. Only a death in the family would excuse absence from a Grand Match.

“If there were 2576 players [the reported figure in 1935] then there were 2576 bottles of whisky.”

He describes travelling to Loch Leven on Christmas Eve, 1959. “You could go only two to a car, because of the weight of the stones. Car heating was not up to much then.” This proved a blessing. A warm car would heat the stones, and when placed on the ice, they would melt it slighty, and bed in.

He recalls walking across the ice at the Lake in 1979 with a fellow player. “This old boy kept falling down, then picking himself up. He had obviously enjoyed himself to excess. The sky was blue. The sun shone – just a wonderful occasion – like a Breugel or Lowry painting. The result was always secondary . The game and participation was the objective.”

Preparing for a Grand Match may almost be a dying art. “You need access to get the stones to the loch, and prepare the rink,” he says. “You sweep it and scrape off the snow and any twigs on the surface. You use sticks with a nail driven through to measure and mark the head. And you mustn’t forget a good length of string, or rope, to tow the stones across the ice. Otherwise you’ll be carrying them, and it could be a fair distance.”

Ian first played in the Army at the start of World War II, before servicing in France. “I was stationed in Galashiels in 1940, and was told to report for duty: “Bring gumboots and some form of sustenance’ – I discovered I was playing curling for Upper Strathearn Province.”

His wife, Dor, twice played for Scotland, beating the Canadians in Canada. Their Lenzie home is something of a shrine to the game.

The British Army, according to curling historian Bill Murray, in his book, The Curling Companion, know all about the bearing qualities of ice. Two inches will support men spaced six feet apart; four inches, a man on horseback; six inches, horse-drawn wagons or eighty-pounder guns; eight inches, a horse-drawn battery of artillery; 10 inches, an army; and 15 inches a railway line. A Grand Match needs seven. Maybe Health and Safety should talk to the Army.

The first Grand Match was in the winter of 1846/47. Three hundred curlers turned up, and two years later it was 700, plus 5000 spectators. They poured into Linlithgow by the trainload. The Royal Club was in a panic, lest the ice crack. Ropes, ladders, lifebelts, and buoys were spread across the ice by police.

The stones alone for a Grand Match with upwards of 2500 players would weigh close to 100 tons.

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