A handball game in 1900. Smooth concrete covered the castle wall.
The preliminary for any big, important game involved the sweeping of the ground and this was where enthusiastic children were allowed to assist. This brushing was always aimed outwards in the direction of the road, while behind the castle the competitors would be limbering up and preparing for the challenge ahead. The distinctive Barr tree that stood at the corner of the east wall and a stone dyke characterised the playing area in the early days when the ball was often deliberately played at an angle against the wall so that it would rebound off these objects, proving impossible for opponents to return. One player who became adept at achieving this rebound was Jamie ‘Clockie’ Sharp who always aimed at a crevice in the dyke from which the ball would often bounce out at an unpredictable angle. This break predictably became known as ‘Clockie’s Hole’ and the crowd would erupt in laughter as opponents sprawled to retrieve such a volley that had gone ‘agee’. Jamie was a jaunty character adept at every dodge and was full of eccentricities and sarcastic wit. Merriment never ceased when he was on the turf. However, if he was defeated, a downcast
Jamie would often quickly disappear,head bent,over the dyke,heading in the direction of his granny’s door where her tub was always ready to receive his sweaty body. One novelty was a large sign on the wall which declared - ‘If Swearing,no playing!’ It was a reminder for players to conduct themselves properly. The annual inter-village contest between Newmilns and Galston was a regular feature and the former had a handy court in castle grounds behind a pub in the main street. Here the handloomers practised assiduously. They knew that,even if they proved unsuccessful in the notoriously difficult Barr alley,they could always turn the tables on their opponents when playing at home, with their intimate acquaintance of all the neuks and crannies in their own castle wall. The later years saw players wearing colours to distinguish themselves during important contests,the preferred style being a light,thin, sleeveless shirt, loose fitting trousers and soft shoes (in the early days players were barefoot and often sustained grazing injuries). Every Glasgow Fair in late July saw an influx of visitors to the town, giving the streets a thronging animation, while the natural amphitheatre of the alley was invariably
regularly filled by thousands excitedly viewing the games. However, these boisterous meetings slowly declined in popularity following the outbreak of the Second World War. Many young men, who would normally have been in local teams, were conscripted and thus not available:but,even before this,football was rapidly becoming the more popular sport. Spectators at the handball occasions dwindled and there was little money or fame left in the sport whose cups and trophies had once been actively subsidised by local businessmen. Today the game is just a fond memory for the older inhabitants who still happily recall past champions who thrilled with their athletic expertise and their own particular styles of baffling the opposition. The castle at least has now been restored and there is a small museum whose cataloguing of the town’s heritage includes a history of handball. The big crowds have long gone but it is still easy to picture local legends such as wily Jock Adam, the invincible Black Tott and the ever reliable Red Willie keenly contesting games of ‘haun’ba’at the Baur Ailley’of a balmy,bawling,summer evening. 15