Scottish playground games of the 20th century

From chickenellie to street footie and collie back fights, how we used to play in Scotland

Children running on Johnston Street  in Leith. Picture: TSPL
Children running on Johnston Street in Leith. Picture: TSPL

The street games and songs of Scotland’s young once filled back courts, playgrounds and tenement stairwells up and down the country.

The chants and rhymes were described back in the 1800s as “Scotland’s natural literature”, forged in the mother tongue and passed down generation to generation and from brother to sister, as were the games that kept them entertained for free.

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They survived through the 20th Century with some variations certainly in play up to the 1980s.

Playtime at Roslin School. Picture: TSPL
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They reflect a time when children played safely in the street, families perhaps stayed rooted in neighbourhoods for a long time and siblings were charged with the care of the family’s youngest members - long before television and computer consoles did the job.

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Much work has been done to document the history of children’s play time in Scotland, principally by former Edinburgh physics teacher James TR Ritchie in his books The Singing Street and Golden City.

Much of his research has centred round child’s play in Edinburgh but as he noted in 1965, the songs and games were, at root, part of the fabric of childhood across the whole country.

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Children can play in safety in Caledonian Place, Dalry after a Children's Playground - No Vehicles After 4pm rule was introduced in August 1966.

Here we look at how we “played out” in the past, as documented in Ritchie’s Golden City.

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Street football teams were often known as “Back-green Windie-Breckers”. Wembley had the goalie as England and the rest of the players as Scotland. Scotland doesn’t go into the penalty box, with the goalkeeper flinging out the ball and Scotland heading it back. If Scotland kicks the ball, it’s a goal to the goalie.

Glenkinchie Village, East Lothian, Children playing in playground
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Best Man Falls Dead

A cowboys and Indians-style game, where the cowboy has the gun and the Indians take up their position. All are numbered and they attack the cowboy in the order of their numbers. When they all lie dead, the cowboy tickles them under the chin. The one that doesn’t move - the deadest - is the next cowboy. The cowboy always wins.

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Chickenellie, chap door run or knock down ginger

Not covered by Ritchie but possibly a staple of childhoods everywhere. Fuelled by an element of dare, whoever was ‘it’ knocked as urgently as possible on the front door of a neighbour before