Pioneers of women's golf celebrated in new Scottish documentary

From the fishwives of East Lothian who competed to win a creel and handkerchiefs, to the trailblazers who formalised the game, they are among the earliest and most important women in golfing history.
The new documentary celebrates pioneers of women's golf in Scotland. Picture: purpleTVThe new documentary celebrates pioneers of women's golf in Scotland. Picture: purpleTV
The new documentary celebrates pioneers of women's golf in Scotland. Picture: purpleTV

Now a new BBC documentary will celebrate the little known pioneers of women’s game, spanning those who first picked up a club to others who helped pave the way for women’s competitions.

Iron Women, the latest film by the acclaimed documentary maker Margot McCuaig, explores the 18th-century roots of women’s role in the sport, and charts the progress they have made – and obstacles they have overcome – in the centuries since.

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Those behind the film, which airs tomorrow evening, point out that golf was long regarded as the exclusive domain of men, with women’s battle for visibility and equal access a “long and difficult journey”.

But the documentary reveals how as early as the 1700s, recorded evidence showed fishwives in Musselburgh were playing the game, competing for the prize of a creel and silk handkerchiefs.

It traces the development of the women’s game through the Victoria ladies of St Andrews, and tells the stories of individuals like Issette Pearson and Agnes Grainger, who developed strategies to create opportunities for women players.

Thanks to their determination, the Ladies Golf Union and the Scottish Ladies Golf Association were formed in 1893 and 1904 respectively, formalising the sport and establishing competitions.

Significantly, it also introduced a handicap system, long before such a mechanism was rolled out in the men's game.

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Among those interviewed for the documentary is Dr Fiona Skillen, a historian of the women’s game and a lecturer in history at Glasgow Caledonian University.

She said that in the 19th century, men “supervised” women players to make sure they behaved appropriately, and noted that land was eventually gifted to the St Andrews Ladies Putting Club.

“It’s interesting that the land the women are gifted to play on is straight beside the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse, so there’s an argument there that this is in order for the men to be able to keep a watchful eye on what the women are getting up to,” she explained.

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"The men check to see if the women are behaving themselves in a circumspect manner. They are being encouraged to play, but a very specific kind of golf, it’s putting, it’s not challenging.”

The documentary also hears from contemporary women golfers who share their own stories of discrimination.

Karyn Dallas, who competed in the European Ladies Tour and now coaches young players at Forfar Golf Club, said she once arrived at a club to take part in a tournament, only to discover a sign that read ‘no dogs or women allowed’.

Dr Fiona Reid, a member of North Berwick and Murrayfield golf clubs, remembers a white line in the golf club where her mother played. “Only the men could go over that line,” she said. “There’s a place that the men can go and a place that the women can go.”

Iron Women was produced by Glasgow-based purpleTV. It airs on BBC Alba on January 2 at 9pm.

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