Olympics: The day Scotland competed under its own flag at the Games

The British Olympic Team at the opening ceremony in 1908. Picture: Getty
The British Olympic Team at the opening ceremony in 1908. Picture: Getty
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In the 1908 London Olympics, the records show that the host nation won a record 146 medals, of which 56 were golds, 51 silvers and 39 bronzes.

This is not quite true, though. It was not just the host nation which won this record haul, but the host nations because the London Olympics was the first and last Games at which the four home countries competed as separate teams, and they did so at a sport making its Olympic debut – hockey.

The City Toastmaster using a megaphone at the 1908 London Olympics. Picture: Getty

The City Toastmaster using a megaphone at the 1908 London Olympics. Picture: Getty

The four-nation arrangement which saw hockey compete alongside sports such as polo, jeu de paume (real tennis), rackets, tug of war and water motorsports was unusual, but then so was the deal which saw England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland compete for hockey glory alongside a French side chosen from three Parisian clubs (Club Athletique International, Racing Club de France and Stade Francais) and the Uhlenhorster club from Hamburg, which represented Germany.

The genesis of the event was the absolute determination of the four home hockey federations to play as separate entities. In fact when EP Denny, the headmaster of the Anglo-Saxon School in Paris and the man who effectively introduced hockey to France in 1897, put forward the idea, the English Hockey Association didn’t want to play at all. The EHA had to be strong-armed into organising the event at short notice (indeed, everything was done at short notice after London stepped into the breach after Rome had to pull out as hosts when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 1906), which explains why it was held more than two months after the rest of the Games had concluded with a closing ceremony on 25 July.

The English initially proposed that a Great Britain team compete at the Games, but despite Ireland still being part of the realm this wasn’t acceptable to many in Dublin, where the Ireland Hockey Association rejected the proposal at an emergency committee meeting on 21 November, 1907, with Scotland and Wales falling into line soon thereafter. (Although a Great Britain & Ireland team did compete at the Games, Ireland competed as a separate nation at polo, where it won a silver medal, while many Irish athletes competed for the US Olympic team by joining the Irish American Athletic Club, whose members won ten of America’s 23 gold medals – more than France, Germany and Italy combined).

Although many of the best Scottish players were injured and there was no international trial, prominent administrator JA Kirkwood took the lead in putting together the side which travelled south on the overnight train on 28 October, 1908. It was predominantly chosen from well-to-do ex-public schoolboys, many of whom also played other sports to a high level and who came from a coterie of top clubs in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

White City Stadium during the 1908 Games. Picture: Getty

White City Stadium during the 1908 Games. Picture: Getty

There was also one particularly interesting late addition in the shape of Ivan Laing from Hawick. Despite being a Borderer, the dashing Laing exemplified the sort of hockey player who represented Scotland in the 1908 Olympics: the son of a prominent mill owner, he had been sent off to be educated at the exclusive New College in Eastbourne and as well as being a prolific try-scoring wing for Hawick rugby club, he also swam for Scotland and was one of the country’s best athletes.

Laing had only ever played mixed hockey for the Teviotdale club in Hawick but earned a place in the team because, as the train south from Edinburgh stopped at Hawick, he was standing on the platform and was spotted by Dr Norman Stevenson, who, as well as taking over 3,000 wickets for Carlton Cricket Club and Scotland, had also played against Laing when he had a rugby trial for Scotland. With the hockey team being short of numbers, Stevenson stuck his head out of the window and persuaded Laing to come with them.

That turned out to be an inspired move. Just hours after arriving in London and making his debut for Scotland, inside left Laing scored the first goal in Olympic hockey history when he netted against Germany within two minutes of the start in an easy 4-0 win, with skipper Baird Burt (whose brother was goalkeeper John Burt, also from Rutherglen), James Harper-Orr and Hugh Walker concluding the scoring. (There had been an earlier match between Germany and France, won 1-0 through a goal by Germany’s Fritz Moding, but this was denoted as an exhibition match, with the extraordinarily condescending official Olympic report concluding that: “Their one mission is to learn and they acquired not a few wrinkles by watching the British teams”, although the official report of Scotland’s win over Germany said that the Germans should have scored at least twice.)

Laing, who is still commemorated in an annual hockey match between the senior girls and boys of Hawick High School, played in both of Scotland’s games, and had much in common with many of his team-mates. Privileged and wealthy, and a talented all-rounder, he also perished in the war when, as a lieutenant with the Coldstream Guards, he was killed in action at Metz-en-Coutre in 1917 a year after winning the Military Cross.

