Early races - 1636 to the present day

by Neil Stirrat


Chester's Roodee  |  Edinburgh  |  Borders  |  first Irvine race  |  first Scottish steeplechase  |  the Temperance tent
some Marymass stories  |  some participants  |  the Cadgers Race Course  |  popular horses


The start of the 14.2 Gallop at Marymass 1975


No race course in the world has a more historic setting than Chester's Roodee. It was here that the Roman legions arrived to build their fortress Deva, later one of the major ports of Medieval England, and in the days of Roman occupation the River Dee washed up to the very walls where today thousands stand to cheer on the winner of the Chester Cup.

Chester officially began to organise horse racing on The Roodee in the 1500's, making it the oldest race course in Britain. The exact date is open to debate. . . some historians believing that 1511-12 was the starting point and others favouring 1539-40, but all accepting that official racing began during the turn of Henry Gee as Mayor of Chester, who died in 1545. His name is remembered with the annual running of the Henry Gee Maiden Stakes in July.


In certain locations all over the country carters and ploughmen unyoked their draught animals and raced them as part of annual festivals. The races in the Edinburgh area were a central element in carters' plays, the annual holiday of horsemen, both ploughmen and carters, and the day of the meeting of their local friendly society. Friendly societies existed all over Scotland, but only within twenty miles of Edinburgh did they include horse races. It has been argued that in this respect they were imitations of Leith races, the great working-class festival of the year, and it is difficult to see any other explanation.

Borders - and annual fairs

In the Borders, where there was a traditional need for horses for cattle-raiding and the pursuit of raiders, burgh races were established at some distance, often several miles from the towns. These races were and are part of an important burgh ritual. At Hawick the races were part of the "Common Riding", which has been held almost every year since 1537 and which still includes races which are highly competitive.

Much of the horse racing was in the form of parish or burgh races which leave little trace in the historical record, partly because they were incidental to the main purpose of the day on which they were held - an annual fair which had its origins in a religious feast. These local meetings took place in many areas of Lowland Scotland, the runners being farmers' horses. By the nineteenth century this form of racing was particularly common in Renfrewshire and Ayrshire. Whether this reflects an earlier distribution, or whether minor horse races took place all over Lowland Scotland, is not yet clear. A linked but separate practice was the ad hoc wager - from time to time owners of horses would make wagers spontaneously and settle them a day or a week later.

The Bogside course in Irvine

In 1636 the first race meeting was established in Irvine Moor, later known as Bogside, by the Earl of Eglinton. This event became known as the Irvine Marymass Races, and celebrated the feast of the Annunciation, or lady day, on March 25th. The Marymass races took place on the flat, and it was not until 200 years later, with the formation of the Eglinton Park Racing Club in 1836, that jump racing took place.

The first steeplechase recorded in Scotland took place at Bogside on April 25th, 1839. Lord Eglinton owned two of the six runners, partnering his horse "Coventry" to victory over his other hope "Multum in Parvo". The West of Scotland Grand National, a handicap chase over about three miles with 100 guineas added money, was staged at Bogside on May 3rd, 1867. The race was won by the Duke of Hamilton's "The Elk" who is known as the first victor of the Scottish Grand National, which was the title taken up in 1881.

Popular support - and the Temperance Tent !

Racing was integrated into burgh society, being organised by the Irvine Carters' Society and by the ritual of processing to and from the race course. It became very rowdy indeed, close to a drunken riot. Local people were deeply committed to the continuation of the races. A change in its character was preceded in 1867 by the appearance on the Irvine Town Moor, alongside nine tents selling alcohol, of the marquee of the Ayrshire Temperance Union. The temperance tent must have been a startling sight!

Some stories

There have been many stories told about our Marymass Races. Ones which springs to mind is that during a thunderstorm in 1950 one horse was seen to go from a dark bay to one with a white main. It was immediately removed before things got out of hand.

Another story involves a rider who fell off his mount at the poorhouse comer. The horse bolted towards Kilwinning. He ran in pursuit and was last seen boarding the back road bus, his only way of catching it. Thank God things turned out okay, horse and rider both unhurt. One humorous tale about a brother Carter who at the choosing decided his donkey was unbeatable, asking for any odds. The Friday night before racing, it disappeared from its field, our Brother was not amused. The Sunday night after racing it was found in a field, one mile from its original field, none the worse for its ordeal.

Then we come to race fixing. One jockey, who obviously got his instructions wrong, was found badly beaten up. He recovered to ride another day. Thankfully, race fixing has been eroded from our sport at Marymass, so I am told!

Some participants

Our racing seemed to attract many from all over Scotland. Ulvia McDougall, Master Stabler for the Earl of Cassillis, prepared a horse to be run at Irvine in 1636.

Many local prominent jockeys who have participated in our races over the years include Alfie McManus, Sanny Fletcher, Jim Smith, Tam McGill, Bertie Handley, Alex McCrorie, Johnny McIlwaine, Sandra Townsend and Julie Affleck racing against men in heavy horse racing, Jim Craig, S. Tait and Jim Affleck Jnr.

1793 Cadgers Race Course

The Cadgers' Race Course was built by Captain John Watt at Irvine Moor. A cadger was a man who travelled on horseback delivering parcels, mail, etc..

Previously, racing had taken part at Ravenscroft, near where Ravenspark Academy now stands. It was all part of the Moor.

Popular horses

Two horses that stole the hearts of the people of Irvine were "Epicure", owned by Bro. Hugh King, who won a number of races before and after the war and "Near White", owned by Major Watson. The fastest four and a half furlong horse in Britain, unfortunately she couldn't win over five furlongs.

Another favourite with the local punters was "Glenurie", owned by Crawford Locke, the local vet, and ridden in the Ladies' Race by Ann Weatherall.


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