Cardenden football star features in new exhibition about women's game in Fife

Carolyn Johnston, venue supervisor at Kirkcaldy Galleries, points out her footballing ‘superstar’ great-grandmother in one of the photographs in the exhibition

A Cardenden footballer from the 1920s is one of the stars of a new exhibition about the women's game in Fife.

May Watson from Cardenden has been described as "one of the best lady footballers in Britain".

A tribute in a newspaper in 1951 said: “She did much in her football years to raise money for charity, and often played against men’s teams with outstanding ability.”

Curators at OnFife want to capture how the women's game developed in the early years in the Kingdom and has grown locally since.

It's asking that anyone with stories or memorabilia get in touch on

They say the display can be a "catalyst that helps fill knowledge gaps in the history of women's football in Fife".

It's also a special moment for Kirkcaldy Galleries supervisor Carolyn Johnston, who is May's great-grandaughter and also lives in Cardenden.

She said: “I am so pleased the story of Rutherglen Ladies is being widely told in Fife and very proud of my great granny’s role in it – she was, by all accounts, a remarkable woman.”

During the 1920s and 30s, Rutherglen Ladies had to battle just to play matches, as the English Football Association banned the game, deeming it “quite unsuitable for females”. A Scottish FA ban would follow 20 years later.

Despite that the women in Fife flourished, with teams in Lochore, Kirkcaldy, Newburgh and Freuchie. 

Before joining Rutherglen, May Watson (later Wyse) played for Bowhill Ladies. A newspaper article at the time reported: “Bowhill is one of the few villages that can boast of having a progressive female community not afraid of emulating the men … it has a go-ahead ladies' football team.”

She toured Scotland and Ireland with Rutherglen in 1925-26 and played in the Scottish Ladies’ team that defeated Dick Kerr’s revered English side, who at the time were unofficial world champions.

But May isn't the only footballer in Carolyn's family, her uncle, Willie Johnston, starred for Scotland, Rangers, West Bromwich Albion and Hearts, winning a European Cup Winners’ Cup medal in 1972.

The exhibition is based on research carried out by Dr Fiona Skillen, senior lecturer in history at Glasgow Caledonian University, and women's football historian Steve Bolton.

She said: “There’s a perception that women’s football didn’t happen in Scotland between the Victorian period and the mid-1950s. This research shows that it did. We are rewriting the history books with our discoveries.

“Rutherglen Ladies showed incredible resolve and resilience and had to overcome significant barriers just to play the game. They deserve recognition for their unique place in history.”

The exhibition traces the development of the team from its foundation in 1921 through to its disbanding in 1939. It explores the lives of the manager James H Kelly and the players themselves, whilst also telling the story of their groundbreaking tours in Scotland, England and Ireland.

It will be on display at Kirkcaldy Galleries from March 8th to 30th before moving to Dunfermline in April.

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