Rugby is one of the most popular participation and spectator sports in Scotland and the passion for the game knows no bounds.
There are few more stirring sights than that of the Scottish team striding out on to the turf, in front of almost 70,000 spectators at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, ahead of an international tournament. But with around 250 member clubs in every part of the country, from the Scottish Borders to the Shetland Isles, there are ample opportunities to both watch and play the sport. In fact, according to the International Rugby Board, around 100,000 Scots regularly take part and that includes 25,000 women players.
Rudimentary matches have been held in Scotland for centuries. Some, like the annual fixtures of the Kirkwall Ba' in Orkney and the Jeddart Ball in the Borders continue to this day, with hundreds of players chasing and scrummaging for hours on end.
Clubs were soon formed and in 1871 Scotland took on, and beat, England in the world's first international. The Calcutta Cup, one of the most famous trophies in any sport, is still played for between the two great rival, now as part of the Six Nations, an annual international tournament involving Scotland, England, Ireland, Wales, France and Italy. As well as these competitive games, Scotland regularly entertains the cream of world rugby, including New Zealand, South Africa and Australia in 'test' matches at the national stadium, Murrayfield in Edinburgh.
Whilst the roots of rugby are wholly amateur, Scotland's two main cities boast professional teams that compete in a league against the best sides from Ireland and Wales. Fortunes have been mixed for Edinburgh Rugby and the Glasgow Warriors.
But rugby is nothing if not a people's sport. This is especially true in the Scottish Borders where the game is even more popular than football. It was here that rugby-sevens, a shorter and faster form of the game, was first played in 1883 and the oldest rugby union league in the world was formed in the region as long ago as 1901. Famous clubs like Melrose, Hawick and Jed-Forest are as much a part of the social scene as they are of the sporting agenda. The border clubs also play in the Scottish league which has evolved a pyramid structure linking all parts of the country.
Winning is, of course, important. But so is participation. Most clubs try to run as many teams as possible so that all players can take part, with some fielding 2nd XV, 3rd XV and even 4th XV sides. And a lot of effort is now being placed on developing the sport at youth and grassroots level. The Scottish government has just unveiled a programme that will provide free rugby coaching to more than 30,000 young people by 2011. The scheme, funded through seized cash from crime, will see links being forged between schools and local rugby clubs. In areas where this is not possible, it will fund around seventy 'Street Rugby' venues, allowing a version of the sport to be played almost anywhere and opening up rugby to at least 4,000 youngsters in inner city areas. Add to this college rugby, women's rugby and the appearance in recent years of rugby-league (which is played according to slightly different rules) and the future certainly seems healthy. If rugby is your game, then Scotland is just the place to get involved.