Tantalising hints about medieval recreational activities have been discovered in Perth and Kinross. For example, eight bone dice and a bone playing piece were found during the Perth High Street excavations (MacGregor et al 2011, 101–2). Similarly, a walrus ivory gaming piece was retrieved during the Horse Cross excavations in Perth and a jet chess piece was recovered from Meal Vennel (Cox et al 1996, 782–3; M Hall 2003; Cox et al 2007, 177–8). Interestingly, a bone die with ring and dot designs was found at Elcho Priory, although this was perhaps lost by a high-status visitor rather a member of the religious community (M Hall 2015b, 290–1).
Games of chance were often condemned by medieval religious writers. However, dice and board games seem to have remained popular at all levels of society. Financial records reveal that on the evening of James I’s murder at Perth, the king and court entertained themselves by gambling on chess, tables and cards (M Hall 2015b, 292). There has, in recent decades, been considerable study of the evidence for dice and board games from Perth and Kinross and how this relates to the wider European context, providing a valuable foundation for further research in this area (M Hall 2002; 2013b; 2018).
Written records give us important information about more physically active games in the region. The first legislation banning football in Scotland was issued by the parliament sitting at Perth in 1424 (Records of the Parliaments of Scotland 1424/19). Significantly, the same parliament ordered all men to practice archery from the age of 12 upwards. Perth also has early golfing associations. In 1502 James IV paid a Perth bow-maker 14 shillings for ‘clubbes’, thought to be the world’s first recorded purchase of golf clubs (Golfiana Caledonia 2022). There is documentary evidence for golf being played on Perth’s North Inch in the 1590s, and on the South Inch from the 1610s (Golfiana Caledonia 2022). However, it seems likely that golf was being played in the open spaces around Perth before this.
Famously, James I and his courtiers played an early form of real tennis or jeu de paume while staying in Perth, using a court which was part of the Dominican friary, presumably deliberately commissioned for the royal apartments there. Indeed, the king’s decision to block up an access point to a cess pit to avoid losing tennis balls ultimately meant that he was unable to escape his murderers via that route (Aberdare 1989; Matheson 1999). Many medieval sporting activities are unlikely to have left much physical evidence. However, the courts used for playing jeu de paume and other forms of handball were more substantial structures; these were walled enclosures which were often partly built from stone. These early tennis and handball courts were frequently associated with religious houses and, from the 16th century onwards, parish churches. The only surviving example of such a court in Scotland is at Falkland Palace in Fife, but careful study of other sites might reveal relevant remains (Puttfarken and Stuart 1989). Outside of Perth and Kinross, research into property records and early map evidence has proved helpful for identifying the location of handball and tennis courts. For instance, the approximate sites of the ball courts at Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh and St Andrews Cathedral in Fife have been ascertained from textual and visual sources (Wordie and Butler 1989, 18–25; Puttfarken and Stuart 1989, 26–35; B Rhodes pers comm). Similar documentation may exist for Perth.
There is also evidence for crueller sports and pastimes in medieval Perth and Kinross, including cock-fighting, dog-fighting and cat tossing (Penny 1836, 134–5; Smith 1998, 880–2; M Hall 2002, 298). For example, the metatarsus from a probable fighting cock was discovered on Perth High Street. The natural bone spur of this bird had been sawn off, most likely to enable a sharper metal spur to be attached to its leg (Smith and Clarke 2011). An appetite for blood extended to other activities, including dramatic performances such as Perth’s Corpus Christi play, which used fake blood in some of its martyr scenes (M Hall 2005a, 220–4).
Finally, during the early 15th century the burgh of Perth was the scene of at least two major jousting tournaments. There is evidence for tournaments near the burgh in 1401 and 1433 (Edington 1998, 54; Stevenson 2006, 71). The contest in 1433 is of particular interest as it is thought to be the only tournament organised by James I, and probably accompanied a General Council held at Perth to discuss diplomatic overtures from Henry VI of England (Stevenson 2006, 71). As special events, tournaments are unlikely to have made as much impact on the landscape as more long-term forms of activity. However, interdisciplinary study of possible jousting locations might be beneficial.