Falkland Palace is home to the world’s oldest tennis court. Dating from the 16th century, the residence was built between 1501 and 1541 after being commissioned by King James IV – the historic royal tennis court was part of the development.
Almost five centuries later, the court – completed in 1539 and enjoyed by James IV, his son James V and their royal guests – is still in use today. The game played there is known as royal tennis or “real tennis” and although the rules are similar to the modern game, it isn’t the sort of tennis you would expect to see at Wimbledon.
Falkland Palace is one of Scotland’s finest tourist attractions, with visitors from the UK and abroad marvelling at the stunning Renaissance palace and beautiful grounds. Prior to the royal residence, the site had housed a hunting lodge, which first appeared on historical records dating from the 12th century.
In the 13th century, the lodge was refurbished into a castle for the Earl of Fife, of the MacDuff clan. Due to it being on a slight hill, it was viewed as an ideal location for a castle, as it could be defended from attack. The surrounding land later became the palace’s gardens.
However, the belief that it was protected from attack proved incorrect when Falkland Castle was destroyed by the invading English army in 1371.
Almost 170 years later, the royal tennis court was part of James IV’s ambitious plans to create a “pleasure palace”. The top architects and craftsmen of the day were drafted in to build the luxurious residence, complete with facilities for country pursuits, such as hunting and falconry.
Falkland Palace was the result – a frequent residence of the Stuart kings and of Mary, Queen of Scots, who loved the palace, saying it reminded her of the French Royal Court where she spent her childhood.
Royal tennis court
The court has had only two major renovations since its construction and its appearance has hardly changed over the centuries. It maintains the title of the world’s oldest tennis court because although Hampton Court in London was built prior to Falkland, it was demolished and rebuilt in 1626.
The “royal tennis” played at Falkland has similar rules, equipment and scoring to the competitive tennis we see today. Royal tennis is played on only 40 courts across the world, with around 50% of them in England, so Falkland is a rare jewel in the historic crown, as it’s the only one in Scotland.
As a result, many enthusiasts of royal tennis are regular visitors to Falkland’s court. In fact, many players aim to complete the challenge of playing on all the courts in the world. An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people play royal tennis today, although the game is said to be enjoying renewed interest.
Although in both tennis and royal tennis, the scoring is in multiples of 15 and then 40, in royal tennis, the winner of six games will win the set, without requiring a two-game buffer as in lawn tennis. In some royal tennis tournaments, there are up to nine games per set. The two branches of tennis split in the Victorian era.
Real tennis is played on a court made of thick paving slabs and enclosed by four high walls, rather than the modern, user-friendly surfaces of today’s game. Falkland Palace’s court is known as “jeu quarr”, which translates literally to “square court”. Despite its square shape, it’s a similar size to today’s standard courts.
The Falkland court is really one of a kind, being the last in the world that doesn’t have a roof. It has penthouses on two sides, rather than the usual three. It also has four square openings known as lunes at the service end – another unique feature which means a point is scored if the player successfully returns a ball through a lune.
All of the other royal courts are completely enclosed and don’t have any lunes. Players can play on the full court, which includes the walls – rather like playing squash. Modern enthusiasts of royal tennis say it’s about finesse, rather than the force which is the main feature of modern tennis. Back spins play a big part in the historic sport.
Falkland Palace today
The lone court underwent major refurbishments in 1628 and 1892. Its regular maintenance was taken over by the National Trust for Scotland in the 1950s and they continue to maintain the court and grounds today.
The court’s 450th anniversary was celebrated in 1989 with an international tournament which the Falkland Palace Club won. The court is no stranger to royalty in modern times. The championship was attended by Prince Edward, while Queen Elizabeth II has visited twice. Her most recent visit was in 1991, when she watched a demonstration match.
The Falkland Palace tennis club was set up in 1965 and today has some 75 members. Playing on the world’s oldest tennis court, at the former royal residence, is a significant lure for members and visitors alike.
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