Arbuckle, James

The Irish born poet and essayist’s significance to golf is more by accident than design when he recorded an early golf scene in his poem, “Glotta” which was first published in 1721 and easily one of the earliest pieces of literature with an Irish connection although the reference to goff in the Montgomery Manuscripts was in 1606. The following appeared on an Ebay Auction site when a very rare copy of the “Glotta” went up for sale.


ARBUCKLE, James, Student in the University of Glasgow. Glotta, a Poem, humbly inscribed to the Right Honourable the Marquess of Carnarvon … Glasgow, Printed by William Duncan, and are to be sold in his Shop in the Salt-Mercat, M. DCC. XXI [1721]. 8vo, pp. 22, a few superficial tears to the title-leaf neatly restored, no text affected; disbound, a very good copy.


First edition of Arbuckle’s best-known poem, in praise of the Glasgow countryside, the valley of the Clyde (‘Glotta’) and university life; it is often cited as ‘Glotta, or the Clyde, a Poem’, but that is merely the unauthorized title attached to it by a reprint of 1810. Born in Belfast, Arbuckle was crippled from childhood, and cruelly ridiculed for that in Wit upon Crutches (1725), sometime attributed to Swift, whom he effectively satirized thereafter–but the two were reconciled in 1737. He flourished as an undergraduate and divinity trainee at the University of Glasgow in 1716-24; later he returned to Dublin, where he became a leading newspaper journalist, political essayist, Shaftesburian philosopher, and writer of ‘some witty and ingenious pieces in the poetical way’. He died in 1742.

According to golf bibliographers Cecil Hopkinson (Collecting Golf Books, 1938) and Donovan/Murdoch (revised ed., 1987), this poem constitutes ‘the first important contribution to the literature of golf’. It precedes, by no less than twenty-two years, the unprocurable first edition of Thomas Mathison’s more celebrated ‘heroi-comical poem’ The Goff (1743: a copy of the third edition of 1793 made $70,000 at auction twelve years ago!), and is preceded only by bare ‘references’ in a few seventeenth-century moral, legal, and poetical texts, none of them specifically descriptive. The relevant passage of twenty-two lines evokes, far more adroitly (I think) than anything in Mathison’s mock-epic, ‘the sportive War’, in which youths of Glasgow, ‘arm’d with Lead, their jointed Clubs prepare; / The Timber Curve to Leathern Orbs apply, / Compact, Elastic, to pervade the Sky’. ‘These to the distant Hole direct they drive’, Arbuckle explains, for ‘they claim the Stakes who thither first arrive’. Every modern golfing cliché is addressed, from the golfer’s jittery adjusting stance (‘his Muscles strains, and various Postures tries’), to the stroke ‘discharg’d obliquely’, the ‘winding’ trajectory of the ball as it ‘sings in Air’, the successful descent applauded by the ‘wond’ring Crowds’ for ‘the Gamester’s skill’, and–if a ‘wayward’ shot comes up short–subjected to the ‘scoff’ of the fickle spectators, while the golf-club itself is ‘curs’d in vain’ by the luckless loser. Here is the whole passage:

 In Winter too, when hoary Frosts o’erspread,
The verdant Turf, and naked lay the Mead,
*The vigrous Youth commence their sportive War, [*The Game of Golf]
And arm’d with Lead, their jointed Clubs prepare;
The Timber Curve to Leathern Orbs apply,
Compact, Elastic, to pervade the Sky:
These to the distant Hole direct they drive;
They claim the Stakes who thither first arrive.
Intent his Ball the eager Gamester eyes,
His Muscles strains, and various Postures tries,
Th’impelling Blow to strike with greater Force,
And shape the motive Orb’s projectile Course.
If with due Strength the weighty Engine fall,
Discharg’d obliquely, and impinge the Ball,
It winding mounts aloft, and sings in Air;
And wond’ring Crowds the Gamester’s Skill declate.
But when some luckless wayward Stroke descends,
Whose Force the Ball in running quickly spends,
The Foes triumph, the Club is curs’d in vain;
Spectators scoff, and ev’n Allies complain.
Thus still Success is follow’d with Applause;
But ah! how few espouse a vanquish’d Cause!

The rarity of Glotta is legendary among golf-book enthusiasts: Richard Donovan in 1987 admits to ‘hav[ing] not, to this day, seen a copy of it’, and none has appeared in auction records since 1985 (£5500). ESTC records just ten copies in nine institutions (in Great Britain and Ireland the British Library, Bodleian, Brotherton (Leeds), National Library of Scotland (2), National Library of Wales, and the Royal Irish Academy; in North America Harvard, Notre Dame, and McGill (Montreal)). This hitherto unrecorded copy stems from the collection of Douglas Grant (1921-1969), the first Professor of American Literature in the UK, and Chair of the department at the University of Leeds, dispersed–unnamed in a large miscellaneous lot, in an all-but-uncatalogued sale at Leyburn, North Yorkshire–in 2010. Foxon A 281, Donovan and Murdoch, The Game of Golf and the Printed Word (1987), no. 160.

Source: Ebay Auction 19 January 13:48:40 PST Sold $50,400 (7 bidders) (63 bids) (10 days duration) Start $500 By end of day nine bid stood at $20,400 – the last 26 seconds saw the bid moving from $20,400 to $50,400 with three different bidders slugging it out.

Reading Sources:

  • Click here for full text of Glotta or The Clyde, a Poem (the 1810 Edition)
  • Princess Grace Irish Library: James Arbuckle
  • Holmes, Richard. “James Arbuckle“. The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 07 December 2007