Scotland’s ancient warrior game plots course into the future

Hamish Myers (Strathglass) in a challenge with David MacLennan (Glen Urquhart) in the Macdonald Cup, at Blairbeg, Drumnadrochit.

Martin MacLean blows his whistle. He takes a step forward and throws the ball in the air. 

Two midfielders swing their camáns above their heads. Against the clash of timber the ball hits the ground. 

Two more midfielders from each team join the contest. There’s jostling and the clattering of timber. 

The ball shoots to the side. A Glen Urquhart player is first to react. 

He takes four, five steps, sets himself and swings sweetly on the ball. It flies 60 metres in towards the Skye goals.

“Great shinty, Glen Urquhart,” shouts a man standing in front of the pavilion.

Straight away, there’s a contest for the ball in front of the Skye goals. And then another. Bodies are flying in and there are camáns being used with great abandon. 

It’s the quarter-final of the MacTavish Cup — and it’s going to be great fun.

Narrow escapes

Skye score first. They have a couple of brilliant forwards who combine when John Gillies plays in Jordan Murchison who sends a volley flying past Glen Urquhart’s goalkeeper Stuart Mackintosh.

Mackintosh is a wonderful player but the only way he could have stopped Murchison’s shot was if it had hit him. For the first 20 minutes of play, Skye look to be much the better team. 

Indeed, Glen Urquhart are torn open time and again by the clean striking and swift running of the Skye players.

Mackintosh makes some great saves and the goal has some narrow escapes.

Both teams were relegated from the Premier Division of shinty last year and both have ambitions to make an immediate return. 

At this stage of the match, Skye look to be by far the better placed.

But slowly, implacably, Glen Urquhart haul themselves back into the game. They are led around the middle of the field by Michael Fraser. 

He was a soccer goalkeeper who was good enough to enjoy a decent career as a professional, playing Scottish Premier League with Inverness Caledonian Thistle. 

Now, back playing shinty, he works relentlessly in the middle of the field, shifting the balance of the game towards his team. 

It’s a masterclass in how to serve your team by looking for work and looking for it in all the right places. 

The Skye goalkeeper Ryan Morrison makes some superb saves, but it only delays what appears increasingly inevitable.

It is not a surprise when the superb Glen Urquhart forward Neale Reid scores a goal and as the game heads to half-time the teams are level.

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Loose strokes

It’s very easy to see how a shinty match could descend into anarchy. The contests for the ball are fierce. 

There were a few loose strokes during this game, but nothing savage. The players played the ball, and played the man, but did so with honour.

Respect for the referee was not absolute, but it was better than in many GAA matches.

Still, it must have been something else when the game was played in winter and when the rules were treated with more ambivalence.

One of the reasons why Glen Urquhart were able to change the way the tide of this match flowed was with the introduction of 15-year old Cameron Bremner in the middle of the first half. 

He freed up Cameron Mackintosh to mark Jordan Murchison and the game took on a whole different shape after that. 

Glen Urquhart’s joint-manager Eddie Tembo said afterward: “Up to recently there was no way we could have put a 15-year-old in there. It used to be much, much more physical. 

You had old lads trying to hit young ones all the time. Especially fast and skillful young ones. Winter shinty was played in the snow and the ice. It was cold and awful really.

"The change to summer shinty happened about 15 years ago. It’s hard to believe now that it was only narrowly passed. 

"But it’s so much better. The game is just way better. And the game has changed. It’s almost frowned on now to hit a young player. 

"There are still hard players, still physical players. But being dirty isn’t what it once was.

“Also, it’s not just a physical game. You cannot just work a week, not train, and then turn out on a Saturday and play. 

"You have to train a couple of times a week and mind yourself. You have to be able to run. 

"The game is more scientific. There are more tactics. There is much more speed and much more game awareness. 

"There’s no more smoking at half-time. The days of the mud fight are over.”

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Masculinity

The violence of shinty was rooted in a culture of masculinity that ran through the game across generations. 

It is a most revealing thing, although the Camanachd Association was founded to regulate shinty in 1893, and although there were more than a dozen clubs active in the decades before that and, of course, the playing of the game in a less formalised manner extends back for many centuries, there was only a marginal place for women.