He was one of several all-rounders and war heroes in the 1908 hockey team. Commander Alastair Denistoun was the most talented British codebreaker in the First World War and started up and ran Bletchley Park in the Second World War. Equally prominent was Major-General Charles Foulkes CMG DSO, who fought in Ypres and was Britain’s chief adviser on gas warfare. He fought in the Boer War, Ceylon, Nigeria, Afghanistan and, as well as being aide-de-camp to George V, was in charge of propaganda in Ireland in 1921.

The number of all-rounders was even greater. Right back Hugh Neilson also played badminton and tennis for Scotland; Norman Stevenson ran for Cartha Athletic Club, had a trial for Scotland at rugby and played for Scotland at cricket; and centre forward James Harper-Orr was a well-known advocate and Old Lorretonian who scored 91 runs for Scotland’s cricket team in three matches during 1912-13.

Yet hockey was not one of the main sports in Scotland – these were rugby, football, cricket and golf – and, shorn of many of their best players through injury, the Scotland team which had beaten Germany was always facing an uphill task against an England team which had earlier beaten France 10-1. Indeed, the Times newspaper suggested that what little chance the Scots had was down to a pitch at the White City Stadium in Shepherd’s Bush which by now resembled a ploughed field.

“Though not at full strength, Scotland have a capable side and are steadily improving year by year, especially in the matter of skill with the stick, which was notably absent in former years. This is, of course, largely due to the fact that the Scots are unable to procure first-class grounds to play on; indeed, many of their pitches are very bad and uneven and consequently they are obliged to indulge in excessive hand and foot play, which always spoils the game from every point of view.”

Although patronising, the preview turned out to be on the money. In front of a very sparse crowd in Shepherd’s Bush (the Olympics was the subject of acres of newsprint at its controversy-ridden height, but the hockey was poorly attended and barely reported) Scotland were steamrollered by an England side featuring the undoubted star of Olympic hockey that year, Reggie Pridmore. The young Englishman, who went on to play for cricket for Warwickshire, had scored a hat-trick against France, also scored three against Scotland and would go on to score four in England’s 8-1 win over Ireland in the final. Stanley Shoveller, who would also win a hockey gold medal at Antwerp in 1920, also scored a brace against Scotland, the final English goal of a one-sided 6-1 win coming from Gerald Logan, while Scotland’s solitary goal was scored by Hugh Walker.

Yet for many of the members of the 1908 hockey team, that their endeavours in London were insubstantial compared to what they would endure in the war or even compared to their exploits in other sports was demonstrated after they had been well beaten by England in their second match. Offered the chance to play Wales for the bronze medal, they instead decided it wasn’t worth the time and trouble. After the lavish banquet at the Holborn Restaurant, they simply got on the overnight train from Euston and travelled back to Edinburgh.

The whole adventure had lasted for less than four days, and despite the rancorous events of the 1908 Olympics – the Finns refused to play as part of the Russian team, many Irishmen refused to compete beneath the Union flag, and the Americans accused the British of cheating – the possible political ramifications of a Scotland team appearing independent of the British set-up seemed to have by-passed both players and officials. Indeed, there are no team photos of the Scotland squad, and when the Scottish Hockey Association met in 1909, the Olympic exploits were dismissed in one sentence before the committee went on to discuss “the more serious matches” against England, Wales and Ireland.

Scots who won medals


Archie Robertson (team race); Wyndham Halswelle (400m); Angus Gillan (coxless fours); George Cornet (water polo); Royal Clyde Yacht Club (12 metre class).


Archie Robertson (steeplechase); Alex McCulloch (single sculls).


Hugh Roddin (featherweight boxing); Scotland hockey team.

• The Bishop of Pennsylvania said at this games that “The important thing is less the winning than the taking part”, sentiments which were later taken up by Baron De Coubertin, the IOC president, and often wrongly attributed to him.

• Australia and New Zealand were jointly represented by one team called Australasia.

• Until 1908 the marathon was run over 25 miles, but when its start was moved to Windsor Castle in 1908 it became 26 miles. Then the start was moved 385 yards so that it began beneath the nursery window of the young Princess Mary. The distance of 26 miles and 385 yards has been standard since the 1924 Olympics.

• In an act of incedible sportsmanship, the final of the Greco-Roman wrestling between Swedes Frithiof Martensson and Mauritz Andersson was put back a day to allow Martensson – the eventual gold medallist – to recover from a minor injury.

• France’s Geo Andre won silver in the high jump with 1.88m. He would have won gold had his too-baggy shorts, which were borrowed after his own were lost on the journey, not clipped the bar at 1.90m when it looked as if he was sailing clear.

• Many records for the oldest and youngest competitors were set in 1908, one of which still stands. Swede Oscar Swahn won gold in shooting’s politically incorrect single shot running deer event aged 60 years and 265 days to add to his earlier gold in the team event. Incidentally, his son Alfred won silver, making them the only father-and-son combination.