By Taylor Walston
In Musselburgh, Scotland, archers compete for the Musselburgh Silver Arrow as part of an ancient tradition dating to 1603, making it the world’s oldest archery competition.
Some archery exhibitions, although not official competitions, began as early as the 1400s. In 1457, King James II banned golf and football (soccer) to encourage more archery practice. He decreed that archery competitions would take place four times annually, and that archery should be practiced at churches each Sunday. The king’s decree was intended to strengthen the army’s archery skills, but the events grew in popularity for recreation. Their popularity launched many competitions still held today, such as the Silver Arrow Competition at St. Andrews University and the Musselburgh Silver Arrow.
The original Musselburgh trophy was called the “Musselburgh Small Arrow” and was 1 foot long. Victorious archers kept it for a year and then passed it to the next winner the following year. Each time it was adorned with a medallet, and inscribed with the winner’s name or coat of arms. The oldest medallet is thought to have been inscribed with these lines: “When Ardrose was a man he could not be peal’d; at the old sport he wan, when Ardrose was a man. But now he neither may nor can, Alas! He is fail’d! When Ardrose was a man he could not be peal’d.”
A rule stated that if the same archer won the silver arrow three straight times he could keep the arrow. It was then engraved with a shield and inscribed with the confirmation it had been won three times. The trophy became the “Musselburgh Silver Arrow” in 1713.
The Musselburgh competition was open to all archers at its 1603 debut. In 1676, only members of the Royal Company of Archers could compete, and members of the company today still compete for the trophy. The Royal Company of Archers is a closed group comprised of about 500 members, and includes politicians, senior military officers, and members of the nobility.
The archers are also known as the “Sovereign’s Body Guard in Scotland.” King George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822, and the company asked to be his official bodyguard while he was in Scotland. King George IV enjoyed archery, so he accepted. The company’s duties today are unofficial and purely ceremonial.
The company performs duties at the request of the queen at state and ceremonial occasions. When they convene as a group, they adorn their hats with a large feather, hold their longbows, and wear a hip-quiver full of arrows. The company still functions as an archery club, much as it was intended in 1676. Its members practice at Hope Park and compete for prizes, including the Silver Arrow.
The archers, accompanied by a bagpipe band, parade through town in a historic showcase of their rights as Freemen of the Burgh. The parade is held twice: immediately before and after the competition. The parade begins at Brunton Hall and ends at the competition site at Musselburgh Racecourse. After the competition and trophy ceremony conclude, the members parade back to Brunton Hall.
The archers shoot at a clout, a target style from the time period in which archers were mandated by law to practice. The clout is a circular mat 30 inches in diameter, and it’s positioned at a 45-degree angle. A judge, or “marker,” stays in the field and reports where the archers’ arrows land. They relay the arrows’ locations back to the archers by code using a baton and white napkin.
Public spectators can watch the competition from seats at the Musselburgh Racecourse.
Two graduates of the Edinburgh College of Art were commissioned in 2018 to design a statue commemorating the historic competition, as well as the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh, and the Roman occupation of the area in the year 80 A.D. The statue anchors a larger art piece. Musselburgh has 15 arrow statues marking historically significant sites. A statue of an archer looks as if he’s holding a bow at full draw, but his hands are empty. This seems symbolic and open to interpretation, suggesting the archer’s heart is scattered across the city.
Keep an eye on the East Lothian Council Facebook for updates about this year’s competition.
If you’re inspired to pick up a bow, visit an archery range and channel the Royal Company of Archers.