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SHINTY

AN ANCIENT SPORT IN THE MODERN WORLD

Sam Bowles found himself drawn to a wee village in the Scottish Highlands in search of a humble sport's less-than-humble origins.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Sam Bowles 

 

Taking place on the outskirts of the Cairngorms – a region where whisky takes centre stage and wilderness and wildness go hand in hand – in such remote and untouched surroundings it isn’t so hard to believe that the local sport is sufficiently old to pre-date something as ancient itself as the Gregorian calendar. 

Surrounded by the Grampian mountains, its one physical feature that commands undivided attention. And it’s the level patch of emerald-green grass that sits at the foot of all these hills. 

 

Local fans await kick-off in Newtonmore. Most of the town is here. Bovril in hand.

 

The hallowed Eilan – some 155 metres long and 73 wide – amounts to the Old Trafford of shinty.  It being home to Newtonmore Camanachd Club. Them being the sport’s most successful team. 

In the club car park, an extended hand is proffered by Norman ‘Brick’ McArthur. Discussions ensue around how his club’s founding fathers ever stumbled across such a flat stretch of land some 133 years previous. The answer, according to Brick, remains anyone’s guess.

Arriving, as he did, in his trusty ute, his is the latest name to grace what amounts to a long lineage of stick-wielders. ‘Brick’, not unsurprisingly, is a builder by trade. And tells me he left home at the crack of dawn this morning to pick up supplies from Inverness. It being the nearest large town, still a precise 56-minute drive up the A9. The place’s remoteness – by almost every measure – is indisputable.

He's 63, yet fit as a fiddle, and with cheeks full and crimson his appearance is that of the ever-ready rather than the over-cooked. Able, and sounding keen enough to lace up his boots at any provocation, “I love this club,” he says. “It’s a relatively small community but the whole village is intertwined with the sport. I’m not going to say there’s nothing else to do in Newtonmore, but shinty is the main event by a long way.” 

And for good reason too. With a population of just over 1000 Newtonians, the club has won the Camanachd Cup – the sport’s premier competition – a record 34 times. 

He tells me he’s the current president of the club and also – against his better judgement – assistant first-team manager, having retired from the sport on three previous occasions.  

“It felt like I was just filling a gap at first,” he says as we walk from the car park towards the turf. “But now I’m loving it, and that in itself is a problem. This is my second year now, and my wife is not happy. We’ve been married for 41 years, and I’ve been involved in shinty for pretty much all of them. The phone never stops. Won’t stop. I moan about it, but I love it.” 

On that pressure to win, he says it always looms large. “The only reason I came back into management a second time was because no one else wanted to do it.” It’s a surprising admission, given the local interest. “I’m not sure why I care so much. I guess it’s just part of who I am. A case of your father played shinty, your grandfather played shinty, his father played shinty. It goes on. I can trace my shinty heritage back to 1760 – on my mother's side that is. Before that, it’s anyone’s guess how far back we go.”

This man of the people, by any yardstick, looks tough. But shares, that in his opinion, “the game has gone a bit soft over time.” As he opens the clubhouse doors the building is small but pristine. And with more of a ‘90s vibe than anything period-appropriate, it by no means looks old in relation to shinty’s ancient past. Just dated. Nor a home to fierce competitors.

 

Inside the mid-century-modern clubhouse in Newtonmore where pictures hang on every wall. New and old.

 

Pictures from Newtonmore’s past hang on every flat surface. A constant reminder of the club’s aforementioned success. 

As every good host, he is quick to visit the kitchenette and offer up a couple of builders teas. Obviously. One cup proudly sporting the Newtonmore crest, front and centre, whilst the other features the cross of St Andrew. 

Sitting where it all began, reminiscing about an illustrious career, the eyes of the storyteller shine brighter with every mention of his club’s success. Of those early days, he remembers the game’s unilateral popularity in the highlands. “Kids played with shinty sticks every night of the week. Straight from the golf course, we’d find a bit of ground to have a knockabout. 

“Playing on Saturday existed as the week’s main fixture, before a cameo in the pub car park on Sunday mornings.” Those days, he reckons, are all just a distant memory. “In the present-day, kids favour different and more mainstream avenues in sport, if any at all,” he confirms. “The sport was different back then, players boasting a wider range of ball skills. Back then, stickmen ruled the roost. With them being the most impressive players – the playmaker if you will – pulling the strings for everyone else to follow. The game now constitutes 24 athletes charging around the field. They’re bigger, stronger, and faster but don’t possess the wizardry they did in days gone by.”

The sport’s popularity – like many others – has stagnated in recent years. Not least because of the eight-hour round trip that constitutes an away day to the Isle of Skye (that’s despite Newtonmore being situated slap-bang in the middle of the league). Teams located further south can expect to face such a pilgrimage across just one leg of the journey. Never mind a return. 

