Masterpieces in History

(Scottish, 1756-1823)
Rev. Robert Walker Skating
on Duddingston Loch
Oil on canvas
76.2 x 63.5 cm
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

RAEBURN, Rev Walker Skating

The earliest skates were made from split and polished bones of elk, oxen and reindeer. Skaters who rubbed them with lard and poled themselves along the ice could attain considerable speeds on frozen European lakes and rivers as early as 1000 BC. In winter skates may have replaced coracles and other boats in Scandinavia and Central European Neolithic pile-dwelling settlements as a convenient means of transportation. A twelfth-century chronicler described skating on the Thames in winter, relating that it kept the Thames open as an artery of travel and transport and was fun for young people, who flew like birds or the bolt of a crossbow. However, chroniclers have other tales to tell of medieval skaters who were not so breezy on the blades.

A national pastime in Holland by the seventeenth century, skating was gaining popularity in England, too. The English aristocracy could be seen gliding over the canals in powdered wigs, dressed in stiff brocade after they had laboriously perfected figures that demonstrated courtly manners and the lofty status they enjoyed. In 1742 the Edinburgh Skating Club was founded as the world's first official skating association. To be eligible for membership, aspirants to the Skating Club had to demonstrate their ability to leap on skates over three hats and execute a circle while skating on one foot. One wonders whether the Scottish painter Henry Raeburn, who must have been a member himself, has captured a test of admission to the Club in Rev. Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch. The scene is enlivened by a fine portrait of the newly appointed Kirk of Scotland minister of Canongate Church.

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