During the early 1870s, attempts were made by the various English clubs to arrange some kind of ball game in the water. A game called “water base-ball” was created, with sides of no more than three players.
By 1876, one or two South Coast of England clubs started to play a game called “aquatic hand-ball‘.
Scotland, however, can take most of the credit for creating and nurturing the modern game of water polo. Members of Bon-Accord S.C. started to play a ball game in the water called “aquatic football” in the early 1870s.
One of the principal rules was that no player could touch the ball with his hands and players had to sit in the water and kick the ball with their feet when passing or shooting for goal. It was a rather difficult game to play and never became popular.
In 1877, William Wilson, President of the Associated Swimming Clubs of Glasgow and Manager at Glasgow’s Victoria Baths Club was asked by Bon-Accord’s President if he knew of a suitable game or competition which could be played at the club’s Annual Championship Gala to relieve spectators from the monotony of a lengthy programme of competitive swimming.
Wilson drew up a set of rules for a water game called “aquatic football”. It was played from bank to bank on the River Dee at the Club’s Annual Championships, however although Wilson had invented an attractive handling game, it was not that successful on moving water as the current carried the ball downstream and only the strongest swimmers could keep up with the play.
A few months later, Wilson arranged a second game in an indoor pool. Teams representing Victoria Baths and West of Scotland played at the opening of the Victoria Baths, Glasgow. Afterwards Wilson changed some rules to make it more attractive and it was played in its revised form for the first time at Paisley Baths in October 1877.
In the following year further rule adjustments were made for a match at a Carnegie S.C. gala.
These initial contests were simple rough and tumble scrambles from one end of the bath to the other. Soft india-rubber balls were used which were difficult to throw any distance.
Enthusiasts recognised that the game had potential and Wilson made further changes: goal posts similar to those in football were introduced; standing on the pool bottom became an offence; catching with both hands was abolished.
The first game under these new conditions took place in Glasgow in October 1879 between the West of Scotland and Clyde clubs. At the same time copies of the rules were passed around the clubs in Glasgow and it was introduced into club practice evenings to supplement long sessions of coaching and training. As more swimmers acquired the skills and familiarised themselves with the rules, intra-club games became commonplace and by 1880 inter-club contests started to flourish.
The game became increasingly popular with spectators because it was exciting to watch, easy to comprehend and the warm comfortable atmosphere of a swimming pool was particularly conducive to sustained spectator interest.
Similar developments were taking place in England. In Birmingham a few clubs began to play a crude style of water polo in 1883, but progress was restricted as each club had made up rules of its own. Uniformity was not achieved until 1885 when the Swimming Association of Great Britain produced and circulated an agreed set of rules.
In Scotland, in contrast, the acceptance of a single code of rules (albeit informally) in the late 1870s, and the availability of suitable playing facilities, enabled Glasgow’s swimming clubs to emerge as pioneers in the game’s early development.
Water polo’s initial popularity was consolidated after 1886 when the Associated Swimming Clubs of Glasgow started an inter-club knock-out cup competition.
Several laws, particularly those concerned with tackling, were changed to make the game more skilful and consequently more enjoyable to play and watch and all affiliated clubs were circulated with a set of competition rules. West of Scotland S.C. beat South Side S.C. in the first final.
By 1889, the competition “was engaged in by nearly all the Glasgow clubs, and during the series of matches the interest and popularity of the game has increased in public favour”.
It was easy to arrange games between clubs in a confined geographical area which possessed good public facilities – the competition went from strength to strength.
Distinct district loyalties developed and there was widespread support for neighbourhood teams.
In September 1888: “Between 300 and 400 aquatic football enthusiasts paid for admission to Cranstonhill Baths last Tuesday, to witness the cup tie — Western v South Side”.
With the establishment of County Associations by the S.A.S.A. in the late 1880s, the game spread and became popular in other parts of the country.
Dundee clubs started to play and in 1889, they formed a team to play in an inter-city game against Glasgow. This became an Annual fixture until 1907, when sufficient development had taken place in Edinburgh and Aberdeen for the establishment of an Inter-District competition.
Representative fixtures not only improved playing standards, but also allowed spectators to watch the country’s leading players.
Additional interest was nurtured after 1890, with the inauguration of an annual Scotland v England International fixture. Although the first game took place at the Kensington Baths in London, it aroused considerable attention in Scottish swimming circles. The “Scottish Sport” gave 20 column inches to a widely celebrated Scottish victory.
To defeat the `auld enemy’ at any sport was guaranteed to arouse considerable patriotic fervour and consequently a resounding victory gave an enormous fillip to the game — particularly in Glasgow since six of the seven players belonged to local clubs.
“We have bearded the lion in his den, and he is not the lion today he was a week ago . . . puir auld Scotland sent up her best seven, and they came home laden with honour”.
Cup and representative games were very popular, but they did not provide the average club player with regular competition. Consequently in the early 1890s, some clubs from Glasgow asked the Western Counties Amateur Swimming Association to establish a League competition for affiliated clubs.
