IN gowns which skimmed the polished maple wood floor and to the rousing oompah of a brass band, Edwardian ladies and their smart-suited companions rolled in neverending circles around the room on their skates. 

Trying to maintain their dignity and dodging wobbly learners in former mills and empty halls cheerfully decorated with Union flags, bunting and Chinese lanterns, they indulged in what was billed “this most healthful and exhilarating” of sports. 

It was 1909 and Scots were gripped by a roller-skating frenzy that saw rinks spring up in towns and cities in their dozens, hastily constructed to meet the astonishing demand for four wheels that was sweeping the nation. 

For a few years Edwardian Scots were obsessed by a roller revolution – there were competitions to see who could go fastest, do the most impressive tricks, skate the most elegantly and, for up to 1,200 people at a time who crammed onto huge roller rinks in Glasgow and Dundee – and smaller ones in places like Linlithgow, Stranraer and Stirling – there was a chance to socialise on wheels while being entertained with the latest brass band tunes.

Sales on a roll

FOR the TikTok generation with little else to do but head outside, roller skates have been the fashionable way to zip through the pandemic. Never mind the bicycle boom: sales of roller skates have rocketed during lockdown, while Google Trends data reveal soaring searches for roller skating in Scotland and an increase of 200 per cent in people hunting for “roller blades”. 

On video site TikTok, the hashtag “rollerskating” has amassed some 280.1 million views of everything from roller-skating tips for beginners to skaters – often opting to wear seventies’ vintage styles – making the most of deserted city streets to show off their skills. 

Last month, a new nationwide consortium, The Skate People, launched with a view to shifting roller skating from purely recreational fun to an active travel option by encouraging Scots skaters to use cycle lanes and improved paths for daily commutes and journeys that might otherwise have involved taking the car. 

Those embracing today’s roller-skating trend may think they are reviving seventies fashion for four wheels or the 1980s roller disco trend.

Instead, the retro craze for wheeled shoes goes back much further and, during that dazzling spell around 1909, engulfed nearly every community in the land. Attempts to replicate ice skating on solid ground started in the 1700s when an unnamed Dutchman attached wooden wheels to his shoes and invented skeelers – the first roller skates. 

Mirror ball

BELGIAN inventor John-Joseph Merlin went further in the 1760s with his shoe on wheels which he demonstrated during a masquerade party in London. Keen to impress with his fancy “inline skates”, he skated through a hall while playing the violin, failed to stop and smashed straight into a huge mirror. 

However, by the mid-1860s, an American named James Plimpton had perfected a far more effective skate – with better brakes – and sparked a roller revolution that saw rinks spring up on both sides of the Atlantic. 

In the following decades, roller skating was embraced by the elite of Victorian society, with indoor rinks of imported maple or marble where well-to-do, elegant skaters practised their skills amid potted palms and to the tunes of small orchestras or brass bands.of a much improved skates from America, that roller skating for the Scottish masses took off. 

The craze spanned the length and breadth of the country. Aberdeen had at least four rinks – the Bon Accord, Aberdeen Olympia, Woodside in Great Northern Road and The Torry Skating Palace – while Dundee’s West End Rink billed itself as Scotland’s “finest and largest roller rink” and the “rendezvous of the elite”. 

From there barely being a single roller rink in 1908, Scotland suddenly boasted dozens: from the small Empire rink in Cowdenbeath to the massive Pavilion Roller Skating Rink in Boswell Park in Ayr, and Kilmarnock’s Agricultural Hall where skaters paid one shilling for their skates and were entertained by a military band. 

There was a roller rink at Kelvingrove in Glasgow’s West End and another at Glasgow Zoo, where a vast hall was fitted with a maple floor, “magnificent band platform and charming panoramic Swiss scenery”.

There was the added attraction of Richardson ball bearing skates – which helped skaters gain speed with less effort than ever before - and the roller-skating champion of the world for its grand opening. 

Rinks in harmony

MUSIC and historic researcher Gavin Holman was studying bands and musicians when he found details of a thriving network of Edwardian roller-skating rinks across the country, many with their own brass band or string band to entertain the skaters. 

“The number of rinks – and the number that had brass bands – is quite surprising,” he says. “I suppose in those days they would do anything for novelty and to pull in the punters. 

“Brass bands at the time were very strong in Scotland. Industries like linen and mining echoed with brass band music. It was part of the community, and they would have provided entertainment for the skaters.

“And despite what people think about the Victorians and Edwardians, they were very hot on entertainment. They didn’t have anything else to do.”

In Stirling, the Olympia Roller Skating Rink held regular skating competitions with rival rinks that had been built in Bannockburn, Falkirk and Linlithgow. While in Edinburgh, the rink at Russell Road in Murrayfield – one of several in the capital - boasted 40,000 sq ft of maple wood flooring, seats for 2500 spectators. 

There were rinks in Motherwell, Dumfries and Gourock. In Kirkcaldy, former linen mill buildings near the High Street were transformed into a glittering roller palace, with a 215ft long and 75ft wide imported American white maple wood floor, a bandstand suspended from the roof of the building, tearoom and – a key selling point - electric lights. 

While most bands would have perched at the side of rinks – or, as in Kirkcaldy’s case, above them – the brass band at Dunfermline’s roller skating rink at Upper Station Road, took to the floor with roller skates on their feet and brass instruments tucked under their arms. 

According to Stirling Local History Society, the town’s 8,200 sq ft skating rink in King’s Street, was the centre of focus for entertainment and socialising when it opened in November 1909. 

In the first four days of opening, over 3,500 people were admitted, with over 1,000 skating.  

“The roller rink also arranged carnivals with fancy dress at various times along with special events such as sports nights. Admission and skate hire prices were more expensive for these. Roller hockey was played by the staff and then a club was formed, and their matches became part of the programme as a spectator attraction.

“At the end of 1910 and into 1911, entertainment was introduced at intervals during the evening sessions. This started with cinematograph shows and then wrestling exhibitions were also staged. 

“This was clearly to boost admissions with spectators.”

Having gone roller-crazy for a couple of years, Scots were soon ready to move on to the next big thing.

“There were other increasingly attractive forms of entertainment,” says Holman. “There were moving pictures, the motor car… more and more things came along that people decided they wanted to do.”

By 1911, rinks that months earlier were booming, began filing for liquidation or were sold, often to be turned into cinemas. 

Having had Edwardians in a massive spin, the wheels came off the roller skating craze – temporarily, at least.