Trouble on eight wheels

For our Rebels issue, we wanted to investigate the growing popularity of roller derby amongst women in the UK. Words by Sam Bradley and illustration by Bethany Thompson.

It’s a Saturday, and Hibernian are playing St Mirren at home in front of the old faithful.

You can hear the roar of the crowd from a couple of streets away, tilting back and forth as the flow of the game shifts and turns. But down the road at Meadowbank Stadium, there’s a different kind of pre-match atmosphere. There’s a craft fair set up in the corridor outside the indoor arena selling artisan fudge, traybakes and nerdy t-shirts. On the court, Leithal Weapons and Banana Splits, two teams fielded by the Auld Reekie Roller Girls – Edinburgh’s roller derby league – are warming up for the first competitive bout of the season.

Roller derby is a fast-paced, full-contact sport that requires agility, balance and a high pain threshold from players. It’s my first time watching a game, and it takes me a while before I learn to spot complicated manoeuvres being executed amid the chaos.

My curiosity about derby led me to try and find as many players as I could to speak to about the sport. I spoke to Gill (derby nickname: ‘Harm’) about her first experience of derby. “I knew as soon as I walked into the sports hall that I loved it,” she said. Gill’s a member of the Lothian Derby Dolls, another Scottish league.  She told me that, “As a 37-year-old woman there is no other sport I could join as a beginner and be part of a team. There are not many sports that women any age, shape and size, can join and be accepted.”

Rachel (derby nickname: ‘Rambo’), one of the organisers at Lothian Derby Dolls, told me that, “Anyone who wants to take up the sport is welcome. It’s a full contact sport so like all roller derby leagues we have a minimum standard that people need to reach before they can play – for their own safety as well as the safety of other skaters. Whilst some take to it like a fish to water and will be ready to join in straight away, if it takes someone longer they’re given all the support they need.”

With approximately 140 leagues in the UK and nearly 2,000 world-wide, roller derby is gaining momentum. To find out more, I spoke to Tess Robertson, a board member of the UK Roller Derby Association (UKRDA) – the national governing body for roller derby in the UK – and a member of London Rollergirls. “The sport has become incredibly popular in the UK. The UKRDA lists 61 member leagues, but there are new leagues establishing themselves on a frequent basis,” she said. “There’s nearly a team in every major city in the UK, and if not, you’re likely to be able to find one very nearby. The sport is growing at a phenomenal rate.”

"I knew as soon as I walked into the sports hall that I loved it" - Harm, 37

London Rollergirls (LRG) were the first team to set up in the UK and Robertson said that as the sport has grown, it’s become more professional. “When roller derby began in the UK in 2005, it was very much an underground, alternative sort of scene. There were a lot of fishnets, tutus and face paint,” she said. “Now, it’s more legitimised as a sport, people take it very seriously and it’s much more athleticism and strength. People tend to care less about what hot pants they wear to a game, they care about how they’re going to perform with their team in order to win and when they can next go to the gym.”

Speaking about her own team, she told me, “I play on the b-team, Brawl Saints, who also play on an international level and are in the top ten teams in Europe. Playing roller derby as a part of LRG is amazing, and it fills me with pride and confidence.”

Despite that, derby is very much a grassroots sport. I spoke to Mel (derby nickname: Melicious Intent), the vice chairwoman of Helgin Roller Derby. Based in Elgin, Moray, the league was organised on social media. “We’re approaching our first birthday, we’ve now got eleven members, and around twenty regular skaters,” she said.

According to Mel, Helgin is the northernmost roller derby league in the UK. She said, “There are quite a few leagues in Scotland now - I think officially, by the curve of the Moray coast, we’re the most northern Scottish league, but there is also Inverness City Roller Derby, and Granite City Roller Girls up here in the north!”

Each of the derby players I spoke to praised the inclusiveness of the sport - and said that it was one of the main reasons they joined. Tess Robertson said that spirit was directly responsible for the sport’s expansion. She told me, “Roller derby offers a very inclusive environment where people from all walks of life and of all shapes and sizes are welcome to join our sport.  We’ve been commended in our community for our Transgender Policy, and we were one of the first sports in the UK to introduce a policy that doesn’t involve hormone testing; it’s all about how the individual self-identifies.”

"In our league we have nurses, social workers, teachers, students and office workers. We're just everyday folk who do something that little bit more exciting in the evenings"

The other players I spoke to agreed. Rachel said that, “I’d like to think roller derby allows people to feel safe with who they are. The sexuality or gender of a team member has never been an issue… I wouldn’t expect anything else from ours or any other league.” Gill told me that, “I really don’t think anyone cares where you come from or who you sleep with, it’s just all about skating.”

Each of the players I interviewed told me that it was the sense of community within their respective leagues that kept them coming back each week. “The derby community is everything for me,” said Gill. “I know I have had the hardest personal struggles to get through and my team have brought food to my house, babysat so I could get to training and been there if I needed a hot chocolate.”

Rachel told me, “I’m a short plus size girl who isn’t that athletic. Here, people don’t judge me. In our league we have nurses, social workers, teachers, students and office workers. We’re just everyday folk who do something that little bit more exciting in the evenings.