The Scottish League System

The governance of Scottish football formally began with the formation of the Scottish Football Association (SFA) in 1873. On the 13th March that year eight of the earliest clubs (Queen's Park, Kilmarnock, Clydesdale, Vale of Leven, Dumbreck, Third Lanark, Eastern and Granville) met to bring some structure and order to the games being played across the country. A resolution was passed at the meeting which stated that


‘the clubs here represented form themselves into an Association for the promotion of football according to the rules of The Football Association and that the clubs connected with this Association subscribe for a challenge cup to be played for annually, the Committee to propose the laws of the competition’.


The reference is to the (English) Football Association (the FA) which had been formed ten years earlier in 1863 and therefore the SFA is the 2nd oldest such association in the world. Incidentally, the world's first international match had actually taken place in Glasgow on St. Andrews’s Day (30 November) 1872 when “Scotland” played “England” Scotland's at Hamilton Crescent[1].


A football league system was eventually created in 1890 with the formation of the Scottish Football League (SFL), again following the model in England which had been in operation (at least in the midlands and north) for a couple of years. Queen's Park, the oldest club north of the Border were initially opposed to the league because it would lead to professionalism and did not join until 1900. The success of the League led to expansion to two divisions as early as 1893 and then to three in 1923. After the Second World War the lowest division (C) contained a number or reserve sides and when these left in 1955, the structure reverted back to two groups, from then to be known as Divisions One and Two.


In 1975 a restructure saw a new 10-team Premier Division with Divisions One and Two reconstituted to contain 14 team each. In 1994 this became four divisions of 10 teams each (when the two Highland League teams Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County joined) and in 1998, there was a split with the Premier Division teams forming a new League (the Scottish Premier League, the SPL), just as had recently happened in England. Part of the deal at that time was that the new SPL would continue relegation and promotion to and from the SFL’s First Division and also that the top tier would expand to 12 teams in 2000. This happened, with the election of two further Highland League Teams (Elgin and Peterhead) to the SFL (see chapter 2) to continue the 10- strong membership.


This then was the system of Scottish League Football which was in place when Gretna FC were elected in 2002, and it continued until a much bigger shake-up in 2013. Outside this structure there existed, quite separately, three other senior (non)leagues: The Highland, East and South. Whilst the Highland commonly featured in national, and English, newspaper reports on a Sunday morning, the other two were less well known. As described in chapter 14, the East was generally recognised as having some of the better teams, although often playing quality had little in common with the facilities each had access to.


Then there is Scottish Junior Football. While some of the non-league senior teams were members of the SFA, and played in the Scottish Cup, the Junior teams (nothing to do with the age of the players) were separate from the national body, and were members of their own Scottish Junior Football Association[2]. The SJFA, formed in 1886, is however affiliated to the SFA. Some of the Juniors are far-better supported than the Seniors; the 2012-13 Scottish Junior Cup final between Auchinleck Talbot and Linlithgow Rose was watched by a crowd of almost 6,500.


Other teams play under the governance of either the Scottish Amateur Football Association (with around 75 different leagues, including the Border Amateur Football League, which Gretna FC 2008 had also briefly looked at joining) and the Scottish Welfare Football Association, which was formed after WWI to organise football as a recreational activity for returning soldiers/workers.




The 2013 Settlement


By the first decade of the 21st century, there had been concern expressed for some time about the continued viability and operation of the Scottish league system. There was, unlike England, no pyramid system and a report commissioned by the League in 2007 concluded that the SFL was “an organisation not suited to a modern-day business environment,” and lacked a “commercial engine.”[3]. This report came at a time when more clubs were proposing to break away from the SFL, eager to find ways of increasing income generation. In December 2010, a review by former First Minister Henry McLeish was published which, amongst other measures intended to boost the performance of Scottish football, recommended that there should only be one league body and that the top league should be scaled back down again to ten teams. Whilst this scaling down idea was quickly rejected, discussions then took place over the next couple of years regarding the one league idea. The SPL clubs rejected a 3-tier system of 12-12-18 and put forward a proposal based on the current 12-10-10-10 model but with more redistribution of the money to the 2nd tier league. A counter-proposal from the SFL to allocate additional funding to the 3rd and 4th tiers was rejected by the SPL and it looked for a while like there would be stalemate. With the original SPL proposal set to be voted on by the SFL clubs, a number of the bigger ones warned others that should it be rejected, they would themselves break away and join a two-league SPL. On the 12th June, the SFL clubs voted and 23 of the 30 agreed with the SPL proposal (22 votes were required for the motion to be carried). At the end of the month the new Scottish Professional Football League was formally unravelled with amended names for the 4 leagues, once again mirroring England: A Premiership, Championship and Leagues One and Two.


At the same time, the long-standing discussions about a pyramid system were coming to a conclusion. On the day before the SFL vote, the SFA agreed unanimously to create such a system with a new Lowland League joining the Highland in a first-ever Tier 5 of Scottish football. Gretna FC 2008 were one of the 12 teams to participate in the Lowland League’s first season, which was to have no relegation or promotion until at least it’s second year. The intention is for the champions of these two Tier 5 leagues to be involved (perhaps also with the bottom club in League Two) in a play-off for promotion. Movement between the Lowland League and the East and South Scotland Leagues is a future possibility, depending on other factors too, such as ground facilities. The pyramid structure of the senior Scottish Leagues is (in 2015) therefore as follows:





















Scottish Premiership (12 clubs)




Scottish Championship (10 clubs)




Scottish League One (10 clubs)




Scottish League Two (10 clubs)






Highland Football League (18 clubs)


Lowland Football League (14 clubs)









6 and 7



East of Scotland Football League


South of Scotland Football League (14 clubs)




Premier Division (9 clubs)






First Division (8 clubs)





[1] The game ended in a 0-0 draw.

[2] Although Girvan were members of both and since 2007 Junior clubs have had access to the Scottish Cup by winning their league of the SJFA Cup

[3] The Scotsman, 6 March 2007 and BBC Sport, 5 March 2007

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