The Edinburgh Glasgow University Boat Race first took place in 1877. Since then the boats used have changed dramatically from bulky wooden craft with wooden oars. Aside from this rowing has changed little from being an amateur sport where the athletes pursue their sporting ambitions motivated by the sheer exhilaration of the sport.
From the riverbank the spectacle of a boat race conjures up genteel images of graceful; boats gliding effortlessly through the sun-speckled waters. There is a sense of age-old tradition. The racing crews pass in a momentary blur. Cheers go up then die down and it is back to the social jollity of the event.
On the water the perspective could not be more different. Rowing binds each individual in a crew to a common goal – winning. The end result is brutally clear – two boats, one winner. Winning is euphoric, losing – despair. The intensity of the race is hard to match in other sporting disciplines. Each individual has to dig deep within themselves to ensure the whole crew speeds ahead. The race is a blur. Heart rates soar, muscles scream with the effort and minds are locked in concentration. Each stroke measures the hours committed in training – endless miles of rowing in early morning outings, brutal weight-training and time trials. In Scotland the weather is of no consequence. Training goes ahead regardless – in cutting winds, rain and even snow. Perseverance through all adversities differentiates the winning crew.
The First Race
Monday, July 30th 1877
“For some time back a number of the students in Glasgow and Edinburgh have been anxious to institute a yearly struggle for supremacy in aquatics between representatives of their respective universities, and some months ago the matter began to take definite shape, it finally arranged that such a contest should take place in four-oared out-riggers. The merits and demerits of each rowing man in the two universities was discussed, crews were carefully chosen and practising began. For sometime, however, it was uncertain which particular run of water should be honoured by being made the scene of the first of a series of competitions which, judging by the number of spectators who witnessed the race on Saturday, may yet excite as much as interest north of the Tweed as does the annual struggle Oxford and Cambridge among our southern neighbours. The upper reaches of the Clyde were favoured by some, while others spoke of Loch Lomond. After much consideration, the champion scullers course between Port-Glasgow and Bowling was all but fixed upon, but as by this choice the public would have to a great extent been debarred from seeing the race a change had to be made. It was at length agreed that the course should be on the Clyde above the weir, the start to be made from the railway bridge at Dalmarnock, and the finish at the piles of the Suspension Bridge on the Green- the distance between these points being one mile six and a half furlongs, or fully one mile and three-quarters. Both crews been meantime hard at work practising. Many changes had been made in the first selection of crews as this or that man showed himself more or less fit for his position in the boats, but the following were the crews ultimately chosen for the two universities:
Edinburgh; bow: W. Weir (9st 5lbs), 2: R.L. Murray (9st 6lbs), 3: C. Fairbairn (12st 3lbs), stroke: J.H. Balfour (10st 13lbs), cox: R.S. Browne (8st 4lbs).
Glasgow; bow: C.D. Johnstone (9st 6lbs), 2: G.H. Robb (10st 10lbs), 3: J. Pinkerton (11st 10lbs), stroke: J. Crerar (10st 6lbs), cox: T.H. Mason (9st 5lbs).
From this it will be seen that while the oarsmen were about equal in point of weight the coxswain of the Glasgow boat weighed 15lbs more than his counterpart Mr Browne, the Edinburgh coxswain. In respect to practising the Edinburgh men were at a disadvantage, the only place available for the purpose being the Forth and Clyde Canal, on which they were subjected to continual interruption from barges and locks, etc. In spite of this the eastern crew were the favourites in the betting at 6 to 4, and 2 to 1 was repeatedly offered; but even at that tempting amount Glasgow had few supporters. The Edinburgh crew having come through to Glasgow last week to practise over the course, their style of pulling caused them to find even more backers.
The weather on Saturday was all that could be desired for a boat race, the wind being light, the water perfectly smooth and though the sky was overcast no rain fell. By two o’clock even it was evident from the Green that something of public interest was about to take place. Shortly after three the hour appointed for starting, some 50,000 spectators were gathered on both sides of the river. Every window which afforded even the most distant view of the river was occupied by a cluster of eager onlookers, and the roofs of the public buildings were all alive. The river was busy with rowing-craft of all descriptions, from the dashing four-oared outrigger to the humble punt- some pulling aimlessly about, others racing as eagerly as if the vast mass of spectators had turned out to expressly to see them. Time went on and as there was no appearance of the boats coming up, the crowd started to show signs of wearying. At last the Edinburgh crew appeared on the scene, and pulling under the bridge, went ashore to rest a little before beginning the race. A few minutes afterwards a steamlaunch with the Glasgow crew aboard came puffing along, and bringing to at the western end of the building-yard landed its passengers, who then embarked in their gig, and paddled slowly up to the starting point. Here they were joined in a few minutes by their opponents, and the excitement of the people rose to a high pitch, which was further increased when the word “Go” was at last given, and both crews catching the water at about the same moment sent their boats off nearly level from a beautiful start. After the first few strokes, Glasgow, who rowed faster, took the lead by nearly half a length and kept in that position till rounding the first bend, where having the disadvantage of the turn, a steering a little too wide, the Edinburgh boat drew up almost level. This position was not long maintained, as no sooner had the bend rounded than Glasgow again began to creep ahead and despite the hard tussle of their rivals, soon had half a length to the good. Passing Whites chemical work Edinburgh got a little flurried but Mr Balfour soon had them in trim, and strenuous endeavours were made to cut Glasgow down. The local representatives now began to give the Edinburgh boat their wash, and, putting on a fresh effort, soon made three lengths of a gap to intervene. Mr Balfour, about the centre of Shawfield, again called on his men, and a fresh effort was made to overhaul the leaders. The gap was lessened slightly, when Mr Crerar roused up his crew and was soon on the way doing 40 strokes a minute. At Rutherglen Bridge the real interest of the race was passed as Edinburgh was four lengths behind; and then Glasgow eased up a rowed quietly to the goal, coming in easy victors amid great cheering by fully eight lengths.
The judge of the race was Mr R. Falconer, captain of Clyde A.R.C.”