A SHEEP field in Perthshire is the cradle of modern football, experts revealed yesterday.

Experts at the National Museum of Scotland have discovered that the modern game of association football evolved in a pasture in the town of Callander.

The field, now in the grounds of a local hotel, has been confirmed as the oldest known football pitch in the world.

The discovery explodes the myth that football was developed in England by public schoolboys. Documents show the park was the venue for matches between teams from the north and south of Scotland at least as early as 1848.

Mr John Burnett, curator of the history of sport at the museum, said the pitch was the scene of organised football, as opposed to the rough-and-ready battles between farmhands that pre-date the modern game by centuries.

He said the earliest official modern football match was at Queen's Park, Glasgow, in 1867. Documents prove that modern football was being played on the Callander pitch by 1872, but evidence shows it evolved in Callander from older ball games and was being played there long before Queen's Park.

It is believed the Callander pitch has witnessed the evolution of the game from even earlier times. Roman soldiers played a game called harpastum which was similar to the folk forms of football played in many areas of Scotland, including Callander.

The Roman Camp Hotel's owner, Eric Brown, 40, said locals had been unaware of the history of the pitch until they were alerted by Stirling University sports academics last year. He said experts brought newspaper cuttings dating between 1842 and 1879 telling how football was played on the site, and how players would celebrate with drinks at the hotel afterwards.

In a bizarre coincidence, Hollywood actor Robert Duvall stayed in the hotel last year while making a film about Scottish football - before the pitch's significance was realised.

The importance of the field was discovered by Dr Neil Tranter, senior lecturer in history at Stirling University.

He said last night: ''We have references which indicate quite clearly that a type of folk football was being played at the Roman Camp in Callander at the beginning of every new year, possibly since Roman times.

''What distinguishes the Callander game from all the others is that it seems to have been played in the same relatively limited spot in what is now the grounds of the Roman Camp Hotel for hundreds of years.

''Folk football, which grew into the modern forms of soccer and rugby which appeared in the 1860s and 70s, has a very long history on this site.''

Scots football personalities yesterday welcomed the news. Jim Baxter, who starred for Rangers in the 1960s, said: ''I always thought we invented it anyway, but I'm glad that has now been proved to be the case.''

Billy McNeill, who captained Celtic when they became the first British side to win the European Cup in 1967, said: ''I think I always expected Scotland to be named the home of the game because it's amazing when you go abroad and find out how many Scottish people are at the root of their football teams.''