Memorial in honour of ‘father of draughts’ restored

The memorial.
The memorial.
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He is the world champion forgotten in his homeland, who dazzled far-flung audiences with his infectuous enthusiasm as much as his skill.

Now, two centuries after his birth, a memorial in honour of James Wyllie, the man credited as the father of draughts, has been lovingly restored.

The Scot was one of the leading proponents of the board game throughout the 19th century, travelling as far afield as the US and New Zealand to take on all comers.

Save for two short spells, he held the world title for more than half a century, a period of dominance which ensured his name would forever be remembered by aficionados of the game.

The public at large, however, eventually forgot about Wyllie, who went by the nickname, The Herd Laddie, on account of the fact his earliest patron worked as a cattle farmer.

When Joe McDaniel, a tourist from the US, visited Scotland last October, he decided to pay his respects to Wyllie.

But on arriving at Scoonie Cemetery in Leven, he discovered the stone memorial was in a sorry state, lying broken on the ground. The next move of Mr McDaniel, himself a keen draughts player, was never in doubt.

He alerted the Scottish Draughts Association to the plight of Wyllie’s resting place. Before long, John Thomson, a Leven stonemason, came on board. Together, the group resolved to restore the great player’s grave.

Now, the headstone stands proud in the cemetery, with Mr Thomson remedying a spelling error of Wyllie’s surname and noting his status as a world champion.

Christopher Reekie, a retired journalist and draughts enthusiast, who has followed the restoration project, said it was fitting that Wyllie’s legacy lived on into the 21st century.

He said: “The inscription places on record the amazing length of time that Wyllie was world champion. He and other outstanding players put Scotland on the map in draughts.”

Born in 1818 in Piershil, Edinburgh, Wyllie was raised in Kilmarnock after his father died on army service in Ireland. It was during his formative years in Ayrshire that he developed a love for the game, visiting towns and villages and defeating players twice his age.

By the age of 30, he had won the world championship for the first time. He would go on to dominate the tourney, holding on to the title until 1894, apart from two brief spells when up and coming opponents got the better of him.

Wyllie’s fame also took him abroad, touring in the US twice, as well as trips to Australia and New Zealand. He died aged 80 at his home in Glasgow.

Mr Reekie said the Scot stood out from the crowd, praising his “spectacular strokes” which left challengers “routed”. It was not a show of arrogance, however; Wyllie published his plays, and was, in Mr Reekie’s estimation, a “populariser, publicist, and teacher” who blazed a trail.

He added: “The game was popular among all classes over a long period.The Scottish contribution to draughts is not widely recognised among the public, but there is extensive literature on those times in the National Library of Scotland and the Mitchell Library.”

Donald Oliphant, secretary of the Scottish Draughts Association, said: “I am delighted that the memorial is up again. Wylie is remembered and admired by draughts players everywhere.”