A little-known fact about Mary, Queen of Scots was that she enjoyed sport. Mary would swing a golf club or tennis racket from time to time and she was a spectator at sporting competitions. But did she also play football – Scotland's national sport?
During an excavation project inside Stirling Castle in the mid-1970s, workers came upon a small round object tucked behind the thick oak-panelled walls of the bed chamber once used by Mary. What they found was a leather ball, slightly larger than a softball. But it was not just any ball.
This little grey orb has been determined to be the oldest football in the world - dating back to the mid-16th century and signifying the earliest known reference to the sport and royalty. While horse racing has long been known as the Sport of Kings, perhaps football was once the Sport of Queens.
Artefacts recovered from historic sites – such as Stirling Castle – often eventually end up in the nearest museum. In this case, the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum became the proud owner of this mystery ball where it sat hidden away in a storage vault for nearly 20 years.
On a visit to the gallery, a member of the National Museums of Scotland noticed the ball - collecting dust in storage - and thought it might have some intrinsic value. Indeed it did.
After having it examined by historical experts, the ball was confirmed to be from the period between 1540 and 1570, the same time the wood panelling was installed in the bed chamber and in sync with Mary's reign as Queen. The ball, dated to be at least 436 years old, is clearly one of the greatest finds in Stirling's recent history.
I didn't realise that people would go bonkers over the football. It was just a ball – originally. But it's extremely rare. - Michael McGinnes
News of the discovery first appeared in 1999, shortly before the ball was put on display. A junior reporter for a local newspaper wrote a feature article about the find and within a day the national media were on the museum's doorsteps wanting a look for themselves, recalls Michael McGinnes.
The well-crafted ball has stood up to a pretty good beating. A cricket ball is at its centre and it is housed within a pig's bladder to allow for inflation; this is known as a bladder ball. The cover for the ball is made of thick leather and stitched from the inside to make for a smoother bounce and roll. However, the surface now includes stitching following necessary repairs.
Historians believe the ball was likely used between soldiers and staff in the castle courtyard in an activity more closely resembling handball than football. But how do we know for sure that this was a ball used by the Queen? Well, we don't.
"We would have to do MRI scans, X-rays, testing the materials to understand the surface," says McGinnes. "That would cost thousands of pounds and we just don't have that kind of money."
Information on the Queen's sporting life is a bit lacking. Historians believe Mary, far from a regular participant, played tennis at least once at Falkland Palace, moving about in only her breeches to avoid tripping over her dress. And there is evidence that she swung a golf club or two on the Scottish links. So it should not be too surprising to learn the the Queen liked a bit of footie.
But how can we explain hiding the ball behind a thick oak wall? One theory offered by McGinnes involves, of all things, witchcraft.
The football was on display at The Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum for a few more weeks before it went on tour for the World cup 2006
Centuries ago it was common to hide a personal possession in the home. The item could be a locket, a ribbon, or even something like a football. If you believe in witchcraft and all things mysterious, then the thinking goes evils spirits would be attracted to the personal object while keeping the individual out of harm's way. The Stewart family, Mary included, were like many people at the time, a respectful believer in these superstitions.
In truth, we'll probably never know how the ball got there. To be sure, there wouldn't have been a ball in the Queen's chamber without Mary coming in contact with the object. No-one else would have been permitted in the room, at least not without risking life and limb.