History of the Game of Hop-Scotch

by J. W. Crombie

[Extracted from JAI, 15, 403-8.]


The following paper was read by the author:—

It is a notorious fact that children's games are often imitations of the more serious occupations of the grown-up people they see around them, and that a game once introduced is handed down from generation to generation of children long after its original has ceased to exist. Thus children continue to play with bows and arrows though their parents have long ago discarded those weapons; and many innocent-looking children's games conceal strange survivals of past ages and pagan times.

The game of Hop-Scotch1 is one of considerable antiquity. As it is mentioned in Poor Robin's Almanac for 1667 it must have been a prominent game in England for several centuries; and it has spread over the whole of Europe, appearing under numerous aliases in England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Finland, and other places.

The main features of the game are too familiar to need description. An enclosure is marked off on the ground and [p.404] divided into several courts. Through those the player, hopping on one foot, successively kicks a piece of stone, taking care not to touch with his foot any of the division lines, and avoiding certain prescribed courts, till the last one is reached, when he turns and kicks it out again in the same way.

Signor Pitre attributes a solar origin to Hop-Scotch. The stone, he thinks, originally represented the sun, which is kicked through the courts as that luminary passes through the signs of the Zodiac.2 While Signor Pitre's opinion is entitled to high respect, his theory appears to me quite untenable; for it would require the number of courts into which the figure is divided to be twelve, whereas in no place where the game is played are there twelve main divisions, and very seldom can this number be made up even if subdivisions be reckoned.

After examining a large number of figures collected from different parts of Europe,3 I find that the form of most frequent occurrence, and the one from which all the other varieties appear to have developed, is that of figs. 1 and 2, where a rectangle is divided into six compartments and crowned by a seventh, and almost invariably semicircular court. This figure is still in use in many parts of Spain, Italy, and Portugal, As they acquired skill, children would very soon wish to render the game a little more difficult by complicating the figure. Thus we find at Venice, though the seven courts of fig. 1 are retained, a vertical line is drawn down the centre of the figure bisecting each court. Again, one court is often split into four by diagonals, as at Fregenal, Spain (fig. 8), and La Marca, Italy (fig. 4). A figure with seven courts, one of which is split by diagonals, is also used in England.4

"When we wanted a really good game," an Irish lady writes me, after describing the figure used in her youth, "We used to draw all the lines double so as to make more courts." It is by some such process that fig. 8 (used in Mazzara, Italy), has been evolved. This figure contains nine courts, but it will be observed that the names of two courts occur twice, which points strongly to there having been originally only seven. So in fig. 7, used both in France and England, the extra court introduced between that marked Rest and Paradise appeal's to be the embodiment of an entirely separate figure.


[p.406] Fregenal, Spain (fig. 3), he passes through 1st, 2nd, 3rd Hell, and Glory, and he finds himself in Heaven. In Mazzara, Italy (fig. 8), 1st, 2nd, 3rd, Lamentation, two Limboes, and two places of Rest have to be traversed before the Crown awards his completed labours. But in some places he gets off easier. In Villafranca, Spain, he reaches Heaven by passing through 1st, 2nd, 3rd, the Place of Rest, and the Place of Asses. In Llerena, Spain (fig. 5), it is even smoother sailing. There he enters successively 1st, 2nd, and the Places of Rest, then he passes through the first and second quarters of the good, and he soars into Glory. Let us now take the Seville figure (fig. 2) as an example of a confusion of names. The top court has changed its name to Quince (Gamboa), and the centre court is called Heaven. This alteration makes the player's course far less satisfactory, for after passing through 1st Pandemoninm, 2nd Pandemonium, and Hell, he suddenly finds himself in Heaven, but only to be hurried out of it into Purgatory and Limbo, and after all he reaches nothing but a place called by the senseless name of Quince. The conclusion to which this curious nomenclature points is self-apparent, and when we add to it the fact of the game being called "Paradise" in Italy, and "the Holies" in Scotland, there can be little doubt that in early Christian times the children who played it, whether from their own inventiveness, or at the inspiration of their teachers, had some rough idea of representing the progress of the soul through the future state, and that they divided their figure into seven courts to represent the seven stages of Heaven, which formed a prominent feature in their eschatological beliefs.

It might be objected to this conclusion that it will not explain many names such as those in fig. 9 (used at Malaha, Spain), which is one of the most corrupted I have met with. But the originals of those names are often apparent corruptions of words which accord with the theory;5 and, considering that they have been handed down for centuries through generations of [p.407] children entirely ignorant of their original intent, and even of their meaning, the wonder is not that they are corrupted, but that they remain so perfect as they actually are. Even in the Malalia figure the names Sun, Moon, Pilate, and the formula at starting, I go alone, are not a little suggestive.