Girls played at school and in club teams with boys until Under 14, but that was almost always it. 

Broader social change in Scotland eventually brought change to shinty. 

In the 1990s women’s teams began to form around various clubs and eventually, in 2001, the Women’s Camanachd Association was formed. There are now around a dozen active clubs. 

And in Glen Urquhart, a women’s team was started as recently as 2016. The unanimously expressed view is that it has greatly enhanced the club and everything that it does. 

Siobhan Thomson is a central figure on the team and, now, in the club in general: “I started shinty at 38 when I was approached by Hazel Hunter, now the team manager, to help her start a Glen Urquhart women’s team. 

"I just loved playing, it gave me a great buzz. 

"The men have always been very supportive since we started, a lot of them helped us to start the team, former men’s coaches Jim Barr and Billy MacLean stepped up to coach us and the men let us train with them, despite the fact many of us were complete beginners. 

"We were never made to feel bad and their help was invaluable. 

"I play shinty for many reasons, one is I love playing, then the craic and friends old and new, also it’s a huge part of the community here and my son plays so it is something we do together.”

Uncommercialised

Half-time brought the chance to wander onto the pitch with the club chairman Gary McIntosh. 

He runs an industrial supplies company in the highlands – and he runs the shinty club. 

The story he tells is a familiar one to anybody who has ever run any sports club.

For example, there are financial demands. There are sticks and balls to be bought, and jerseys, and insurance must be paid.

The managers don’t get any money; the players get vouched travel expenses.

The club is based in the beautiful village of Drumnadrochit and the players all come from the village and from the glen around it.

Mostly, they sill live in the area, but one lives in Aberdeen and a few live and work further afield.

One of the players spent a couple of years travelling home from working on the oil rigs in Norway and then in Azerbaijan.

In general, the sport is about as uncommercialised as it could be, in this age.

There is no admission fee, no programme sellers, no merchandising. From a door in the pavilion, clubs volunteers sell tea and coffee at basic prices.

They raise their money from lottery ticket sales, race nights, advertising hoarding, local sponsorship – and by running a bar every summer when the Highland Games contests are staged on the shinty field. 

Shinty players Jordan MacPhee (Kilmallie) and Robbie MacLeod (Kyles) clash in the third round (quarter-finals) of the Tulloch Homes Camanachd Cup, played at Canal Park, Caol, Fort William in Scotland.
Shinty players Jordan MacPhee (Kilmallie) and Robbie MacLeod (Kyles) clash in the third round (quarter-finals) of the Tulloch Homes Camanachd Cup, played at Canal Park, Caol, Fort William in Scotland.

The cabers that are tossed on that day are stored along the side of the pitch. 

It is a glorious setting: the field falls away towards the village and is framed by the steep slopes of the glen.

There are maybe 100 people at the match.

It’s a good three hours across land and sea from the Isle of Skye, but they have brought with them a few dozen supporters. 

As they wander to seats in front of the pavilion, old opponents from each club greet each other. That they may have fought bitterly with each other in the past is smothered in the advance of time.

It’s not that there isn’t rivalry and that rivalry comes out as the game heats up.

But there’s also fellowship.

Shinty is a localised sport played only in certain areas. There are whole swathes of the country where the game is unplayed. 

It does not have a regular presence on television and only the prestigious Camanachd Cup final draws a really big crowd.

It is dwarfed by the profile of soccer, golf, and rugby – but it would be wrong to call it marginal. 

Nothing that has a tradition that extends as far as does the shinty tradition or whose meaning is so profound to the lives of so many families can rightly be deemed marginal.

Skye fall

The second half starts. The play sweeps up and down the field. This is a physical game but it is also an immensely skillful one. 

The fact that the outfield players cannot handle the ball (and the goalkeeper can only use his hand to stop, but not to catch) demands stickwork of the very highest calibre. 

That the sticks are much more narrow than hurling sticks and that the ball is considerably smaller than a sliotar creates further demands.

There are just 12 players on each team and every player is engaged in a one-on-one contest with a direct opponent. 

It makes for thrilling exchanges — but also for space. The best players find space and their superior touch and striking stand out.

