MUSSELBURGH RFC celebrates its 100th birthday today, and the Stoneyhill outfit are determined to mark the occasion in style. Organising a game followed by a social gathering at the clubhouse has not been possible due to Covid restrictions, but members have been asked to join an online event this coming Saturday where they can come together to reminisce about their time with the club.
“We have had a lot of interest from members and others who have had connections with Musselburgh RFC over the years about getting involved on Saturday,” says club president Drew Johnston.
“There will also be some video messages from former players and a few well-known faces from within Scottish rugby such as Ian McGeechan, Gavin and Scott Hastings, Jim Calder, Sean Lineen, Kenny and Iain Milne and, in the current climate, it is the best way to mark such a milestone.
“Indeed, we even have a piece to camera from Eric Davidson who is now in his 90s and was the No8 when we defeated the mighty Hawick in our 25th anniversary game in 1946.
“We would love the event to be in a busy clubhouse at Stoneyhill, but all of that can wait. This week and during the event on Saturday it is a great opportunity for people to remember the fond times they have had at the club and look ahead to a bright future.”
The Shirehaugh days
The club began life at the Shirehaugh area of the town in 1921 and were based there for around 30 years.
After the First World War there was, according to records, a “thirst for recreation” in Musselburgh, so the Musselburgh Sports Club was duly set-up to cater for football, cricket, athletics, golf and rugby.
That was in late 1920 and the rugby section managed to attract upwards of 30 members pretty quickly, leading to the formal sanction of the rugby section’s formation to be recorded in the minutes of the Musselburgh Sports Club on 15th February 1921.
“Rugby had been in the town at Loretto School since the 1880s, but their grounds were private and so the Musselburgh Sports Club had to find facilities,” Johnston explains.
“They got a lease from the Earl of Wemyss for seven acres for land at Shirehaugh which is where the local golf club is now.
“The members raised funds to set-up different areas for the different sports and a president of the rugby section, a chap named P.E.C. Honeyman, was appointed.”
The first match that Musselburgh ever played was on 2nd November 1921 when they were captained by Tilly Shorthouse away to the Royal College of Surgeons and managed to win 9-3.
A few more away games came before they entered the Edinburgh and District Junior League in 1922 and in the March of that year they fenced around the pitch, built a small pavilion and employed Musselburgh Grammar pupils to clear the playing surface of stones.
“In those days the players had to walk up to Shirehaugh from the centre of the town and the club had to also build a bridge over the River Esk to the pitch,” says Johnston.
“There was only small changing facilities and afterwards there was just a big bath which was filled up with water from the river so that the players could get clean.
“Around then, John Young had become president and over the next few years he was a big character at the club.
“A few years later, Bill Caird – a local bank manager and future Provost who knew everyone – and Alex Baxter got involved and it is fair to say that the former became a real driving force in the club’s development.”
By 1936, the other Musselburgh Sports Club sections were fading away or had gone their own way, so the Musselburgh Sports Club became known as Musselburgh RFC from then onwards.
The club held its first sevens tournament in 1938 before the Second World War came and then, in 1948, Musselburgh gained full membership of the Scottish Rugby Union.
That meant they were part of the unofficial championship from 1948-49 and in 1949 they also won the Murrayfield Sevens where a key player was a young Ramsay Smith in front of a crowd of 10,000.
It was around that time that Caird decided that a move to a pitch nearer the town centre would be beneficial and set in motion a plan to move the club to Stoneyhill.
The move to Stoneyhill
When Caird and Co started negotiations to move to Stoneyhill, Inveresk Papermill owned the building that still stands on the far side of the pitch and stored esparto grass on the area where the pitch was set to be.
The Town Council then bought that building and agreed to lease the pitch to the club as well as changing facilities.
And after a mammoth operation to clear the railway sleepers and stones from the pitch, the first game was played against an Edinburgh District Union select side on September 11, 1951.
“Things were ticking along nicely at the club by then and on 4th February 1955 the team were part of the first rugby game played under floodlights in Scotland at Old Meadowbank against the West Wales Rugby Union team,” Johnston explains.
“The team also won the Kelso Sevens around that time which was a big thing, the club’s constitution was drawn up in 1957 and by 1958 we were running four teams.
