Among Scotland’s first sports, the game of shinty survives today
QUEENSFERRY, Scotland _ On a dreary Wednesday night in a suburb of Edinburgh, a small team files onto a soccer field behind a local community center. Unlike everyone on the fields surrounding them, though, they are not here to play soccer. The coaches’ duffle bags are full of balls and wooden sticks, the tools of an ancient game that even many Scots aren’t familiar with.
The “team” can hardly be called that. It is a small gathering of a half-dozen teenage girls and their mothers. The game they are playing is called shinty. Each of them picks up a stick and makes her way toward the center of the field. They all fall silent as their coach, Lisa MacColl, gathers them in a circle and outlines the plan for the night.
The drills are just basic footwork and one-on-one passing, until MacColl leads a scrimmage with a few of the parents in the last few minutes of practice. The players’ moves are a far cry from the brutal nature of their sport. In the sport’s top league, players practically use the stick as a weapon, slamming into opposing players and hitting them in the legs and ribs to get to the ball. Lisa’s own team, Aberdour, would be doing just that the following night.
In a sport dominated by tradition and men from the Highlands, Aberdour stands in stark contrast to the other major clubs. Although she is arguably the most successful woman to ever play the sport, MacColl credits her success to those who came before her.
“I’m not sure I’d call myself a trailblazer,” she said. “There are so many women who have had, and still have, a huge impact in the game. There is always so much more to be done.”
Shinty, known in Gaelic as camanachd, and pronounced CA-MA-nid, is one of Scotland’s national sports, with a history that, according to legend, stretches back thousands of years. It is primarily played in the small villages in the Scottish Highlands, and to the uninitiated can look like a rougher version of field hockey.
For centuries it’s been a niche sport, always looking for a way to find new players. There are only around 3,000 active players in the entire country. These days, people like MacColl and the kids and moms at practice fit both demographic groups that might be the next generation of players – women from Scotland’s big cities.
DEAN OF SHINTY
Hugh Dan MacLennan lives in a comfortable, two-story house in the quiet suburb of Alloa, about an hour’s drive to the west of Edinburgh. He spends most of his time these days in his first-floor office, and a visitor can tell.
The room is a shrine to everything shinty.
A bookcase along the back wall is full of binders, stuffed to the gills with his research. A basket in the corner holds a variety of shinty sticks, known as camans, from different eras of the sport. A plate near his desk commemorates his own service in the Camanachd Association.
MacLennan, who will retire next year, has dedicated his life to the sport he loves. He grew up in Fort William, a small town in the Highlands where shinty was one of the most popular sports. He had a brief career as a shinty player himself, appearing for Fort William’s local team and for the University of Glasgow, but he soon transitioned into broadcast journalism.
“I started working with the BBC, and they didn’t like me coming to work with my fingers broken,” he said. His nose is slightly crooked as well, another war wound from his time as a player.
MacLennan has written several books about shinty, including “Shinty!” which chronicles the sport’s history, and “Not an Orchid,” a compilation of accounts and tales about camanachd.
Shinty has murky origins due to its simple nature as a game played with a ball and a stick. Similar, but unrelated, games were played in ancient Persia and Athens.
According to the medieval “Book of Leinster,” the first game of shinty took place in 1272 BC. The opponents were the Fir Bolg and the invading Tuatha Dé Danaan, and the game was played, perhaps unwisely, before a battle. As such, the Fir Bolg won the game and killed the opposing players. The existence of both groups has been debated by scholars, with some claiming that they are simply legends.
Shinty is derived from its cousin, the ancient Irish sport of hurling. And both sports do indeed have similarities to field hockey. Shinty came across the Irish Sea around the time of Saint Columba in the sixth century and established itself in the Scottish Highlands.
For hundreds of years, villages would hold annual tournaments, generally on New Year’s Day. The matches were known for their lax rules. An indefinite number of players could join either side and leave whenever they wanted, and games lasted until no one could see the ball in the darkness. Everyone participated purely for their love of the game.
“Nobody has ever been paid to play shinty, and still not,” MacLennan said.
As the Highland way of life started to fade by the 1800’s, so did shinty. It held on in a few small towns that continued their annual games, but it was in desperate need of assistance.
In 1893, shinty organized itself as a governing body for the first time as the Camanachd Association. The industrial revolution’s introduction of railroads had connected the Highlands more than ever, making it easier for teams to travel. After 1,000 years as an informal sport, shinty was making an effort to be more professional. It was around then that teams started to wear their distinctive striped uniforms instead of street clothes in which to play.
“People just used to turn out in whatever they were wearing,” said MacLennan as he pulled up a vintage team photo with intricately posed players. “That must have taken hours to set up. It seems that photographers were commissioned to take photos of these new teams.”
Since then, shinty has become part of Highland life, an event that brings the tiny villages together. Many of the game’s best players spend their whole careers with their hometown teams, sparking fierce local rivalries.
Shinty legend Ronald Ross, known as “The Ronaldo of the Glens” by the media, played his entire career for his hometown of Kingussie. Their archrival, Newtonmore, plays just three miles down the road.
“For me, it all started in secondary school when (we) started mixing with the Newtonmore boys,” he recalled. “The rivalry is similar to Rangers/Celtic games but without the religious element. Playing for Kingussie meant everything to me.”
Added MacLennan: “It’s a very territorial game. People who move to cities will travel back to their home to play. I have commented on teams with the grandsons and granddaughters of players I played against.”
