Nonspiel

Was the RC to blame for the failure to stage one of winter’s great events?

Curling has long played a special part in Scotland’s winter activities – when all other sports are frozen out it’s the curlers’ turn to step into the spotlight. Thanks to warmer winters, sliding of stones has generally been confined indoors, but this year has seen the conditions conspire to create outdoor rinks aplenty. Rumours started that Britain’s ultimate curling event – the Grand Match – was to take place. While any outdoor curling event is a memorable occasion, a Grand Match – the ultimate Bonspiel, in which teams from the north of Scotland take on the south – is truly something to behold. Indeed, the last one, held on the Lake of Menteith in 1979, saw some 2,000 curlers do battle on a staggering 600 rinks, a spectacle that attracted at least 5,000 noncurlers to boot. And, although the ice was ideal for almost a week this winter, the event that the country’s curlers had been waiting for never materialised – a matter that was blamed on an overzealous health and safety executive, a pedantic police force, uncooperative landowners and, in particular, the sport’s own governing body, the Royal Caledonian Curling Club (RCCC).

In defence of the RCCC

The RCCC’s Alistair Hibbert reflects that part of the reason behind the lack of 2010’s Grand Match is due to the fact that a great deal has changed in three decades. ‘We now need to take many more factors into consideration,’ he observes, ‘and need the full support of the blue light services’ in an era in which health and safety concerns are increasingly key. ‘What’s more’, he continues, ‘while last time there were an estimated 4-5,000 spectators, this year, thanks in part to the massive media coverage, and in part to the fact that more people have cars, we fully expected five figures-worth to turn up, which would pose problems of access on an unprecedented scale.’ Moreover, ‘after 1979, the local landowner, who had allowed a field to be used for car parking, had said ‘never again’ would he grant access to such numbers. As a result, while we had plans drawn up for two other venues – Piper Dam and Loch Leven (on which the ice was sadly not suited to curling this winter) – we hadn’t considered the Lake a possibility this year, until it was brought to our attention that a new landowner was prepared to allow the Match go ahead.’ By then, despite several meetings called in an attempt to adapt the Leven and Piper plans to the Lake, it was too late.

The case against the RCCC

Hibbert’s argument is compelling, in that times have indeed changed considerably since 1979, but while many agree with this sentiment, others point out that it is the RCCC’s responsibility to change with the times. After all, all registered Scottish curlers pay an annual £17 subscription to the RCCC, and teams have to stump up £100 to enter any Grand Match, which should provide sufficient funding to finance such an event. What’s more the organisation has a specific Grand Match Committee (GMC) who have had 30 years to come up with an appropriate plan.

‘The event that the country’s curlers had been waiting for never materialised – a matter that was blamed on an overzealous health and safety executive.’

However, according to one local landowner, even the 1979 event had been a ‘bit of a shambles’ and, although the curling itself went well and it was a great day out for spectators – perhaps in part due to the copious quantities of free whisky distributed by Teachers – attempts to leave at the end of the day resulted in ‘complete chaos.’ Nevertheless, unlike this year, the Grand Match of ’79 was not without some preparation, including the ice being tested by the Royal Engineers. Without such basic precautions in place it was not surprising that the police didn’t sanction this year’s gathering, and neither they nor health and safety regulations should shoulder the blame. ‘A lot of people get cross when you mention health and safety,’ the landowner continues, but it’s just a fancy name for risk assessment – something that’s always been done. Indeed, the police worked very hard to make the event happen, but no appropriate plans were in place.’

Conclusions

Despite being presented with a golden opportunity by the weather, the ice finally melted, and with it a once-in-a-generation chance to showcase Scotland’s curling. Although thousands turned up to walk and skate their way across to Inchmahome Priory, watch some small-scale curling and enjoy a scene that was reminiscent of a painting by Brueghel or Raeburn, the backdrop not the curling was the star of the show. This was highly frustrating to Lakeside locals, those who were keen to experience a new sport and – most of all – to curlers from Scotland and all over the world. RCCC President Bill Marshall admitted that ‘no one is more disappointed than myself and the Grand Match Committee’ that the event failed to take place.

But neither – it seems – is any group more responsible. It is for this reason that some Menteith locals are now considering making their own plans. Hopefully, however, no matter who is responsible next time, we’ll not have to wait another three decades before the world-famous gathering can be staged once again.

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