This new project, Uncovering the history of women’s football in Scotland 1880-1939, funded by The International Centre for Sports Studies (CIES) the educational and research arm of Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), aims to map the early history of women’s football in Scotland. Although many people believe that women’s football is a relatively recent phenomenon, records actually demonstrate that it can be traced back to at least 1628. We also know that women played football, organised along association lines, in the Victorian period and then in much greater numbers during the First World War. However, there has until now been no attempt to map these developments across the country. Over the next 12 months that is exactly what I hope to do. If you have any information about female footballers or women’s teams in Scotland please do get in touch, my contact details are at the end of this article.

Rutherglen Ladies FC, featuring Sadie Smith seventh from the left. The Evening Telegraph, 31st August 1926, British Newspaper Archives.
Rutherglen Ladies FC, featuring Sadie Smith seventh from the left. The Evening Telegraph, 31st August 1926, British Newspaper Archives.

This project has been in gestation for a very long time. I first started to plan it back in 2006 but for various reasons it did not happen then. As it worked out that was a good thing, as in the intervening years, many more records have become available, particularly digitised newspapers, which have been invaluable in locating information on specific games in different regions. Unfortunately, there is no archive or body of records of women’s football in Scotland for this early period, so instead I am tracing games, teams and players by piecing together local newspaper reports, adverts, census records and local memory.

ScotlandsPeople has also been invaluable for tracking down some of the players. Before this project began, I worked with Steve Bolton on a study looking at the growth and development of Rutherglen Ladies FC. Like many women’s teams, Rutherglen’s success and significance to the development of women’s football in Scotland has been overlooked. They were the best team in Scotland during the interwar years and even toured in Ireland twice in the late 1920s. Our research uncovered a huge amount about the team, their matches and their players which was previously unknown. As a result we were invited to curate an exhibition at the Scottish Football Museum and to develop a programme with director Marot McCuaig for BBC Alba focused on the story of one of the team’s star players Sadie Smith.

Photograph of Sadie Smith with two babies
Reproduced with the permission of Eddi Reader and Family.

Sadie was significant because was she a phenomenal striker but, like many female players from that era, she didn’t tell her family about her youthful footballing career. The documentary therefore traces her granddaughter, well known Scottish singer song writer Eddi Reader, as she uncovers her grandmother’s hidden story. As part of the research for Sadie Smith I used ScotlandsPeople to trace the key moments in Sadie’s life. Official records like birth, marriage and death certificates, alongside the census, gave us a much deeper understanding of Sadie’s early life, her family background and occupation.

But the records we found through ScotlandsPeople also helped us to make sense of some of our wider findings – we knew for example that Sadie stopped playing for the team around 1932 but we didn’t know why. Records show us that Sadie married in late 1932 and had therefore given up football to settle down as a respectable married lady and start a family.

The marriage entry of Daniel Reader and Sadie Smith, 25th November 1932
Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, Statutory Register of Marriages, 1932, 644/11 389
The marriage entry of Daniel Reader and Sadie Smith, 25th November 1932
Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, Statutory Register of Marriages, 1932, 644/11 389

By using these official records, alongside newspaper reports and photographs, we were able to trace a really detailed account of Sadie’s footballing life and ultimately to make sense of the Reader family story passed down through the generations: that a neighbour had remarked when Sadie’s young son Brian was playing football in a backcourt that “he was good, but not as good as his Ma!’”

ScotlandsPeople was also invaluable in tracing some of Sadie’s teammates and building up a picture of where they had come from, where they lived at the time of playing for the team, their occupations and in some cases what happened to them next. We have been lucky enough to make contact with eight families of players, who have all be astounded and delighted to learn about their mother, grandmother or auntie’s footballing history. I hope that this exhibition, which is on at the Scottish Football Museum until June 2022 and then touring Scotland, as well as the television programme combined with this new wider research project, will help to raise the profile of Scotland’s rich and varied women’s football history.

There are likely to be many more teams and players to be uncovered. I hope with this new project, Uncovering the history of women’s football in Scotland 1880-1939, that the process of mapping the teams will be a good starting point in reinstating these women and their stories into our wider national sporting history and heritage. There are so many stories like Sadie’s which have been forgotten or are only remembered within families or local folklore, now is the time to celebrate our sporting heroines! If you have any stories or information on women’s football please contact me at fiona.skillen@gcu.ac.uk

Guest writer
Dr Fiona Skillen
Glasgow Caledonian University

One thought on “Uncovering the history of women’s football in Scotland 1880-1939

  1. What a great piece of research, Dr Skillen! Please can you (and Scotland’s People) let us know the touring programme dates of the exhibition and explore the possibility of it being transferred more widely so that us expats can see whether it might be possible to see it? How about an exhibition at Wembley or some London venue? FIFA should want to promote these findings and make them better known, but in the meantime, The Fawcett Society and The British Museum and The London Library all host exhibitions that are visited by punters who’d LOVE to know about research like this. Meanwhile, I hope your research uncovers much more material.

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