The wintry months of December and January are synonymous with one sport in particular: ice-skating.
Though our mild winters generally do no longer allow us to enjoy gliding over frozen ponds, canals and lakes, our predecessors certainly could, and took full advantage. These days you will struggle to make it through the winter months without encountering an ice rink, and you may even look forward to slipping and sliding across the ice!
The earliest form of ice-skating first developed roughly three to four thousand years ago in Scandinavia, as a way of conserving energy on long journeys. The first skates were made out of the bones of elk, reindeer and other animals. The Dutch, in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, were the first to construct skates in a way recognisable to skaters today, using a steel blade with sharp edges, to cut into the ice instead of gliding on top.
King James II, who was briefly exiled in the Netherlands, likely first introduced the activity into the United Kingdom. The earliest organised skating club in the United Kingdom was in Edinburgh. Formed in the 1740s, members of the Edinburgh Skating Club practised an early form of figure skating. For admission to the club, candidates reportedly had to pass a skating test where they performed a complete circle on either foot and then jumped over first one hat, then two or three, placed on the ice.
Jesuits too, enjoyed getting on the ice. This article hopefully demonstrate a little of the young scholastics’ pleasure and proficiency on the ice. An essay found in volume 56 of the Blandyke Papers, written by Fr Ernest Hull SJ in 1893, when he was a young Jesuit scholastic, discusses many aspects of ice-skating, including hazards, correct technique and how to safely escape from breaking ice. His notes are extracts from H.E. Vandervell and T.M. Witham’s ‘System of Figure Skating’, and are accompanied by descriptive diagrams and drawings. The article begins with a description of the three types of ice that skaters might encounter: “Pure black ice”, “black ice”, “Snow ice”.
And continues with an explanation on how to safely escape from breaking ice:
“But if you really want to get to the bank alive, the less effort you make to get there the more likely you are to succeed. 1) Don’t stand still. Especially don’t rest your weight on one leg. 2) Try a quiet easy serpentine on both feet, with legs as wide apart as is convenient, and chase the direction least followed by the crowd. 3) Keep as far as you can from other people. 4) If the ice is not strong enough for this, but lets in water as you make each stroke, your safety consists of lying down very quietly on your back [and] spreading arms [and] legs out.”
Finally the writer tells the reader how to correctly manoeuvre with ice-skates, making large, slow, effortless movements, and avoiding concentrating only on movements using the strong leg.
“The leading difference in general aspect between the scutler and the skater is in the show of effort. The scutler lets you see all the forces at work, the skater conceals his forces, and glides along mysteriously as if impelled by an invisible power.”
In volume 40b of Blandyke Papers a fellow scholastic even wrote a song about skating, an extract from this song is shown here:
“Merrily over the ice we glide, whirling and twirling and darting along. How quick with a rush like the tide, now slowly and smooth as a solemn dirge song. Inside and outside we pass on our edge, casting behind us the white icy flakes. See! Someone has slipped on the frozen [edge] and straining to catch us what efforts he makes! Strike up a chorus, let all of us sing, making the silent moods echo the shout. For music we have in our skates metal ring…Hello! Someone’s in – come! Let’s help him out.”