The Scottish League Championship (currently the BT League Championship for sponsorship reasons) is the domestic rugby union league system within Scotland. Operated by the Scottish Rugby Union, the championship was founded in 1973 as the first formalized national league system within any home nations country. The new six division championship replaced the haphazard "unofficial championship" system that had been in operation until that time. The top division is the Scottish Premiership.
Traditionally the championship has been dominated by teams from the Borders region, the sport's hotbed of popularity in Scotland. This is illustrated by the most successful clubs in the championships history, with Hawick RFC possessing 13 titles and Melrose RFC currently holding eight titles.
Numerous forms of football were played in Scotland in the years prior to the introduction of the Rugby rules which were adopted for the boys of Edinburgh Academy in the early 1850s. The game spread to Merchiston and the Royal High School with inter school games beginning in 1858. In 1857 the former pupils of Edinburgh Academy formed the first club in Scotland. The game spread and by the end of the 1860s the Academicals opponents included Edinburgh University, St Andrews University, the Merchistonians, Royal HSFP, West of Scotland FC, Glasgow Academicals, Edinburgh Wanderers and Glasgow University
As inter club games became more commonplace in the mid-1860s the club with the most successful record in club matches was recognised as the Scottish club champion on an unofficial basis. By the 1870s the Scotsman newspaper would declare the champion Scottish club in its annual review of the football season.The championship was always awarded on the basis of the results between the teams in the championship table only which meant that games against clubs from England or further afield were not counted. Up until 1939 the honour was awarded to the club with the fewest defeats, which led to several seasons where the championship was shared. After 1945 it became more commonplace to determine the champion club based on the percentage of games won.
The Edinburgh Academicals won the first five championships by virtue of being undefeated in club games between 1865–66 and 1869–70. The Academicals retained the championship in 1870–71 as a result of having the best record amongst the Scottish clubs despite the loss of two matches. Glasgow Academicals won the inaugural fixture with the Edinburgh Academicals in 1871–72, and, by remaining undefeated in their other fixtures wrested the championship from Edinburgh for the first time.
The championship grew over the course of its history as more clubs attained ‘first class status’. In 1909 the championship was contested by eight Edinburgh clubs, seven Glasgow clubs and seven in the Borders. Edinburgh were represented by Edinburgh Academicals, Royal HSFP, Edinburgh Institution FP, Watsonians, Edinburgh University, Edinburgh Wanderers, Stewarts FP & Heriots FP. The Glasgow clubs were Glasgow Academicals, Clydesdale, Greenock Wanderers, West of Scotland, Kelvinside Academicals, Glasgow HSFP and Glasgow University whilst the Border representatives were Hawick, Gala, Jed-Forest Melrose, Selkirk, Kelso and Langholm.
Hillhead HSFP joined the championship in 1913–14 which was to be the last championship season for Clydesdale who were unable to continue after the first world war. The championship was unchanged until 1929 when Dunfermline became the first club from the North & Midlands to be included.The 1930s saw St Andrew’s University added to the championship in 1936–37, Edinburgh Institution FP renamed as Melville College FP, following the school’s relocation in 1937–38, and in 1938–39 Hutcheson’s GSFP and Allan Glen’s FP ascended to the championship with Allan Glen’s heading the table in their first season.
The post war years saw Kelvinside and West of Scotland combine until 1950–51 whilst Musselburgh and Aberdeen GSFP were newcomers to the championship. By the middle of the decade Boroughmuir FP had joined the table with Trinity Academicals, Jordanhill and Ayr following in the 1960s. By 1972–73, the final season prior to the introduction of league rugby, Leith Academicals, Broughton FP and Perthshire were recognised as championship clubs.
The Scottish Rugby Union created a formal six division championship from the 1973–74 season, the first within any home nations country. The union's full member clubs were allocated into the new divisions, an arrangement that suited some of the 'open' clubs but many of the older former pupils clubs found it difficult to compete successfully and were forced into going 'open' themselves in an attempt to attract the better players. The new open clubs retained their FP or Academical names and continued to play on school owned grounds whilst those who persisted with their founding membership rules declined or disappeared altogether. The Championship's impact on the national team was quickly apparent; with fewer players being selected from English clubs to represent Scotland. For the first time since the First World War, the domestic game was strong enough to produce an adequate number of players of genuine international class.
The early decades of Championship rugby were dominated by Hawick who were crowned champions for 10 of the first 14 seasons. Heriot’s FP became the first 'Former Pupil' and 'City' club to win the Championship in 1979, they had already attracted "outsiders"; their leading try-scorer was Bill Gammell, a Fettesian already capped by the Scotland national rugby union team while playing for Edinburgh Wanderers. The first twenty years of Championship rugby saw large crowds and continued success, this period is largely considered the peak of domestic rugby union within Scotland to date. The early dominance of clubs in the Scottish Borders has faded in recent years with the rise of clubs from the Central Belt; especially Glasgow Hawks and Ayr RFC.
During the Championships forty-year history the Scottish Rugby Union and its member clubs have re-organised the competition several times, usually revolving around the number of participants in certain divisions. A complimentary knock-out cup competition was introduced from 1995 with Border clubs again dominating the competition, starting with Hawick defeating Watsonians in the inaugural final.Hawick: 12
Glasgow Hawks: 3
Stirling County: 1
Glasgow Hawks: 3
At the SRU AGM 2013 a motion was successfully put forward by Haddington RFC and seconded by Selkirk RFC which called for the leagues to be restructured into three nationalised, 12 team leagues below the Premier Division which would continue as a 10 team league.
Certain leagues are not included in the system:The Border League, a historic and now supplementary competition involving clubs competing in the Championship
The Grampian Alliance League, independent of the Championship (involving some 2nd XVs)
The Highland Alliance League, also independent of the Championship (involving some 2nd XVs)
In addition, competitive rugby at universities, and rugby for 2nd and 3rd XVs, is organised separately, and in the case of 2nd and 3rd XVs on something of an ad-hoc basis (there having been a number of splits from The Scottish 2nd XV League in recent years). Note that the larger universities run their first teams in both the Scottish Championship, and in the university leagues.
See University Leagues in Scotland and 2nd XV Leagues in Scotland for further details.