Our host possesses an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of his team’s recent history, he exists as a living and breathing archivist. Reeling off games from successful season’s as well as self-assessed heartbreak from others. “I broke my ankle in 1987 playing football. Two months later I played in the Camanachd final. It was one of the great games, us losing 4-3 to Kingussie on that occasion. But I missed so many chances, any other day I would’ve buried them. But I didn’t. And that still haunts me.”

It's those noisy neighbours, Kingussie, that share the other half of the sport’s stories. Situated just three miles down the road, The Kings have won 24 Camanachd Cups, dominating proceedings in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Playing at The Dell – an equally picturesque venue – nothing separates the two sides, geographically, but a few brooks that spur off the river Spey. 

It is on this rivalry that McArthur opens up, “If you’ve ever heard of Newtonmore or Kingussie, it’s because of the shinty clubs. The game is intrinsic to village life. It has been played for longer than people are able to record. Communities change and people move away but these two giants of our game persist.”

***

Three miles south and it’s game day. In Newtonmore, any concerns about the sport’s future are washed away by the sound that is unmistakable as competitive tension. Fans – mostly friends and family – are rolling in straight from work on this perfectly still and not so Scottish Friday evening.  

 

Tensions rise as the game kicks off and procedings become heated on the field.

 

The same tales of Newtonmore’s near-infinitely-long history still persist.  But with the pre-match Bovril switched out, in preference of something altogether colder. 

Of those tales told, the most notable remains the last-ditch 4-3 triumph over Kingussie in the 2011 Camanachd Cup final. That game ending, as it did, a 25-year drought. With McArthur at the helm. From there the side would make it seven titles in a row – the sport’s greatest recorded winning streak. 

Today the side face Lovat. A team hailing from the equally small highland town of Kiltarlity. They’re definite underdogs. But with tales of their own. Them being Camanachd Cup victors in 2015, after an incomparable stretch of 63 years since their previous. 

Stepping onto the clubhouse balcony to watch the game, first impressions are that despite the size of the pitch and players, it’s played with a small-ish ball. And by the burliest of blokes. As sports go, it is never short of action. Nor drama. 

Technically and tactically, it has some similarities with golf. Seeing goalkeepers run up to the ball, ‘Happy Gilmore’ fashion, smacking it – for want of a better word – a good 140 yards up the centre. All for the other 22 blokes standing in the distance to fight over. The sight can only be compared to throwing bread to ducks. 

 

The first half gets underway to a pretty stunning backdrop in the Highlands. 

 

A single common aim drives the game. To find the back of the opponent’s net. No matter the means of doing so. Fair. Or foul.

Remarks made earlier around the game being soft couldn’t seem further from the truth. Competitors are knocking chunks out of each other. Some of them choose to wear helmets, while others do not. 

The game, in terms of seeking further and absolute definition, lists somewhere between hockey, football, and the aforementioned golf. In that, it’s most similar still to the Gaelic sport of hurling. To the point where Scotland and Ireland meet on the odd occasion in a clash of codes. 

It's little surprise, given its regional importance, that 2023 Scottish Open runner-up (to Rory McIlroy no less), Robert MacIntyre, finds solace in the game. Going so far as turning out for Oban Celtic when chasing a bit of respite from the shackles of professional golf. Akin to McArthur’s heritage, MacIntyre’s is also a family affair. "My grandpa played at a high level, my dad played at the highest level. I'm not quite there, but I enjoy it as much as any sport,” said the Ryder Cup winner when speaking to BBC Scotland. "I'm playing with my best mates. And when travelling the world I’ve not been able to spend time with them. So, I see them at shinty. It's brilliant. We're a group of guys, where if one's in a war, we're all in a war."

After witnessing the 90 minutes of bone-breaking action, the only difference to McArthur’s era must have been that players, much to the coach’s obvious chagrin, no longer ‘play on’ when clearly injured.

 

 

Despite it being an amateur affair, the club’s first team coach, Lesley McKenna, is a three-time British Olympic snowboarder. McArthur notes, “She’s an absolute godsend,” he says as he smiles. “A legend in her sport, she’s brought that professionalism to training. Bringing us out of the doldrums of that lengthy drought.”

But that’s not the sport’s only link with the cold. Formerly a winter sport itself, ice hockey has shinty to thank for its very existence. Furthermore, despite being definitively Scottish, it surprisingly shares heritage with two of England’s most iconic football stadiums. With shinty matches played at Old Trafford in 1879, and then even further south, and before that, at Stamford Bridge. 

Today, the home side go down 2-0. It’s a slightly anti-climactic finale. Albeit an entertaining one. There are undeniably lessons to be learnt. But not before a visit to the pub. There, as every competitor knows, all rivalries end. Storied. Or otherwise. And this circle of sporting life is a hard habit to break. Brick-hard, in fact.

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