Credit: University of Stirling

Stirling University sport across five decades

13 mins read

Our university boasts a range of impressive features to draw in new students. The beautiful campus, academic awards across the board, and glowing reviews from previous students. But Scotland’s university for sporting excellence? Doesn’t that sound nice.

It’s what drew me here, and Stirling’s sporting culture has been a major influence on students of the past as well. So when did this emphasis on sport begin? Well, almost immediately.

Semester one. Not this year, not ten years ago, twenty, or forty. Semester one. Within a few months of Stirling University opening as an academic institution, it had a sports presence.

Paul Martin, who started at Stirling in its first ever year, 1967, tells me about the rugby team that formed alongside. With official university forces focusing on the running of its shiny new institution, it was students who set in motion the eventual legacy of sport in Stirling. “The university was pretty relieved when students buckled down and did most of the heavy lifting,” Martin explains.

The men’s football team formed a year later in 1968, and despite its fresh legs the university team found itself with a friendly matchup against none other than Celtic FC. The two teams battled on the campus’s only football pitch and featured a young Kenny Dalglish (who later won four Scottish league championships with Celtic). Not a bad christening for Gannochy. Oh, the score? 8-0, not to Stirling.

An enthusiastic student body was the recurring theme in my conversation with Martin, who later formed this very newspaper. He believes that over time, from these humble origins, sport developed as the core of the university. “When Stirling opened it had no personality. Edinburgh law, Glasgow politics, Strathclyde engineering.” Sport emerged as Stirling’s personality, he explains: the feature that universities become best known for.

This notion of pioneering students extended into the 70s as well. Grizelda Cowan attended Stirling from 1970-1973 and speaks fondly of her time in the active ski-club. The club members organised weekly trips to Glenshee Ski Centre and, even more impressively, annual trips abroad – usually to Austria. Hills and snow; makes sense.

Some antics closer to home come from 1975 fresher Steve Craig, former member of the Sports Union Executive Committee. He reminisces upon a particularly eventful swimming event, in which his teammate Dave Wilkie (not the Olympic swimmer) was running late.

Someone shouted for him to hurry as his race was imminent, and hearing the gun Wilkie sprinted from the changing room, hit the board, and dived in. Unfortunately though, and literally jumping the gun, he landed amongst the women’s backstroke: the race before his.

It’s stories like these that personify the attraction of sport societies, and sport in general, explains Craig. The social aspect, the unforgettable memories, and the lifelong friends to match. He credits Stirling for promoting sport: “to have all those facilities on your doorstep is brilliant.”

One “sports facility” in particular was frequently mentioned in my conversations with Stirling alumni: the Gannochy bar. It was the place to be, the social hub of the university, and therefore the most sensible place to advertise. Sports societies did just that.

Credit: University of Stirling

Angie Briggs started at Stirling in 1977 and remembers various advertisements for sporting opportunities on the Gannochy notice boards. Intramural hockey drew her attention, and soon she was playing fast and furious matches on the pitches behind Gannochy. Though they didn’t make an impact on the greater sporting world, the intense games and social events that followed were always good fun.

Later in her university career Briggs embarked on a university trip to Aviemore (despite never having donned a pair of skis). Though she was nervous beforehand it proved to be an incredible experience, and remarkably accessible for any student, Briggs explains. “It was even more of an amazing opportunity than I realised at the time.”

The beauty of Stirling’s emphasis on sport is for stories like these. Briggs had never even considered skiing before, but all of a sudden found herself in this incredible experience. The university’s promotion of sport allows these amazing experiences to occur.

And Stirling had certainly established itself as a sporting institution by the time David Metcalfe started in 1987, and it wasn’t just the traditional sports – like rugby or football – that were proving successful anymore. The university had claimed great results in athletics, golf, various intramural sports, and more says Metcalfe.

Beyond just taking home medals, there was also a massive buzz around participation sports. In particular, Metcalfe remembers sailing and mountaineering being incredibly popular at the time.

