Backcountry Sport Ways: North British Origins of Southern Highland Games

The people of the backcountry also brought their own folk games which had long been popular on the borders of north Britain. These entertainments were often very violentas many folk amusements had been throughout England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But the games of the border country had a special quality which derived from the endemic fighting in that region. "Scots and English," for example, was a favorite game on both sides of the border. Two teams of boys faced each other with their hats and coats in piles behind them. The object was to make a raid across the line, and to plunder the other team of its possessions without being captured. The boys shouted the ancient war cries of their region.124

Border folk-games, like so many other parts of its culture, not only reflected the insecurity of life in that region.They also prepared men to deal with it. More than other parts of England, the sports of the border were contests of courage, strength and violence.

Special importance was given to wrestling, an ancient sport on the borders, commonly pronounced "wrasslin" or "russlin." There were two types of wrestling in this region. One was care" fully regulated and elaborately staged in annual tournaments. The burly contestants commonly dressed in sleeveless vests, long tights tucked into stockings, and velvet trunks incongruously embroidered with delicate flowers. Each man stood facing the other, arms locked around the opponent's body and chins tucked into each other's right shoulder:

When both men have taken hold, the bout begins, slowly at first as competitors move crab-like, sizing each other up, but suddenly with a flutter of legs there is action as one man is thrown. If any part of his body other than his feet touches the ground, the 'rout is lost; similarly if a competitor loses his hold he forfeits the bout Clearly such a sport calls for not only great reserves of strength but also for skill, stamina and physical fitness.125

This sport was brought to Appalachia where wrestling tournaments were regularly held. A North Carolina settler named Cyrut Hunter recalled that "wrestling and jumping [were] two om` the most prominent sports" of that early period.126

The borderers also engaged in another sort of combat called "wrassling" or "fighting." This was a wild struggle with no holds barred that continued until one man gave upor gave out.127 These events often began with a contest in "bragging and boasting" between men who had been drinking heavily beforehand. In the Lake District of England, one gentleman justice witnessed such a happening, and put a stop to it. "On Thursday," he wrote, "I went again to Ambleside . . . to see the wrestling. It was very good. A man from Cumberland with a white hat and brown shirt threatened to fling everybody, and fight them afterwards. The fighting I put a stop to."5 ve out.4 These events often began with a contest in "bragging and boasting" between men who had been drinking heavily beforehand. In the Lake District of England, one gentleman justice witnessed such a happening, and put a stop to it. "On Thursday," he wrote, "I went again to Ambleside . . . to see the wrestling. It was very good. A man from Cumberland with a white hat and brown shirt threatened to fling everybody, and fight them afterwards. The fighting I put a stop to."128

The border sport of bragging and fighting was also introduced to the American backcountry. where it came to be called "rough and tumble." Here again it was a savage combat between two or more males (occasionally females), which sometimes left the contestants permanently blinded or maimed. A graphic description of "rough and tumble" came from the Irish traveler Thomas Ashe, who described a fight between a West Virginian and a Kentuckian. A crowd gathered and arranged itself into an impromptu ring. The contestants were asked if they wished to "fight fair" or "rough and tumble." When they chose "rough and tumble," a roar of approval rose from the multitude. The two men entered the ring, and a few ordinary blows were exchanged in a tentative manner. Then suddenly the Virginian "contracted his whole form, drew his arms to his face," and "pitched himself into the bosom of his opponent," sinking his sharpened fingernails into the Kentuckian's head. "The Virginian," we are told, "never lost his hold . . . fixing his claws in his hair and his thumbs on his eyes, [he] gave them a start from the sockets. The sufferer roared aloud, but uttered no complaint." Even after the eyes were gouged out, the struggle continued. The Virginian fastened his teeth on the Kentuckian's nose and bit it in two pieces. Then he tore off the Kentuckian's ears. At last, the "Kentuckian, deprived of eyes, ears and nose, gave in." The victor, himself maimed and bleeding, was "chaired round the grounds," to the cheers of the crowd.129

Sporadic attempts were made to suppress "rough and tumble." Virginia's tidewater legislators passed a general statute against maiming in 1748, and in 1772 added a more specific prohibition against "gouging, plucking or putting out an eye, biting, kicking or stomping. "130 In 1800 the grand jury of Franklin Country, Tennessee, in the manner of American juries, generally indicted the "practice of fighting, maiming and pulling out eyes, without the offenders being brought to justice."131

But in the southern highlands, rough and tumble retained its popularity. During the War of Independence, and English prisoner named Thomas Anburey witnessed several backcountry gouging contests. "An English boxing match," he wrote, ". . . is humanity itself compared with the Virginian mode of fighting," with its "biting, gouging and (if I may so term it) Abelarding each other."132 Anburey described "a fellow, reckoned a great adept in gouging, who constantly kept the nails of both his thumbs and second fingers very long and pointed; nay, to prevent their breaking or splitting . . . he hardened them every evening in a candle." Bloodsports have existed in many cultures, but this was one of the few that made an entertainment of blinding, maiming, and castration."133


Warrior Attitudes towards Work
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