Holyrood Park, Edinburgh - Sergiy Lebid (UKR) leads the 2003 European XC Champs (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News Edinburgh, Scotland

A city steeped in history – Edinburgh 2008

They are a mischievous bunch, students. They were among the first cross country athletes, in the era when it was known as Hares and Hounds, having been part of the exercise programme in British public schools.

Hares laid paper trails for hounds to follow. Sometimes they prepared false trails which would peter out, and it was not unknown for them to lightly wrap the paper round a few stones. When thrown into boggy ground or a marsh, it would sink, leaving the paper on the surface, invitingly demanding to be followed. The hares would continue laying the trail beyond the bog. Coloured paper would be used when there was snow on the ground. Mischievous hares would gleefully enjoy the impromptu comedy as the hounds followed the trail, often ploughing up to their waists into the mud.

That's how it was in the early days of cross-country in Edinburgh, where the 36th IAAF World Cross Country Championships will be contested on Sunday 30 March in the shadow of Holyrood Palace, Queen Elizabeth's residence in Scotland's capital.

Murder most royal and Body-snatching

The athletics club at the city's university is still known as the Hares and Hounds, as are many other student clubs in the UK. University records demonstrate cross-country was staged in the vast royal Holyrood Park which is dominated by the towering extinct volcano, Arthurs Seat, 15 years before Scotland's inaugural national cross-country championships were staged in 1886.

Robert Louis Stevenson, the poet and author, was born and raised in the city, and in the Edinburgh University magazine of 1871 he lamented: "No more does the merry medical student run eagerly in the clear wintry morning up the rugged sides of Arthurs Seat."

This was long before Stevenson penned such classic novels as Kidnapped, Treasure Island, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This is a city steeped in history. Peel back the sophistication of the Athens of the North, and there is a dark side.

Darnley, lover of Mary Queen of Scots, was murdered close to Sunday's course, and these "merry medical students" could be a sinister bunch. Their craving for bodies for anatomy lessons led to the infamous body-snatchers, Burke and Hare, plying their trade in Edinburgh, with a sideline as serial killers, while cross country was taking its fledgling steps.

Training in the 19th century was hazardous for students, as Scottish athletics historian Colin Shields recounts in his admirable Scottish centenary history of the sport: "Whatever the Weather." On their first session in February of that year, they were "attacked by quarrymen and a large black dog, and accosted by gardeners."

At least their bodies remained intact.

The infamous Burke was hanged, at the Tolbooth between Sunday's course for the world event and the city centre, and with a fine sense of poetic justice his body followed those of his victims. His skeleton is in the university medical school's anatomy library, and a book bound in his skin reposes at the Royal College of Surgeons.

The killings fueled Stevenson's imagination, and were local gossip of the day as the "Six-foot Club" organised a one-mile steeplechase on the outskirts of Edinburgh in 1828, the year Burke was hanged. The name of the club reflected the height it was felt members needed to be to hurdle farm gates and fences.

Scottish XC champs first held 122-years-ago

In Lanarkshire the "Red-hose" (red stockings) cross-country race, had begun more than 20 years earlier. The county in the West of Scotland has a long and proud sports tradition. King William the Lion of Scotland presented the Lanark Silver Bell for a horse race there in the twelfth century. It's Britain's oldest sports trophy, and the race course on which it was staged (the Silver Bell is still contested) was where the very first Scottish cross country championship was held, 122 years ago this week. The 10-mile (16,000 metres) race, over heavy grassland, was won by a stonemason.

Also in Lanarkshire, the very first cross-country international was staged in 1903. It was held on Hamilton racecourse, and the adjacent grounds of the palace of the Duke of Hamilton. It was contested by Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales, and was won by England's Alf Shrubb. France entered in 1907, and it was from these beginnings that the IAAF event first emerged in 1973.

World XC returns to Scotland

However this is the twelfth time the international championship has been held in Scotland, but only the second in the IAAF era. This is the 30th anniversary of the last IAAF World Cross in Scotland (in Glasgow) where Ireland's John Treacy won. It is returning to Edinburgh 96 years to the day since Frenchman Jean Bouin won there.

Bouin was the first non-English winner of the championships, and first to win three in succession (1911-'13). He and the Finn, Johannes Kolehmainen, were respectively Olympic 5000m silver and gold medallists in Stockholm, first time the distance had been run under 15 minutes. The Frenchman also took the World 6-mile and 10,000m records from Shrubb. Sadly, the sport's first great multiple international champion was killed in World War I.

The first cross country handicap ever staged in Scotland, was in December 1885, over four miles from the Sheepshead tavern in Duddingston. It lies on the banks of one of three lochs within the royal park.

Ethiopian legend Kenenisa Bekele has already won three times over Sunday's course, for it has hosted the Great Edinburgh International in recent years, so the course is tried and tested. It includes Haggis Knowe (or Haggis Hill, so named because it's shaped like the traditional Scottish dish) which also featured in the 2003 European Cross Country Championship and World Mountain Running Trophy in 1995.

But this remains a sport for everyone. A ‘Welcome the World’ 5km race round the park is open to everyone. Afterwards they can watch the toughest race on earth for free.

Doug Gillon of The Herald for the IAAF