Glasgow is well known for its football roots, but a new book claims the city was the birthplace of many sports

'LIFE IS short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous , judgment difficult …" Hippocrates's timeless observations are the last thing one might expect to find carved – with or without irony – on the moss-grown terracing of a neglected Glasgow football ground.

• Cathkin Park, once the home of Queen's Park and Third Lanark. Picture: Robert Perry

Yet fleeting opportunity certainly applies to the fast-moving style of football pioneered at Cathkin Park by Queen's Park FC during the latter part of the 19th century, while experience did indeed prove treacherous for Third Lanark Athletic Club, who also played there until sold down the river in 1967 by a mercilessly asset-stripping management.

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Today the concrete terracing at Cathkin Park (known for a while as "New Cathkin Park" after Third Lanark moved into it in 1903 from an earlier eponymous park across the road) is coated with a suitably elegiac carpet of fallen leaves, the remaining metal barriers twisted out of shape. But this grassed and tree-flanked amphitheatre on Glasgow's South Side, inhabited only by a few dog-walkers the weekday afternoon of our visit, is a world heritage site, so far as Ged O'Brien is concerned, as is the surrounding area.

"Cathkin is a strange and beautiful place, when you look at it in terms of sporting heritage," says O'Brien, author of Played in Glasgow, a new book celebrating the city which he regards as the world capital of sport. It's published by Historic Scotland, which is taking a new interest in sporting heritage – in association with the successful Played in Britain series of sporting history books and with Glasgow City Council – with an eye on the impending Commonwealth Games the city will host in 2014.

"It doesn't matter where you go in the world, if you're watching a football game, you're watching something that came out of this place," says O'Brien, and he doesn't mean the canopied bulk of Hampden Park nearby, although clearly the Hampden roar is part of the immense sporting resonance concentrated into this relatively small area of Glasgow. O'Brien, an English teacher and football historian who was involved in setting up the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden, points to the turf of Cathkin Park, that's still used today by amateur teams and is a place of pilgrimage for those for whom the very words Third Lanark, he writes, "still have the power to provoke nostalgia and outrage in equal measure". Cathkin once had a mighty roar of its own.

The Queen's Park influence reached much further afield, as the "Scotch professors" spread across the world, introducing the passing and running game the team had developed with devastating effect. So far as sport is concerned, argues O'Brien, "every human being is tied by an invisible strand to Glasgow, and not just through football, but whether you're looking at water polo, bowls …"

As the city counts down to hosting the 2014 games, Played in Glasgow is concerned not so much with games lost and won or individual stars, as the heritage of the city's sporting history and its architecture and artefacts, from modern football stadia and beautifully preserved Victorian swimming baths to the vanished billiard rooms of the Rennie Mackintosh-designed Miss Cranston's Tea Rooms, or even the corrugated iron doocots which house the pride and joy of Glasgow pigeon-fanciers.

When Queen's Park moved into Cathkin in 1884 it was probably the best football ground in the world; by the time they left it for the present Hampden site in 1903, to be succeeded by Third Lanark, it had been well overtaken in sophistication by the newly emerging Celtic Park and Ibrox. But it's not just football history that draws O'Brien – Southampton-born, of Irish parentage, and who describes himself as "fiercely smitten" with his adopted city – to the Queen's Park area. "The reason why I love coming round here is also because there are so many bowling clubs, way beyond the number you'd expect. You've got Hampden bowling club, Queen's Park bowling club … and Wellcroft, which claims to be the world's oldest constituted bowling club (against competing claims from Willowbank and Whitevale clubs]. They can show you their minute books back to 1835, when they were based in the Gorbals." The Wellcroft minutes, adds O'Brien, also appear to pre-date by almost 30 years the rules laid down in 1864, under the chairmanship of a Willowbank player, William Mitchell. The debate continues, but what is inarguable is that Glasgow can boast a greater concentration of historic bowling clubs than any other city in Britain, with the book recording 87 clubs in 2009, 35 of which had been in existence for at least a century.

