Jul
22
2007
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Caich balls

Caich balls c.1690-1830
Typical diameter 6,8-7 cm

Another Scottish find, this time in July 1954 from the tower of St Salvator’s College, St Andrews, as follows: a single leather ball, roughly 6,8 cm In diameter, apparently stuffed with wool, part of the stitching being loose; three slightly larger balls os similar construction, but in varying stages of desintegration; three smaller balls, made from wouden woollen yam; three corks, one wrapped in fabric, one possibly a fishing float, together with sundry scraps of wool and fabric.
Reaspnse: for 45 years the finds gathered dust in the stores of the University of St Andrews, until in 1999 they were rediscovered and sent for analysis to a textile research laboratory in York.
Materials indentified: sheep’s wool, goat’s hair and flax, all Scottish in origin, coloured by traditional natural dyes of purple, blue, navy, brown, ochre, green and yellow.
Date: taking into account both the materials and the history of the buildings at St Salvator’s, from between 1690-1830.
Purpose: a game popular with students during this period was caich, later known as handball or fives, thought to have arrived from the Netherlands in the 15th century. Two ot more players would strike the ball with their hands against any large wall that also had clear, flat ground in front (and hopefully few or no windows). Such a ballcourt was known as a cachpule, cachpoole or kaithspell.
Construction: this being St Andrews, the cradle of golf, there were plently of local ball makers, using leather casings packed tightly under pressure with boiled feathers, rags, or, as here, wool or hair stuffrd around a cork core. In their prime, these balls would have offered excellent bounce, a key requirement for caich.
Location: gambling was a key element of caich. It is therefore possible thatt the balls were hidden in the tower after a clampdown by college seniors.
Conclusion: all museums stores to be checked forthwith, lest there be other old balls out there, forgotten in the shadows.