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The Highland Line: league reconstruction, shinty style

As Scottish football continues to wring its hands over league reconstruction, spare a thought for Scotland’s original and ancient team game of shinty.

The ruling body the Camanachd Association is facing a structural crisis every bit as challenging as football’s, when it meets in Fort William tonight ahead of play starting on March 2.

This follows Lochcarron Camanachd deciding to withdraw from north division one, and restart the club as a single team in north division three which is normally the preserve of reserve teams, where younger players develop.

It’s a real problem for the ruling body, as the Skye Camanachd’s website makes clear: “Marine Harvest North Division 1 featured just seven teams last season and looked to have the same number this coming term. Therefore Skye Camanachd promoted the idea of the “third fixture”, which was adopted last season, remaining to give each club 18 league games.

“But now that there are only six teams in the league, the options are that the clubs play each other two, three or four times meaning either 10, 15 or 20 league fixtures. However, the 15 game option, which may be seen as a compromise, is not without its complications as the ‘third fixture’ would see some clubs having three home fixtures and two away matches whilst others would have two home games and three matches away from home.”

But what does Lochcarron’s decision tell us about the state of the game? In a sporting sense not too much, indeed Lochcarron has been here before. In the 1990s the club went back to the then north division four.

As their younger players progressed, they began to prosper and moved up through the leagues during of the club’s most successful ever periods.

They won the Intermediate Championship Balliemore Cup in 1999 and in 2003 and were beaten finalists in the national MacAulay Cup competition of 2001. The club then held its own in the Premier League for five seasons and in 2000 the club relaunched a second team.

Their near neighbours Kinlochshiel Shinty Club at Balmacara near Kyle of Lochalsh, did the same thing less than a decade ago and are now prospering. The club’s first team won the north division one in 2011 and is now in the national premier league. It has a reserve team in north division two. Kinlochsiel also has an under 14's team and an under 17's team.

What does remain extraordinary is that such tiny communities can keep one team going never mind two, and Lochcarron has been doing it since 1884. There is no sport which is closer to the people of rural Scotland or as integral a part of their local heritage.

The Orion Premier League, the top national tier of the sport is dominated by teams from villages with populations of around 1,000 - Newtonmore, Tighnabruaich (Kyles Athletic), Kiltarlity (Lovat), Inveraray, Drumnadrochit (Glenurqhart), Kingussie, Corpach (Kilmallie) and Kinlohshiel, which draws from several villages such as Balmacara, Dornie, Kyle of Lochalsh.

Only Fort William with 10,000 and Bute with around 7,200 can claim to have the larger populations which are normally associated with success in team sports. It is true that Oban Camanachd will be promoted from the south division one this year and at the 2001 census the north Argyll town had a population of 8,120. But it shares that with local rivals Oban Celtic. Also the team being promoted from the north is Lochaber which comes from the village of Spean Bridge.

Meanwhile the largest settlement in the Highlands, Inverness, has a shinty team which hasn’t enjoyed national success since it won the Camanachd Cup in 1952. Indeed the city’s team has been completely overshadowed by the two down the A9 at Newtonmore and Kingussie.

New teams have started up in the south with the likes of Tayforth in Perth and Aberdour in Fife, and the sport has always been bolstered by the university teams and the likes of Glasgow Mid Argyll. But shinty’s soul remains in small Highland communities, particularly in Argyll, Lochaber, the Great Glen, Badenoch and Strathspey and north and west of Inverness - Strathpeffer (Caberfeidh), Beauly, Kiltarlity (Lovat) and Cannich (Strathglass ).

Every Saturday afternoon the equation which relates population size to sporting success is turned on it head from Furnace to Dalmally, Glendaruel to Kincraig and Strachur to Portree. Not only that it is winning increased coverage particularly on BBC Alba.

The sport’s outstanding historian is Hugh Dan MacLennan - and he has a doctorate to prove it. He was brought up in a Gaelic speaking house in the village of Caol near Fort William, played for Lochaber High School, Glasgow University, Fort William and Inverness.

He doesn’t think Lochcarron’s ‘devaluation’ is anything to worry about: “These things tend to happen in these small vulnerable communities. If you look at it over 100 years the fortunes of the clubs have been cyclical. Lochcarron has been a strong side who used to be able to hold their own with the likes of Newtonmore.

“All you have to do is to look just to the south of Lochcarron at near rivals Kinlochshiel. Ten to 15 years ago they were struggling, now they have got more shinty players than they know what to do with, and like Lochcarron most of them will have come through Plockton High School. So I am sure Lochcarron will be back near the top in a few years. Shinty is part of the place.

“But the success of a club I believe always goes hand in hand with the social and economic confidence of the local community. Nowhere was that more obvious than on Skye. In 1950 when they won the Sutherland Cup and in 1990 when they won the Camanachd Cup, the big one, they had all their boys playing at home. Lochcarron were at their peak when the Kishorn Fabrication yard was operating (from 1975 to 1987) when they not only had local players, but were bolstered by some from other areas. But they will be back.

“What also has happened is that demographics have been catching up with the shinty villages. As the profile of local populations becomes more elderly, a trend often bolstered by people coming to retire, so the numbers playing shinty fall. There are 12 players in a team and there are five substitutes. So you need a pool of 20 at very least for one team. How some of these places manage to keep fielding two teams is amazing.

“But it is to Inveraray’s eternal credit that they managed to get to the Camanachd Cup Final last year with fewer than 20 senior players. Their players are talented and they are fit which is probably because the team’s core works for the fire service and therefore keep fit in their daily work.

“However the growth areas of shinty are really in the south, in the central belt, and, of course, we now have a senior team on Lewis.”

Overall Hugh Dan believes the game is in good shape and the move to summer shinty has produced more skillful performances.

Meanwhile, on Saturday night in Portree one of his old friends will be remembered at Skye Camanachd’s annual dinner when a special caman will be presented to the youth player who best reflects the philosophy of the game held by the late Donald Ruairidh MacDonald, known universally as DR, who died in 2010.

The former principal teacher of Gaelic in Portree High School was a native of North Uist, but had attended Portree for the later years of his secondary schooling. Shinty was all but dead when he returned to Portree from Glasgow University so he began coaching it in primary schools as well as the high school, and he played for Skye himself until a serious leg break. Cup winning school sides followed and they grew into the Skye Camanachd team who won the Camanachd Cup in 1990.

The winner of the new award has been chosen by DR’s three sons, all shinty players of some repute.

Shinty in numbers
Shinty - iomain or camanachd in Gaelic - can trace its roots back 2,000 years.
It arrived in Scotland with the Irish language in the sixth century.
In the 17th century, the traveller Martin Martin found the game being played on St Kilda.
The ruling body of the Camanachd Association was formed in 1893.
The first Camanachd Cup Final, Inverness was played in 1896.
In 1924, the first full international Scotland against Ireland was played in Dublin using the compromise shinty/hurling rules.
In 2005, the shinty season moved from the winter to a March-October season after a two year trial.
On April 14 2012, the two most recent additions to the league, Strathspey and Lewis, draw 6-6 in Strathspey.

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