“Teams such as the fourth XV were still playing at Shirehaugh then, but in 1959 Pinkie, where our second XV pitch is now, became available. As a result, 1960 marked the end of games at Shirehaugh.”
Sir A.B. King had become president in 1955 and remarkably held the post until 1973 with the aforementioned Ramsay Smith as club secretary for all of that time. Ramsay was the key driver behind the club and oversaw many improvements at Stoneyhill, particularly the installation of floodlights in 1969, the first club in Scotland to have these in place.
Clubhouse built in 1970 and league rugby arrives in 1973
Around 1967, discussions began on the prospect of building a clubhouse on the land where the current one is today and planning was granted in 1969.
The building was designed by Harry Williams, who was later made a life member for his efforts, and the members fitted it out all managed by a certain Ramsay Smith.
“That fit-out was driven by Ian Dewar, later to also become a life member, with expert help from electrician Finlay Whittaker. Ian passed away recently and really the clubhouse is Ian’s legacy, the bar that you come into nowadays if you visit Stoneyhill is the same one that he fitted back in 1970.” Johnston states.
“The clubhouse was officially opened on 6th February 1971, almost 50 years to the day from the club’s formation, when SRU president Wilson Shaw visited and there was a game against Hawick in which, according to those who were there, Hawick grabbed a draw after a very lengthy injury time.”
When official leagues came into being in 1973, Musselburgh were placed in Division Three of six National Leagues, but were relegated in 1973-74 and 1974-75 to end up in Division Five.
“The Colts team had been formed in 1974 so by 1976 those young players were coming through into senior rugby and we went on a roll,” Johnston explains.
“We won Division Five in 1976-77 undefeated under the leadership of coach Alex Stewart and captain Raymond Clark and by 1980-81 we were up to Division Two but only stayed a couple of seasons.
“New changing rooms came in 1983 – allowing us to move away from the community centre – and in 1984-85, when I was lucky enough to be captain, we managed to win Division Three. Then 1986-87 was a particular highlight because we got promoted to Division One.
“Those were amazing times because we got to play against all of the Scotland internationalists from the big clubs. Our first game in 1987-88 was against Stewart’s Melville led by the Calder brothers and we managed to draw.
“Fast forward a few months and we just missed out on staying in the league by a couple of points, but we had given it our best shot for sure.
“The club was buzzing around then and that was shown a few years later when we took a tour to Canada in 1992 with 59 people on the trip. In the season that followed the club just missed out on promotion back to National One, losing in a winner takes all last game of the season versus Stewart’s Melville at Inverleith in front of a crowd of a few thousand people.”
The last 25 years
From 1996 until about 2009, Musselburgh 1st XV were generally in the second or third top club league in the country, but the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons were not so good and the club dropped down into the East Regional Leagues.
“We needed a refresh at that time, so the club brought in a new director of rugby, a new coach, a new 1st XV captain and a number of new committee members,” Johnston, now 62, recalls. “Things took off and from 2011 to 2019 we went on another journey.
“We made it all the way up to National One and then, when leagues were reconstructed when the Super6 came to life in the summer of 2019, we were placed in the Premiership after a good finish in the second tier in 2018-19.
“When rugby was halted last March, we were eighth in the top flight and the first XV had really battled to get some very positive results.
“Although it has been a strange year, as a Musselburgh boy who has been part of the club for 45 years, I am greatly honoured to be president as we reach our centenary.
“I am confident that when rugby does return, Musselburgh RFC will be able to continue to play its part at the top end of the club game in Scotland.
“We have two senior XVs now, a social XV, strong youth and mini sections, and have forged close links with Musselburgh Grammar School where we have a fledgling girls team. We are determined to continue to be a community club and a ‘club for all’ with our key values of ‘Integrity, Inclusion and Respect’ to the fore.
“We have just started to build a strength & conditioning facility and instigated a changing room upgrade for the club members and the community to use, so that is exciting too.”
- Thanks to Calum Johnston for providing the photos
- The Offside Line’s grassroots rugby coverage is supported by Macron Store Edinburgh (Colin Campbell Sports), suppliers of Macron rugby strips and teamwear.