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It was the links, the intriguing cross-referencing of people and sports, which fascinated O'Brien as he delved into the sporting history of the Dear Green Place. A ready example lies just behind where we stand contemplating the words of Hippocrates embedded wryly into the terracing of a football ground which has seen better days. Standing on the present route of Cathcart Road, which skirts the park, looking down across the railway line, he shows me a modest old bowling pavilion beside its green, its whitewashed walls extravagantly graffiti-d on the railway side. "This is Hampden Bowling Club, one of many in the area, but if you go in there they'll point to their women's dressing room and say to you, as they said to me, 'This is the England dressing room from the first pavilion for Queen's Park FC.'"

The first Hampden Park football ground was situated nearby, and although O'Brien is yet to prove it, lore has it that the original clubhouse, enlarged in 1924 to its present configuration, was part of Queen's Park's original pavilion between 1878 and 1883. Queen's Park's second Hampden became known as (New) Cathkin Park, while the third is today's Scottish national football stadium, where O'Brien was project director in establishing the Scottish Football Museum.

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O'Brien would find names "criss-crossing each other" as he spent long hours trawling through archives, and some of them were all-rounders: "For instance, staying on the South Side, the clubhouse for Cowglen Golf Club was designed in the early years of the 20th century by the architect Ninian McWhannell, who played for Queen's Park FC but was also captain of Pollok Golf Club and president of the Shawlands Bowling Club.

"We had to extend the number of pages in the book to try and keep as much as we could in," says O'Brien. "We could have doubled its size." Because, as the book points out, Glasgow had a crucial role not just in founding football, but in founding world bowls and even water polo. "Because of its position as second city of the Empire, bursting with entrepreneurial zeal during the second half of the 19th century, it's no surprise that the skills and plans of the people of Glasgow were brought to bear in codifying and organising so many different sports."

A major revelation came some years ago when he was researching material for the Scottish Football Museum and looking at a particular face within faded photograph taken of the Queen's Park football team in 1883 – "and I looked at it and thought, 'My God, this guy's black." He was looking at Andrew Watson who, it emerged after five years of research by the Scottish football Museum, had been born in British Guiana in 1857, the son of a Scots sugar planter and a local woman, settled in Glasgow and played with two minor amateur football teams before spending seven years with Queen's Park. He ended up captaining the 1881 Scotland team which beat England 6-1 and won two further caps before leaving Glasgow, possibly to pursue a career as a marine engineer. Another Watson, the English player Arthur, goalkeeper, mainly, for Preston North End in the late 1880s, is usually regarded a Britain's first black footballer, so the emergence of this other Watson was a revelation. O'Brien feels we shouldn't really be surprised: "I think the Glasgow of that period was teeming with people from every continent. Andrew Watson is acclaimed as a great player."

The oldest relic O'Brien found himself examining was the Silver Club dating from the foundation of Glasgow Golf Club on Glasgow Green in 1787. Among many buildings of interest, tucked away beside a council land services yard at Victoria Park, is the quaintly pillared, brick-built pavilion of Partick Curling Club, dating from 1900 and not only unique in Glasgow but one of only five historic curling houses known in Scotland.

The building has been put forward to Historic Scotland for possible listing as a historic building. "If it doesn't get A-listed, then there's no justice this world," remarks O'Brien with some warmth.

Already B-listed as a building of historic interest is the elegant Victorian Arlington Baths in Charing Cross, the oldest private baths club in Britain, one of whose baths masters, William Wilson, effectively invented the game of water polo.

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In team-playing with Simon Inglis, editor of the successful "Played in Britain" series of sporting history books, Historic Scotland is branching out from the castles and monumental built heritage with which it is publicly associated, as the agency's Chief Inspector, Malcolm Cooper agrees. "If you go back a few years the sense was that heritage is country houses or castles or things like that," says Cooper, "and for a lot of people that's one important aspect, but there is a range of other things, such as cinemas and theatres, and there's no doubt one of the real interests is in sporting heritage."

Research both north and south of the Border, adds Cooper, suggests what he describes as "a pent-up interest in sporting heritage on a really wide scale. In a way it's like a democratisation of heritage, appealing to a much broader audience, and I think that for a city like Glasgow it's part of the lifeblood."

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"So with the Commonwealth Games coming, this is an opportunity to tell one of the really important stories of Glasgow, and bodies like Historic Scotland need to be aware of that in the broad sense, not just going for the grand building," says Cooper. "It's all part of the DNA of the city."

• Played in Glasgow: Charting the Heritage of a City at Play, is published by Historic Scotland in conjunction with Played in Britain and Glasgow City Council, 14.99, to order, see