Edinburgh Academy v Merchiston Castle School

It all started with two schoolboys Alexander and Francis Crombie, who came to Edinburgh in 1854 after a few years at the then Durham Grammar School in England.

At Durham, the two Crombies became proficient at the brand of football played at Rugby school and their arrival provided the catalyst for both the formation of the first rugby club in Scotland - Edinburgh Academicals - but more significantly the adoption of the rugby code by the Academy and soon after by other schools in Scotland.

The Academy was opened in October 1824 and for 30-odd years the schoolboys played their games in the school yards. Dr James Macaulay, a former pupil, recalls the early games played at school before the adoption of the rugby rules: “The usual boys’ games were played in the grounds, called the Yards, the wall of which formed the goals for hockey (“hailies”) or for football, played in primitive Scottish fashion, before Rugby or Association rules were known.”

“Significantly, the arrival of the Crombies coincided in time with the purchase and opening by the Academy of the Field at Raeburn Place, which enabled the boys to commence playing cricket and football,” observed Rob Cowie, a master at the Academy.

“The youngest Crombie, Francis became the first recorded captain of the Academy for the season 1855-1856, while his brother Alexander was elected captain of the Academicals formed in 1857 - a position he had retained for eight years,” he continued.

The passion for ball games of the Scottish boys is best emphasized by the words of one of the original Directors of Edinburgh Academy, Sir Walter Scott himself, who was quoted as saying about the “Ball” game played by the boys, long before rugby became the main game of the school: “…would rather have seen his hair carry the Banner of Bellenden gallantly at a football match on Carterhaugh, than he would have heard that the boy had attained the highest honours in the first University in Europe.”

No wonder that with such passion for traditional football the new game caught the imagination of the Scottish schoolboys, and significantly of their masters as well.     

“It should be emphasized that rugby came to Scotland as a game for schoolboys. The former-pupil (old boys) movement and the formation of FP clubs are the branches and the upper growth, not the root, of the tree” wrote RJ Phillips in his classic ‘The story of Scottish Rugby’.

Merchiston Castle School

Meanwhile in 1833 Merchiston Castle School was founded by Charles Chalmers, starting with some 30 boys.

Similar to the Edinburgh Academy, the traditional ball games played by the boys were replaced by rugby football during the mid-1850s. In 1857 a Merchiston borderer John Crum wrote a letter to a friend David Murray, in which he said: “We are playing Football now and expect to come to close quarters with the renowned Edinburgh Academy”.

But the match against the Academy was first postponed “on account of a general cold”, and then cancelled. However, a Merchiston School XX captained by Adrian P Van der Byl, which included John Crum and his brother James took on the Royal High School in February 1858. The Merchiston Castle Scholl register recorded the event.

“.. The Rugby School game had just been introduced into Merchiston, and when the match in question was played, they did not fully understand all its rather complex rules.”

The master in charge of rugby at Merchiston James Rainy-Brown takes up the story: “The match was rescheduled and on December 11, 1858 the Merchiston School XX took on the Academy XX at Raeburn Place, a match that has been played without a break since.”

In the first issue of the Merchistonian magazine in 1866 an account of the first match against the Academy is provided: “The number playing had recently been fixed at 20 and the duration of a contest was not to exceed 21/2 hours. Two umpires overlooked proceedings and after deliberation announced the result. No wonder that the score of this significant match remains disputed, the Edinburgh Academy, probably with good reason, claiming a win”.

The Merchistonian recorded the names of the XX who played that day under the captaincy of JC Campbell, though according to J. Rainy-Brown many of the listed players were doubtful starters. 

The return fixture was played at Merchiston, but in this match the school XX had the assistance of two masters, the legendary HH Almond, the future Headmaster of Loretto School and EP Rouse, later a master at Eton. The Academy recruited two Academicals to assist them against the stronger Merchiston outfit. According to James Rainy-Brown, matches were played on Christmas Day, but could last three to four days, with three hours played each day.

Excluding the disputed match of 1858, the record favours Merchiston with 137 wins out of the 231 matches played, with 28 draws, as for a long while the two schools played each other twice a year.

This year, the Merchistonians, coached by Mark Appleson and captained by hooker David Cherry, won again 11-8, but the Academy, also captained by their hooker Tomas Macdonald and coached by Ed Saunders, put up a brave fight and had the opportunity to win the match with the final kick of the match.

International honours

The international record of both schools is outstanding, having provided Scotland with countless internationals and indeed captains.

The most recent of the 60-odd Merchistonians to play for Scotland is Phil Godman, while Mike Blair is one of the 100-plus former Academy internationalists.

British Lions Roger Baird and John Jeffrey attended Merchiston, while Jeremy Richardson and David Sole are former Academicals. Finally, the current Scotland coach Frank Haddon was Merchiston’s master in charge of rugby for 17 years between 1983 and 2000.

A sumptuous 150 anniversary dinner for 900 guests, held at Murrayfield on the eve of the match and attended by many of the past and present Merchistonians and Academicals, raised a substantial amount for the ”Hearts and Balls” foundation, a Scottish charity designed to “help rugby help its own”.