21st CENTURY SHINTY
According to MacLennan, Lisa MacColl is the key to the sport’s future.
In 2005, the Camanachd Association voted to move shinty’s season from the winter to the summer, when Scotland’s soccer leagues are dormant, a major change for the sport. Although shinty has evolved to stay alive, it has never gained a foothold in the nation’s large cities, such as Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The sport also has never enjoyed much success outside of Scotland, though it gained a small foothold in Cape Breton, Canada, where Scottish settlers brought it across the Atlantic.
Other enclaves in Australia and New Zealand were lost after a few generations because there was a lack of interest and not enough wood to make the camans.
According to MacLennan, Lisa MacColl is the key to the sport’s future. She founded Aberdour Shinty Club, based near Edinburgh and the farthest-south major shinty organization, at just 22 years old in 2001. Aberdour has both a men’s and a women’s team that compete at the highest level.
MacColl faced criticism early on in her battle to integrate the sport, which MacLennan attributes to a “mental block.”
“A lot of people wanted her to fail,” he said, “just to prove the point that it’s not a woman’s game.”
Nonetheless, MacColl was instrumental in founding the Women’s Camanachd League, which Aberdour has since joined. She was unfazed by the prospect of running a team fulltime but has had to rise to the challenge of managing her growing franchise.
“It’s gotten more difficult as it goes on,” she said. “You’ve got to have drive and passion.”
MacLennan added, “When I was in university in the ‘70’s, it was inconceivable that there would be a women’s competition. I now commentate on the women’s cup final on television.”
He pauses to pick up a paper on his desk.
“I noticed yesterday, for example, on this list, one of the matches was refereed by a woman. Division One. It should be normalized. It should be something we don’t talk about.”
LABOR OF LOVE
The train ride to Inverness from Edinburgh is three-and-a-half hours of Scotland’s best. Rolling fields of sheep and Highland cattle transition into snow-capped mountains. Quaint villages populate the shores of Scotland’s many lochs. Islands, out in the distance, feature the ruins of once-stately castles perched upon their craggy foundations. Inverness, roughly the size of State College, Pennsylvania, is a speck of population amid the wilderness.
It’s in this sort of landscape that shinty was born, and it’s just outside Inverness where Aarron MacLeod works and lives today. He’s the marketing and communications officer for the Camanachd Association.
MacLeod sits in a coffee shop within a performing arts center, hard at work on his laptop. He studied politics at Aberdeen University, but always had a soft spot for shinty. After graduation, he found that, in fact, it would be easier to give back to his community through shinty, the “lifeblood of the highlands.” He is the second-newest of the Camanachd Association’s nine employees and joined two years ago. Before that, he was a volunteer for his local shinty club in the nearby town of Beauly.
The Camanachd Association is a tight-knit group, but although it has just nine full-time employees and a dozen or so volunteers, it is the largest it has ever been.
MacLeod has found that the local nature of shinty has made it simple to make contacts.
“You get a lot more access to the players and coaches,” he said. “I can just pick up the phone (and call) any player, any manager in the league and get them involved in trying to promote our sport.”
Much of shinty’s digital reach is a labor of love. Scottish television only broadcasts eight shinty matches per year, generally featuring the highest-profile matchups and the Camanachd Cup.
The association’s volunteer videographer, Norman Strachan, had been filming games every week for over 11 years and uploading them to YouTube. Since his retirement last year, the association has produced a budget to pay for his replacement to continue the work.
One of shinty’s biggest events of the year is its annual crossover competition with Ireland’s hurling team. Every year since 2003, the Camanachd Association and the Gaelic Athletic Association play two matches in Ireland or Inverness’s own Bught Park, with the winner being decided in the aggregate. The novelty factor of two teams playing with different sticks and equipment has been enough for the competition to win an annual broadcast on BBC Two in Scotland.
Beyond the crossover matches, the association’s main goal these days is getting more women into the sport, which has the potential to nearly double the league’s small pool of potential players. The association has pivoted toward girls’ only practices in its youth groups, as opposed to integrated practices.
“We find that there’s quite a drop-off between secondary school and high school. One of the reasons is that the mixed classes tend to put them off,” MacLeod said.
Helping girls develop “a real passion for the sport” will be the focus for the association’s new development officer, he added.
The Camanachd Association also has started a Young Persons’ Shinty Ambassador Program, for which they have been recruiting female ambassadors.
“They’re acting as role models for the new generation of women coming into the sport,” MacLeod said. “There’s a phrase that was bound around a lot at the Womens’ World Cup, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see,’ and we really agree with that.”
The new development officer also has been tasked with growing the game in the central belt of the country, the stretch between Glasgow and Edinburgh. One of the league’s biggest success stories is Uddingston, a new club near Aberdour that debuted its women’s team before its men’s team.
Rural areas in Scotland are suffering from depopulation. So, MacLeod said, it’s best “to focus on metropolitan areas, while also retaining the clubs that we have.”
At the end of Aberdour’s practice, MacColl’s two young boys run onto the field. Arming themselves with camans, they enthusiastically swing at the net. MacColl struggles to load them into the family van. She says it’s worth all the effort.
“It’s one of those sports where once you start, you get hooked,” she said. Her own playing days ended eight years ago. So now promoting the sport with girls is her passion, as she says: “For the good of shinty.”