It might be described a game of two halves: when the beautiful game kicked off in Edinburgh with women players in their white knickerbockers, blue jerseys and red stockings, a good-natured crowd gathered to witness the unusual spectacle.

The date was May 1881, and the first recorded international women’s football match saw the Scots beat the Lionesses by an impressive three goals to nil.

“A considerable amount of curiosity was evinced in the event, and upwards of a thousand persons witnessed it,” reported the Glasgow Herald of the day, adding that although the game from a players’ perspective was a failure, “some of the individual members of the teams showed that they had a fair idea of the game.”

This wasn’t the first time women had played – records have been found of women playing football as far back as 1628. Now, as elite players prepare for the Women’s Euros 2022 and Scotland celebrates a World Cup play-off spot, the women’s game has never been on such a high.

But back in 19th century Scotland, the spectacle of women in knickerbockers and high heel boots kicking a ball was set to enflame passions. And the two nations next clash a few days later in Glasgow was a sign of what lay ahead for the women’s game.

“In Edinburgh there is a good turnout, thousands of people come to watch,” says sport historian Dr Fiona Skillen of Glasgow Caledonian University, who has just embarked on a major research project into women’s football in Scotland.

“It’s reported as an amusing scene that people have come to laugh at and have a good time.

“In Glasgow, it’s very different. It very quickly turns to a pitch invasion and the women have to be rescued by horse and cart.

“These women are going against convention, they are playing seriously – not for entertainment - and the crowd are objecting because it doesn’t fit with ideals of femininity.”

The Victorian backlash to the women’s game saw the sport almost entirely smothered for a century. Shunned by official bodies, there would be little to show for the pioneering women players’ efforts.

Now, however, Dr Skillen is embarking on a yearlong project to uncover evidence of the games they played, the women that took part and the teams they formed in an effort to map out for the first time those early days of women’s football in Scotland.

Spanning six decades, her research will begin in 1880, when football was rapidly evolving with the formation of football associations, men’s football clubs in towns and villages across the country and new rules.

It will continue to 1939 when, with men fighting in two world wars, women’s football was grudgingly ‘allowed’ to thrive.

Her research complements work by Stirling University PhD researcher Karen Fraser into the women’s game post-1960s, and fellow Stirling researcher, Karen Grunwell who is tracing women internationalists who, because the matches were not recognised by the SFA, were not given the honour of receiving a cap.

The new project also links to research by Dr Skillen, senior lecturer in history at GCU, and football historian Steve Bolton, which uncovered fascinating detail of Rutherglen Ladies FC and some of the women, including Janet Grozier, who played for the team.

Despite SFA efforts to stamp down on the women’s game, the Rutherglen women’s team drew huge crowds during the interwar years.

Among their leading players was Sadie Smith, captain of the team and grandmother of singer Eddi Reader.

The story of the Rutherglen team is being told in a current exhibition exploring the history of the women’s game in Scotland at the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden Park. However, Dr Skillen points out that her latest research will rely largely on newspaper reports, census records, local knowledge and families of past players due to the lack of official recognition of the women’s game and scant records of matches, teams and players. She has appealed for anyone with information that might help her research to get in touch.

“Very little of women’s sport in general was preserved, because people didn’t think it was of any value,” she says. “That’s particularly the case with women’s football - it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Although many people assume women’s football was pioneered by players like Rose Reilly in the 1970s and 1980s, its roots stretch much further.

“We know of church ministers complaining about football in 1682, and that the fishwives of Inveresk played an anniversary football match every year, when the single women played the married women.

“These records show women are playing for pleasure.”

But as the men’s game evolved with formal rules and national bodies to oversee it, women found themselves drastically restrained by Victorian attitudes of the day.

“There’s a mixed reception, some people think it’s a good to watch women play football, and others are very early football hooligans,” says Dr Skillen.

Among those attempting to break down barriers were the British Ladies Football Club, formed in 1895 with Dumfries aristocrat Lady Florence Dixie as its patron and team captain Mary Hutson. Like many women players at a time when emancipation was perceived as a threat and women were expected to stay at home, she played under a pseudonym, calling herself Nettie Honeyball.

The team played more than 100 exhibition matches but endured ridicule and abuse. Match reports sneered at their clothes, physicality and apparent lack of skills.

A key area to be explored by the new project, which is funded by The International Centre for Sports Studies (CIES), the educational and research arm of FIFA, is the impact war had on the women’s game.

With men fighting, women took on jobs in munitions factories, and teams sprang up around the country.

In Glasgow in 1918, women from William Beardmore’s iron and steel factories in the city and at Barrow in Furness played before a vast crowd at Celtic Park amid a carnival atmosphere of artillery displays, donkey rides and an aerial fly-past.

Women’s football also flourished in Arbroath, linked to munitions factories in the area, and in Gretna where hundreds of women worked in huge camps churning out explosives destined for the frontline.

“Football is promoted in these environments, it’s cheap and you don’t need a lot of facilities, just some open space and a ball,” adds Dr Skillen. “There was novelty in doing something that was previously frowned upon, but at the heart of it is charity - the women’s participation is legitimised because it’s charity and a sign of patriotism, giving for the boys on the frontline or the widows at home.”

Tolerated rather than encouraged by authorities, women’s football matches attracted massive crowds. But by 1921 football officials bodies had ruled that women could not play on association pitches or use official referees.

“They are essentially taking away any legitimacy, so it’s seen as not proper football,” adds Dr Skillen. “Women were told football was not suitable for their bodies, and there were spurious suggestions that there was corruption in the game with very little money going to charity.”

Although the Second World War saw a similar revival in the women’s game, it again faded as men returned from the frontline.

It would take until 1971 before UEFA instructed its members to embrace the women’s game: the motion was passed 31-1 with only Scotland voting against.

Dr Skillen says she hopes the research will help shine a light on the difficulties faced by women who simply wanted to play football.

“It’s important to understand the discrimination the game has faced for such a long time,” she adds.

“Some say they saw women’s football as a threat, undermining the quality of football, but it could also have been old-fashioned sexism: this was a man’s game, these were environments where men went to let off steam, why would you want women in among that?”