It began in 1906 with six clubs and within three years the League contained 16 Clubs, split into two Divisions, and 21 were involved by 1912. Similar developments were copied by the other County Associations, albeit on a smaller scale.
While League structures widened the game’s appeal, they also created an unhealthy concern for winning. Swearing, fighting and bad sportsmanship were common.
At a Glasgow Amateurs v Paisley game in 1907 the referee was: “forced to stop the game two seconds from time owing to spectators making such a noise as prevented him being heard by the players and he had occasion to order Currie and another player of the Paisley team out of the water for wilful fouling”.
This was not the end of the affair. After the game the referee, upon leaving the baths, “was pelted with stones, mud, and other missiles all the way to the station”.
County administrators and officials had to work hard to ensure that clubs adhered to acceptable standards of sporting behaviour and they introduced various Regulations to penalise offenders.
By 1914, Water Polo was no longer regarded as a casual fun activity played at the end of club practice evenings or a novelty item used as a respite from swimming races at gala nights.
It had become an extremely popular Local, National and International sport.
From 1914 until the Second World War, occupational clubs added to the number of teams taking part in water polo.
After the war, there was still a considerable entry for local and national competition and most swimming clubs held regular “galas”, which were multi-discipline and usually ended with a water polo match which was very popular.
District leagues had more than one Division, some including a Junior Division. Inter-City matches were in vogue.
Until 1936, when the Jubilee League started, the only National event was the Scottish Cup. The only International contest was the Home International series with 4 countries dominated by England.
When the S.A.S.A. embraced Age Group Swimming in 1964, clubs participating in water polo declined rapidly and water polo sections of swimming clubs took increasingly minor roles and pool time harder to obtain in the wake of increased training time allocation to competitive swimming. Many age-group swimmers come to the end of their swimming career at about 16 or 17 and swimming clubs feel that is time enough to consider water polo as a continuation but that is likely to lead only to recreational polo.
For real hope of success polo must be started much earlier as with competitive swimming.
The 1970s saw additional National competitions with the introduction of U21 and U17 annual Championships.
International selection had been based on National Trial Matches but squad weekends were introduced. Easter “schools” run by David Barr at Aberdeen gave rise to a group of players who would improve the standard of Scottish water polo considerably.
Scotland joined a Multi-Nations Competition in 1978. Initially this was four Nations but became part of the Eight Nations Contest.
Junior International tournaments were entered and it was at this level Scotland won its first tournament at under 21 level in 1984. Success in the Home Internationals and the 8 Nations followed in the 1980s.
After a 70 year string of defeats England were beaten in 1986.
Scottish clubs followed Motherwell in going south to get stronger competition in ASA Championships. Menzieshill won the Women’s Championship in 1986, but it has taken another quarter of a century to see a few more clubs fielding all female teams.
For men there were successes at Junior level for Hamilton then Portobello before Dunfermline emulated Motherwell’s feat in 1949 and 1950 with victories in the ASA Club Senior Championship in 1992 and 1993.
With 1993 being an all-Scottish affair the ASA decided to close the competition to non-ASA clubs. After it was reopened Portobello increased the Scottish tally of wins.
Dunfermline added ASA successes with victories at Junior level.
The improvement in standard of Scottish water polo in the 1980s led to the British Deep Water Championship, which involved the top 6 National Water Polo League clubs and the top 2 from Scotland’s Premier League.
This was replaced with the BWPL with Scottish teams taking part with success.
A British Championship series was started towards the end of the 20th century.
In Scotland, National competition expanded with National Leagues at various levels, including women, and championships for younger age groups. At first mixed sex teams were allowed in the younger divisions but recently this was considered unacceptable with more single sex divisions added. This has led to fewer clubs being able to enter teams. Combined teams mean further reduction. There have been a few new clubs or revivals of previous polo-playing clubs but these have struggled to get past the young age groups and participate at senior level.
Many clubs have had a period of ascendancy in Scottish water polo, but Portobello’s sixty year reign surpasses all. However, since 1983, they have had to share the honours with Dunfermline WPC.
Facilities for water polo have always been a problem. Vying for pool time with the dominant competitive swimming discipline, both within clubs and nationally, is a forlorn struggle. Shallow pools have held back progress. It was not until the end of the 20th century that Scotland had one or two indoor pools of the stipulated dimensions for international competition.
Home Internationals were often staged in short pools with a shallow end. For many years the only deep water pools were outdoor facilities – not the best conditions in the Scottish climate, and these facilities have been falling into decline and closing.
Publicity for water polo is an ongoing problem. Pre-war there was national and local coverage. In the 1930s the fledgling BBC radio programmes included live commentary on occasional matches!
Once clubs stopped having Annual Galas with matches, coverage virtually disappeared. With more events centralised, the scope for local exposure of the game is lost.
National Events get little publicity and so sponsorship take-up is very low.
There have been a number of changes to the FINA Rules over the years, mostly with the stated aim of making the game more attractive to television.
This has not improved the situation in Scotland.