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Issue 26 - Sport of the Celts

Scotland Magazine Issue 26
April 2006


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Sport of the Celts

Shinty is a hard uncompromising sport but great to watch. As the new season gets under way, Alex Mead gives it some stick

It might not have the worldwide fame of golf or the Olympic gold-medal winning capability of curling, but shinty is truly one of the most Scottish sports you’ll ever find.

Going back to Gaelic Scotland and even the earlier Celtic race, shinty or camanachd – to give it its proper Gaelic title – had its beginnings roughly 2,000 years ago.

But before we get into that, it’s worth mentioning – for the uninitiated – what shinty actually is.

Played predominantly in the west and the Highlands of Scotland, shinty looks at first glance like a cross between a more physical version of hockey and La Crosse. The aim of the game, as with most sports, is to score in the opponent’s goal with the aid of the caman (i.e. the stick).

Only the goalkeeper is allowed to handle the ball and, unlike its Irish cousin hurling, you can’t kick the ball either.

There are of course a lot more rules, but these are the basics and more than enough to be going on with.

Although it’s been ‘in development for 2,000 years,’ the Camanachd Association – the sport’s governing body – was formed in 1893 because there were so many different interpretations of the sport that some basic rules needed to be founded.

And from that formation came the leagues and structures that are now in place today – an eight team Premier division feeding down into national and then regional leagues.

Needless to say, before that, things were a bit different.

“It would have been territorial but as it developed into the 19th century it would have been clan-based,” explains Hugh Dan MacLennan, the Camanachd Association’s director of communications.

“The clan chief would’ve organised his own matches and they’d have played on special occasions such as New Year and Christmas.

“It would’ve been town versus town and village versus village, there’d have been side-bets and the dimensions of the pitch could’ve been anything.” MacLennan describes shinty as ‘a robust form of hockey, with physical contact’ and that seems fair, although with sticks and balls flying high, it does seem a tad dangerous.

“We don’t have serious injuries in the way that rugby has serious injuries in the front row of a scrum,” he says. “The stick is the primary method of defence and that’s what you’re first taught to do as a child – to protect yourself with the stick.

“We have breaks, cuts and bruises, but we don’t have the severity of injuries that they do in other sports. The worse injury I’ve seen was when someone ended up partially paralysed after a hit on the head – but that was an extreme circumstance. I’ve also seen someone lose an eye.”

Freak incidents aside, MacLennan believes the lack of injuries is due to the make up of the ball.

“In its construction it’s a cork centre with twine and then leather, there’s a certain amount of give in that – whereas a cricket ball hits likes a bullet and you know what a golf ball’s like!”

With fears of serious injuries allayed, what of shinty’s claim to be Scotland’s true national sport?

“Who decides what is a national sport?” says MacLennan. “Rather than argue which one sport is the national one, I think curling, golf and shinty all have an equal claim and you can have a good debate about it.

“I think that because of their unique draw all of them have a rightful claim, so the three of them are Scotland’s national sports.”

With shinty’s roots being firmly planted in Gaelic and Celtic history, the sport would have spread from Ireland across to Scotland, and while it now has its heartlands, it was once widespread.

“At one point or another, every place in Scotland has played shinty,” says MacLennan.

“The only areas where I’ve never found evidence of it is in Orkney or Shetland but I’ve found it at one point or another everywhere – even in the Borders.”

And in the areas where the sport has grown, to learn to play shinty is top of the list of every growing child.

“There’s a different intensity depending where you are, but in the heartlands of the sport it’s the first thing you do.

“I was given my first stick at six – you grow up with it and that’s the best way to learn. The people who have done this will have a lot more skill than, say, someone who wasn’t given a stick until about 12.”

The skill on display during a 90-minute shinty match is impressive: to direct the ball with such power and precision using either the flat or heel of the stick takes some doing.

Watching a game at any one of the 35 clubs across Scotland will be enough to prove that, but the sport should be bigger than it is today.

Like so many other sports, shinty had huge numbers of players wiped out during the two World Wars, but it was a significantly less serious dispute that hampered its progress more recently.

“One of the issues that effected it happened in the 70s when there was a big teachers’ strike about out-of-hours work and at that point extra-curricular activity was dropped by teachers.

“I don’t think it ever recovered from that. For a long time, teachers just didn’t do sport after school – whereas before your geography teacher would take a team or something. That had a huge impact.”

To see how popular shinty could become, you only have to take a look across the sea to Ireland and the success of shinty’s fellow stick-wielding sport, hurling.

“If you compare it to Ireland, for every shinty player there are 100 hurlers,” says MacLennan.

“Ireland has one of the best stadiums in Europe in Croke Park, it’s got a capacity of 82,000 and they use it for hurling five times a year. They’ve also just appointed 191 coaches – we’ve got three who travel all across the country.”

Of course, hurling has had the support of its parishes for many a moon – it used to be the case that every priest would also double up as a hurling coach.

Nonetheless when Scotland’s shinty players faced their hurling counterparts from Ireland in a recent international match in Inverness, it was the home side that finished victors.

Although Scotland’s women’s side – yup they play it too – lost 13-0, the Scottish seniors and under-21s both ran out winners against the Irish as the two countries contested the matches using adapted rules.

With such fixtures between the countries dating back a good few decades, there’s more than a few grudges out there.

“There’s a lot of family baggage carried on,” admits MacLennan. “Fathers, grandfathers, if you’ve got a good family then it’ll be passed on, there’s a lot of familiar surnames that are carried through the ranks in shinty.”

That match not only attracted 1,500 spectators but was also televised, proof if needed that the sport is on the up. Beyond Scotland – in America to be specific – the sport has taken off to some degree as well.

“There are a couple of clubs in the States who, as the Americans do, have picked it up and done it very well,” says MacLennan. “There’s one called the Northern California Camanachd Club that had representatives over at the club final this year because they want to get involved in the Highland Year of Culture in 2007.

“It’s a kind of ex-pat thing in that they’ve taken the sport abroad and now they’re bringing it back.”

Balls and sticks aside, according to MacLennan it’s more than the game itself that makes shinty such an attractive sport.

“There’s the social side to it now,” he says.

“The way we sell it at the moment is that it’s more than just a game, there’s the cultural aspects that come with being Gaelic – the piping etc – you can turn it in to quite a day out with a party.

“The biggest selling point we’ve got, is that we’re different, there’s nothing like us. We’ve got the language, the music, and a wonderful location and when you package it up, it’s very attractive. It’s got a wow factor, once people see it for the first time on telly they’ve got to go and see it live.”

The shinty season runs from March to September for details of where and when to watch it visit