A long-forgotten, ancient game played throughout Renfrewshire as early as the seventeenth century was the game of bullets. Two opposing teams each had an iron ball with a maximum weight of two pounds. The object of the game was to throw this ‘bullet’ in as few shots as possible over a measured distance. The ‘bullet’ was thrown underhand and allowed to roll after it fell to the ground. A second ran ahead advising the player where to aim his ‘bullet’. The game seems to have included elements of bowling, curling and golf – games which later became popular in the county. Wagers were placed on the outcome of bullet matches. In 1674 William Cunninghame recorded among the expenses in his Diary a sum of four shillings ‘lost at Bullets among our servants’.
Bullets was a highly dangerous ball game, especially as it was played along public roads. A Lochwinnoch bulleteer named Ramsey met his death playing bullets in 1683. However, despite the danger, this traditional sport continued in Renfrewshire until the mid-nineteenth century. In 1902 some older residents in Kilbarchan remembered bullet matches being played in their youth.
Bullets was also a popular game with the Paisley weavers. Duncan McNeil who had worked as a drawboy for a shawl weaver in Charleston, near Paisley, in the early 1840s mentions weavers playing bullets in his poem, ‘When I was a Drawboy’.
‘They were a’ their ain masters – they hadna a boss –
Some played at the bullets, some played pitch-and-toss.
Some had great cock-battles, an’ some foucht their dogs;
When I was a drawboy.’
Crowds of spectators gathered to support their local team and placed wagers on the outcome of a bullet match. One venue was on Gleniffer Road leading from Paisley to Caldwell. The old Peesweep Inn (see image above), built some time after 1810, stood near where the road from Johnstone meets Gleniffer Road and it was no doubt a place of refreshment for the bulleteers and spectators from Paisley. By 1922 the old inn had closed but an old lady who still lived there had fond memories of the game. She had in her possession some of the iron balls, or ‘bullets’ which had been used in the local matches and proudly displayed them to visitors.
What was possibly the last bulleting match in Renfrewshire took place in 1846 on the Beith Road, from where the four roads met at Damside Cottage (the old toll cottage) towards Quarrelton. The opposing teams were from Kilbarchan and Paisley. Four famous bulleteers John Hunter, a silk handloom weaver in Stirling Street, William Brown, a silk handloom weaver in Ewing Street, Alexander Meikle, a silk handloom weaver in Barholm and James Houston made up the Kilbarchan team. Soon after this match early health and safety considerations prevailed and the traditional game of bullets was banned. Descendants of Alexander Meikle still live in Klbarchan today. A game similar to bullets, but known as Kyles, was also played in Fife.
© 2015 Helen Calcluth, Renfrewshire Local History Forum