There remains to trace the earlier history of the game. Previous to Christianity it obviously cannot have existed in its present form, but games, in order to be as lasting as this has been, must not be invented, but grow. There is reason to believe that Hop-Scotch developed itself from a combination of several ancient games. Julius Pollux speaks of a game played by the ancients where they counted the number of hops which could be made on one foot, but no scores are spoken of.6 The penalty of [Greek] used in connection with an ancient game of marksmanship, and in which the vanquished player had to carry the victor on his back, has also associated itself with Hop-Scotch, and forms part of the game both in Spain and Italy.7 It would seem, then, that the game of hopping got wedded to some other game consisting of a figure, some recess of which it was the player's object to reach. Whether this union took place before or after Christianity it is difficult to determine, but certain it is that even now Hop-Scotch is played in many places, both at home and abroad, without any hopping at all, so much so that Sr. Ferraro8 suggests it may be a modification of the ancient game of quoits. We must therefore look for some pre-Christian game with a figure which would supply the remaining features of Hop-Scotch.

Pliny,9 in his description of the labyrinths, mentions casually a game played by the Roman boys where they drew labyrinthine figures on the ground. Now, labyrinthine figures are still used for Hop-Scotch, though far less frequently than those of the type already described. Fig. 12 is used in France, the inner circle being called Paradise. The same figure is found in England,10 and the game played on it called "Hound Hop-Scotch," while a less perfect form of it also occurs in Scotland. Fig. 10 (which is not unlike a rough sketch of the Cretan labyrinth) represents another form the game takes in France, the same figure also being used for the game of Marelle. Fig. 11 is perhaps the transition between the two types. It is used at Villafranca, Spain, but a figure conforming to the ordinary type obtains also in that place. It is therefore not unreasonable to suppose [p.408] that those labyrinthine figures may be survivals of a form of figure more ancient than those of the ordinary type by which they have now been superseded.

Moreover, we know that among the ancients the tradition of the labyrinths was more or less vaguely associated with the future world, and this might have suggested to the Christian children the eschatological ideas which they introduced into the game, even if the difficulties and wanderings of the labyrinth had not in themselves offered sufficient analogy to the wanderings of the soul in a future state. But how came the labyrinthine figure to be exchanged for that of the rectangle with the rounded end? It is well known that when Christianity replaced a pagan culture, it did not destroy, but assimilate. It adopted the stones of the old edifice, but it insisted on hewing them into Christian shapes. I can account for the transition of figure in the game of Hop-Scotch only by suggesting that this principle had been in operation there also. The Christian children, I believe, not only adopted the general idea of the ancient game, converting it into an allegory of Heaven, with Christian beliefs and Christian names; but they Christianised the figure also. They abandoned the heathen labyrinth, and replaced it by a form far more consistent with their ideas of Heaven and future life, the form of the Basilicon, the early Christian Church, dividing it into seven parts as they believed Heaven to be divided, and placing the inmost sanctum of Heaven in the position of the altar, the inmost sanctum of their earthly church.

Explanation of Plate

Various figures of the game of Hop-Scotch, as played in different countries of Europe.

Figs. 1 and 2 represent forms frequently used in many parts of Italy, Spain, and Portugal; fig. 3 is found at Fegenal, Spain; fig. 4 at La Marca, Italy; fig. 5 at Llerena, Spain; fig. 6 in Co. Antrim, Ireland; fig. 7 in France and England; fig. 8 at Mazzara, Italy; fig. 9 at Malaha, Spain; fig. 10 in France; fig. 11 at Villafranca, Spain; and fig. 12 in France and England.


Dr. E. B. Tylor thought that the author had made out his case that the various forms of the game, especially in the South of Europe, point back to an original game probably in vogue before the Christian Era. In that case, for the source of the seven compartments we may perhaps look back beyond the Christian seven heavens to the seven planetary spheres from which these were derived.


1 Probably a corruption of Sop-score—Halliwell.
2 Pitre, "Quiocchi Franchuillechi," xxxiii.
3 The Italian, Spanish, and French varieties of the game are fully described in Pitre, loc. cit.; "Bibliotheca de las Tradiciones Populares Espańolas," tom. iii, Beleze, "Jeux des Adolescents." For the information as to the method of playing the game in different parts of the British Islands I am indebted to numerous correspondents.
4 "Boy's Handy Book of Games" (Ward, Lock & Co.), p. 12.
5  I have been careful to select all my illustrations from cases where the meanings of the names were beyond dispute. In fig. 5, however, there are two further names, Palajanso and Calajaino, applied to the diagonal courts. My inquiries as to the meaning of those corrupted words hare not been successful. The name of the top court in fig. 8 is Corna (horn); but I think the analogy of several other figures indicates that this is a corruption of corona (crown). As an instance of how the names get corrupted I may mention the word Plato (silver), occurring at Dos Hermanas, which is evidently a corruption of Pilato (Pilate), frequently used in other Spanish figures. In Zafra, Spain, the penultimate court is called Goto (cat). I think that this may possibly be a corruption of the word Purgatorio (Purgatory), which is so frequently found elsewhere. To Spanish children this latter word would be a little difficult, and they would catch at the familiar syllable gato, just as our own do at cat in catechism. If this be conceded, the Zafra figure is a very perfect example. The seven courts are all simple, and called 1, 2, 3, Rest, Narrow, Purgatory, Crows.
6  Jul. Poll., "Onomatiscon," ix, 7.
7 Pitre, "Guioochi," p. 142; "Tradiciones pop. Espan.," iii, p. 203.
8 "Arohirio per lo studio delle tradizioni populari," p. 246. Palermo, 1882.
9 Pliny, xxxvi, 13.
10 Crawley, "Manly Games for Boys," p. 79.