His favourite memory, however, isn’t based in any of these sports. He tells me about a volleyball team that headed to the beach for some training. They parked the sports union minibus on the sand and headed off to begin their session.

I imagine it was quite an exciting trip, being able to leave the gym and head out into the world to train. As the team finished and returned to the bus, however, any high spirits were met with a high tide as they found the vehicle half submerged. Metcalfe describes it as “messy, wet, and highly embarrassing,” though I’m sure hilarious for everyone else.

Through my conversations with several Stirling alumni from the 90s, the biggest sporting development of this decade appeared to be the growth of smaller clubs, both in numbers and professionalism. Alison Hosie — who attended Stirling from 1991-1995, and later for her PhD from 1996-2000 — holds a unique perspective of sport in this era.

She explains an evolution that occurred with the formation of smaller clubs, and sport societies as a whole were establishing a more executive demeanour. Management became more coordinated and the university itself made extra effort to improve the running of these clubs.

Hosie believes that this contributed significantly to the sporting culture of Stirling and the university as a whole. “We felt commitment from the uni to us, and it made us care about having the best club that we could.” There was also a massive investment in the sporting facilities on campus, and sport was further integrated into academics as well.

Credit: National Library of Scotland

Sport was “instrumental to me feeling at home” Hosie explains. She didn’t know any of her fellow freshers when she arrived at Stirling, but engagement in sport opened up her social world. The bonds Hosie formed lasted way beyond university, as most of her friends today are from these cherished times at Stirling.

Suzanne Harkins can testament to the growth of smaller clubs through her involvement with women’s basketball between 1995 and 1999. Though it was less popular than other societies, the basketball team showed stern commitment.

Harkins and her teammates even joined the local Grangemouth league as the only female team, just to get more experience. “We weren’t really received too well but our team was strong and we wanted to play more,” she explains.

The men’s teams played just as hard as ever, but Stirling persisted despite the injury risk. Their decision to join the league was largely down to being young and naive says Harkins, but they grew as a team and became incredibly close through these experiences.

Stirling’s sporting prowess is further solidified by its students who develop into professional athletes, and the 2000s featured many. Pro-golfer Richie Ramsay attended Stirling from 2001-2006 and has since won three championships on the European tour.

Ramsay was attracted to Stirling for its beautiful setting, degree programmes, and its sporting culture. Stirling allows students to experience more sports and the university definitely promoted the progression of his golfing talents, he said.

Echoing his preceding students, the social aspect of sport societies was massively important to Ramsay. They allow you to make friends and grow as an individual, Ramsay explains: “it plays an integral part of the person you will be.”

Ramsay holds his time at Stirling in very high regard, reminiscing that, in a way, it’s more special than even his professional career. There’s a comradery to it. “Having nothing but having everything: good people, great times, and big laughs.”

Colin Fleming, now-retired professional tennis player, attended Stirling around the same time, and the sporting culture was a massive influence on his decision to come here. With a career in tennis ahead of him, Fleming wanted to attend a university where he could focus on his studies and his sport. Stirling was the perfect choice.

It wasn’t Fleming’s first experience with the university though, as he grew up playing on the Gannochy courts. “Sport at Stirling has been a big part of my life and will continue to be,” Fleming explains, as he is also heavily involved in the upcoming GB National Tennis Academy, opening at the university in August.

The sporting focus at Stirling University has clearly influenced Fleming, and he stands as a great example of what this emphasis on sport can create. “I think the importance they place on sport as part of student and everyday life is great, and long may it continue.”

Brig’s former sports editor, Craig Wright, believes that Stirling has shifted into a nationally recognised sporting hub in recent years, but its sporting personality has remained consistent: “I think that the love for sport at Stirling is the same as it’s always been.”

And that’s the beauty of it. Sport was a conversation in 1967 just as it is today, and Stirling University has cherished that passion from day one, creating a sporting institution that’s world renowned.

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1 Comment

  1. Urban myth that Kenny Dalglish played in match v. University. I played for Stirling and I can assure you that Dalglish did not play although several other outstanding players did. Also the margin of victory was wider. Say no more.

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