Golf Was Once Banned in Scotland, And You’ll Never Guess Why

As the likely birthplace of modern golf, it seems like Scotland must have loved the sport since its beginning. Surprisingly, this turns out to be false. Even more surprising, Scotland officially banned the game in its early days. Here’s a look at why golf was not allowed there.

The beginnings of golf

You can trace early games where a ball was hit with clubs or a stick back to the Roman Empire and China, reports the International Golf Federation. A game called Apocryphally, created by the Dutch in 1297, was another predecessor to golf. In this game, the goal was to use the fewest strokes to hit a ball to a target hundreds of yards in the distance.

In the 15th century, according to Golf Week, the Dutch also played a game similar to ice hockey, called kolven, when their canals froze. The name of the game may have evolved into the term “golf,” although there are other possible sources for the name, too.

Modern golf likely developed in Scotland during the 15th century in the late Middle Ages. All levels of society, from peasants to nobles, including both men and women played the game. In written history, golf made its first appearance when it got banned.

Why Scotland banned golf

Russell Knox of Scotland plays his shot from the first tee in 2020
Russell Knox of Scotland plays his shot in 2020 | Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The game of golf was first recorded in writing in Scotland on March 6, 1457, when King James II and the Scottish Parliament passed an Act of Parliament banning the game, along with football (soccer), because both sports distracted people from military archery practices. At the time, all Scottish men had to complete military training due to ongoing threats of invasion.

The Act said, “Football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped,” according to the National Library of Scotland. Anyone found playing either game was to “be punished by the local barons and, failing them, by the King’s officers.” These sports were considered both dangerous and a nuisance since people played in public spaces like streets and churchyards.

Scotland also considered golf “unprofitable.” To be problematic enough to require official legislation, golf and football were likely both very popular at the time. Golf was banned again in 1471 and 1491, indicating that it continued to be a favored sport over the years.

The return of golf

The ban on golf didn’t last forever; the country lifted it in 1500. Within two years, even the king of Scotland, King James IV, was playing golf. Mary Queen of Scots brought golf to France when she studied there, reports Historic UK. She also supposedly played golf soon after the murder of her husband in 1567.

In 1603, King James VI of Scotland united the crowns and became James I, King of England and Ireland, too. He and his court brought the game of golf to Blackheath near London.

By 1729, golf was recorded in what was not yet the United States when golf clubs were mentioned as part of the governor of Massachusetts’ estate. Golf had 13 formal rules by 1744, and the first golf club was established in Leith near Edinburgh the same year. By 1764, the game was standardized with 18 holes.

In the mid-1800s, there were just 17 golf courses around the world; 14 of those resided in Scotland. Today golf is most popular in Scotland, England, the United States, Canada, Germany, France, Sweden, Japan, Australia, and South Africa, although it’s growing quickly in Asian countries.

After being banned in its infancy, golf continued to grow in popularity both in Scotland and around the world. Military archery practice, though, has continued to decline.