Copyright © William Baxter 2002. First published in Celtic World, July 2002. Further information about traditional European wrestling can be found at the website of The Scottish Wrestling Bond, http://www.scotwrestle.co.uk.
A kingfisher hovers over a beck, its bright eyes alert to every movement in the shimmering waters of the pool below. [EN1] On the other side, a vixen looks round alertly as something attracts the attention of her two cubs. "Are ye ready, lads?" The reverie broken, the spectators turned to look at the referee.
No, this wasn’t another wildlife film on the TV. Patrick Molloy was about to step into the ring at the world famous Grasmere Lakeland Sports to wrestle in the final of the 14-stone (89kgs) weight class. As he stood there nervously, the bright sunlight sparkled on the embroidery of his intricately decorated costume.
Fifteen years before Patrick and his two brothers had come home from Kendal Wrestling Academy [EN2] in Westmorland and excitedly told their mother that they were going to enter their first competition in three weeks time. "Oh and by the way Mum, there’s a best dressed wrestler competition!" Mrs. Molloy did not know the first thing about wrestling except that the wrestlers wear socks, tights, a vest, and a "centre-piece", but she was determined that her lads would look as good as all the other boys.
The day of the competition arrived and the mother and three excited wee boys set out. [EN3] When the other boys came out of the changing tent, Mrs. Molloy was shocked to see that they all wore elaborately embroidered costumes while her boys, impeccably neat though they were, looked dull in comparison.
Her sons had entered the world of Cumberland and Westmorland style wrestling in the North of England where 20-stone men (127kgs) with cauliflower ears think nothing of entering best dressed wrestler competitions. "That’s it," Mrs. Molloy thought to herself. "I am going to learn embroidery." Now her sons regularly win best dressed wrestler competitions, and Mrs. Molloy’s works are famous all over Northwest England for their artistry, imagination, and fine needlecraft.
How did all this begin? Well, it all began in 1862 with a decision of the Cumberland & Westmorland Wrestling Association in London. "A prize of one guinea [EN4] was awarded for the neatest costume, with the object of doing away with the breeks [EN5] and grey stockings so commonly associated with rustic athletics, and James Scott of Carlyle whose handsome figure set off his magenta shirt and white drawers to striking advantage was the winner.
A guinea was a considerable sum in 1862, and to this day wrestlers from Cumberland and Westmorland are easily distinguished from the wrestlers of the other English Northern counties of Durham, Northumberland, North Yorkshire, and Lancashire (and of course Scotland) when they appear in the ring wearing their wonderful embroidered costumes. Their wives, sisters, or mothers have spent the winter creating masterpieces of folk art, and some like Mrs Molloy have become locally famous. Nonetheless, mud, grass, or just friction will inevitably damage the costumes that they have spent so many hours creating.
A good example of the wrestling season was mid July 2002. After a hectic weekend’s competitions and a few days rest, the wrestlers were ready for the following weekend. On Thursday 25th was Ambleside Lakeland Sports in Westmorland which had four adult weight classes. On Friday 26th, just over the Border in Scotland, was The Langholm Common Riding with three adult categories. In Cumberland on Saturday 27th was the Penrith Show, which had three adult categories. In Callandar in Scotland, the "Gateway to the Highlands", on Sunday 28th, there were four adult categories. In all, there were some seventy outdoor competitions under the English or Cumberland & Westmorland rules and twenty under the slightly different Scottish rules.
Perhaps there is a cloud on the horizon for Mrs. Molloy: At the 200th annual Westmorland Agricultural show in mid September 2002, Trevor Hodgson from Dent in West Yorkshire turned up in magnificently decorated tights (his vest has always been embroidered) and won the first prize. His sister had taught herself embroidery and had spent about a year decorating his costume; not only is Trevor a formidable wrestler but also he is now just as formidable a competitor as a "Best Dressed Wrestler".
The greatest Cumberland wrestler of modern times is Tom Harrington (born 1944) of Carlisle Wrestling Academy who has been awarded an MBE by the Queen and an MW (Master of Wrestling) by the FILC (International Federation of Celtic Wrestling). Tom, who has won over 1,600 open competitions, had his wrestling costume displayed in the Tate Gallery during 1999 and 2000 as part of an exhibition of "Britain Today". His daughter Michelle embroidered his costume and our illustration shows a very proud Michelle and Tom’s three grandchildren admiring her creation in the exhibition, although one does seem a bit bored by it all.
EN1. A beck is a dialect word from the counties of Cumberland and Westmorland meaning a stream.
EN2. An academy is the Northern English term for a wrestling club.
EN3. Wee is a Scots word meaning small.
EN4. A guinea is a gold coin with a face value of £1.1. The modern value of the gold is about £90 ($135) and in 1862, it would have been the equivalent of about three weeks’ wages for a farm labourer.
EN5. Breeks is a Northern English/Scots word for trousers or breeches. Thus, the Viking who raided Northumberland and Cumberland during the ninth century was called "Ragnar Hairy Breeks".