In this it is similar to hurling. But shinty is rendered profoundly different to hurling because of the capacity to keep possession in hurling by passing the ball through the hand and by the fact that in hurling points can be scored from such a distance.

That shinty allows only goals to be scored and the ball to be played only by the stick means many more contests for possession, rather than tackling of a man already in possession.

And it is in these contests — and in the attempts of the most skillful players to extract themselves from the tumult— that the game is at its most thrilling.

One such moment came in the second half when Glen Urquhart’s Oliver Black frees himself and passes to Connor Golabek who shoots the ball home. 

They could score more, but chances come and go, and Skye fight hard to stay in the game.

The endgame is tremendous to watch — it’s fast and furious as both teams strain for victory. 

In the last few minutes, Skye lay something of a siege to the Glen Urquhart goal, but cannot score. They’re deeply disappointed when the final whistle blows.

But Glen Urquhart are through to the semi-final of the MacTavish Cup. 

It’s another step forward in a season that is now beginning to swell with what feels very much like hope.

Beacon

Ken Fraser and Alan Bell played for Glen Urquhart for decades. In Ken’s case, he played his last match when he was 47. 

They are still involved in the club. Alan did the sideline during the match and Ken helped collect the hoardings around the pitch after the game. 

They’ve seen it all here. They talk about the difficulties of spreading shinty beyond its hinterland, of the clubs that are formed, flourish briefly and then fade away. 

It’s not easy to maintain a club, any club. It demands officers and volunteers and people willing to give of their time to train teams and do all the things that are filed under ‘thankless’.

They talk with pride of their field. It’s managed by a community association and has an all-weather facility for winter training and a nursery pitch for the children just starting out.

They talk about how matches were previously played in a farm field out the road towards Glen Urquhart. But this pitch, with its charming pavilion, has been their home since 1948. 

It’s a beacon for the people in the village, a focal point for many lives, a piece of land that has induced generations of players to shape their world around being able to play for their team.

Hum of happiness

The drink is flowing in the Loch Ness Inn. It’s a lovely bar, attached to a fine restaurant. 

Anybody who has ever been in a pub with a winning team after a match will recognise the hum of happiness that fills the place.

The club’s second team have also been playing and when David MacLennan, the scorer of a hat-trick, walks in, there is a huge cheer. He stands in the doorway and waits for quiet. 

“I’ll be taking shooting practice with you lads on Monday evening”, he tells the first-team players. There’s another cheer now – this one laced with laughter.

Eddie Tembo is a happy man. He is only a couple of months into management. Himself and Stuart Mackintosh stepped in to manage the team in the winter, after they had been relegated. 

The relegation was the product of low morale and poor turnouts to training.

Mackintosh plans to play on in goal. He’s 33 and has many years left. He lives in Inverness, where he makes a living playing the accordion. 

He comes back out to training on a Monday and a Wednesday night. He took on management because it felt like the right thing to do for the club. 

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And because himself and Eddie Tembo are friends and they believe in their club.

For Eddie Tembo, the story is a little different. He was a genuine star of the game.

He played the last five minutes of the match against Skye, coming on to help close out the game after an injury. 

He has now turned 40: “I’d like to play more. But we have a really good squad this year and that’s just how it is.”

When he was at his best, he made the Scotland team for the shinty-hurling matches with Ireland. 

In 2008, he scored the winning point in the match that was played at Nowlan Park in Kilkenny. 

When he started, he was the only black man playing shinty. It was back in 1991.

He arrived in the village of Drumnadrochit, brought back there by his mother, having previously lived in Zambia where his father was from.

I arrived on a Wednesday and on the Saturday went to shinty training. I played for the Under 12s that year and first played for the senior team in 1996 when I was 16. I love the game.

*****

It’s Sunday morning. No shinty matches are played on a Sunday. 

There have been occasional exceptions to this rule, but the grip of the old religious decree of ‘respecting the Sabbath’ endures in shinty.

It may be Sunday and there may be no match, but two children are out on the shinty pitch.

They run and swing and hit and run again. 

A stick and a ball, a sweep of grass, and a tradition of play that extends from a past that is ancient, across the present and out into the future.

Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin.

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