'This is Monarch of the Glen Country, " the tourist board proudly informs visitors to the Badenoch and Strathspey area of the Highlands. To those who live here, though, this is shinty country - with more drama and plot-twists than anything produced by the now-defunct BBC series. The search for the mythical Glenbogle might bring fresh tides of tourists to the area, but it is the sport of the Gael that's put it firmly on the map.

Kingussie, the capital of Badenoch, is home to the most successful team in the history of world sport. Guinness World Records confirmed Kingussie Shinty Club as such when informed of their 20 successive league titles, an incredible sporting legacy for a small Highland town. The Camanachd Cup and MacTavish Cup were added to their shoal of silverware this season, but in the league a strange thing happened. For the first time since 1986, Kingussie did not win. Instead, Fort William picked up their first Premier League championship last weekend.

Rumours of Kingussie's demise have abounded for the past five years. The ageing limbs of their golden generation could not be relied upon indefinitely, it was argued. Yet they kept on winning, rewriting the record books with relentless vigour. Until now. So where do they go from here? Has the empire finally crumbled, heralding a new era of competitiveness in the game? More importantly, how did Kingussie become the most successful team in sport?

It's a rich sporting tale with a heroic protagonist at its centre. The office of Ronald Ross is a modest space at the back of the Bank of Scotland building on Kingussie High Street. Through the week, the 33-year-old works as a shinty development officer for the Camanachd Association, introducing a new generation of youngsters to the sport. At weekends, he pulls on the red and blue of Kingussie, fastens his helmet and assumes the mantle of the greatest shinty goalscorer of all time. Kingussie are far from a one-man team, but the contribution of Ross - nicknamed "Ronaldo of the Glens" - cannot be underestimated.

His exploits over the last decade and more have outstripped those of anyone who has ever picked up a caman - the distinctive curved stick wielded by the players. An astonishing 95 strikes in the 2002-03 season - in which he scored at least once in every game - broke his previous record of 88 and was more than double the total of his closest rival. If it were that easy, you may ask why others do not even get close.

Ross has continued to confound this season. Despite recurrent injuries, and the loss of Kingussie's league crown, he is again the top goalscorer by far. In last month's Camanachd Final, he scored all his team's goals as Kingussie beat Fort William 4-2. A Scottish tennis champion in his youth, he received rightful recognition as one of the country's top sportsmen when he picked up the prestigious Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Sport award three years ago, beating luminaries such as Lee McConnell and Alison Sheppard.

We are in conversation soon after Kingussie relinquished their league title, but Ross has clearly not lost any sleep over the end of their hegemony. "Our main goal was to win the Camanachd Cup back, " he says matter-offactly. "The league is the testament over the season, but the Camanachd Cup brings all the prestige. There's the TV coverage and it's the blue riband event. We would have swapped the league for the Camanachd Cup last year.

"It seems crazy, but we've won the league for so long - 20 times - that we don't celebrate it in the same way. That's what success does. Fort William won it this year and, to them, it will probably mean the world. You're lucky if you get a photo with the league trophy in the paper. There are a handful of people, you get applause and that's it. I don't think people have actually understood what we've done. We've not just done it one year . . ."

The achievement can only be fully appreciated when Kingussie is placed in context. The town has a population of around 1200, with only one primary and one secondary school.

REAL LIVES Compare that with other shinty strongholds such as Fort William (population around 10,500), Skye (12,000) and Oban (8500), and their domination of the sport over the last two decades becomes all the more remarkable.

"If Chelsea win the league there's a massive thing about it, but we've done it 20 years in a row. We've only got one small school, " says Ross. "Don't forget Newtonmore - they're the same size as us and they've won the Camanachd Cup 28 times. It's pretty incredible what's been achieved." That another team have now finally tasted league success is a fitting reflection of the rise of the game in Scotland and beyond.

Gary Innes nurses a fresh orange and lemonade ina Glasgow hostelry. It is a few days since Fort William's historic league title win. As triumphant captain, he felt compelled to toast the occasion with a few drams. After a wait of 114 years, it was only right and proper. The 25year-old from Spean Bridge is the modern face of shinty, a formidable player and fulltime musician. "Shinty during the day, music at night, " he says with a smile.

Innes has a globe-trotting existence he wouldn't swap for the world. With his accordion under one arm and his caman under the other, he travels the world bringing traditional Scottish music to new audiences and even teaching them the rudiments of shinty. In the summer, he played concerts in San Francisco and spent time coaching the Californian Shinty Club. Yes, that's right, shinty has reached the Golden State.

"A couple of Americans read about the sport in a history of Scotland, so they cut down a couple of trees and started playing, " he explains. "They started their own club. Then, after researching it on the internet, they realised it is still played in Scotland. I spent a day training with them when I was over. They take it so seriously. They've got about 40 members and play round-robin tournaments. There's another two or three clubs in the States - one in Tampa Bay and another one three of four hours south of California. They hope to start up a competitive league in the next couple of years."

Innes is quick to embrace his role as an ambassador for the sport. In the past he has been involved in shinty development work, visiting schools in and around Glasgow. He admits, however, that synthesising Highland and Lowland culture is not always easy. "I once went to a school in a deprived area of Glasgow and introduced myself as 'Gary, from a wee place called Spean Bridge'. I told them Spean Bridge was at the bottom of the biggest mountain in Scotland and asked them to guess what it was called. A wee hand shot up. 'Is it Mount Everest?' inquired one kid. Another had a stab. 'Is it Mount Florida?' I decided to give them a clue so I told them it started with 'Ben'. A hand went up. 'Is it Ben Sherman?'" His peripatetic lifestyle causes the odd logistical problem, and he half-jokes that he once considered investing in a helicopter to help him get to games on time. All the hard work has paid

off, though, with Fort William's recent success. "It's been the same squad for the past three or four years. We've been working very hard, " he explains. "This is the biggest year we've ever had. The second team won the Sutherland Cup and the leagues, and the juveniles won the Kenneth MacMaster Cup. More and more young people are playing shinty."

Youth development played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Kingussie empire back in the 1970s. The search for the origins of their greatness takes us off the main street and into the Badenoch hills. The Ross residence is unmissable, perched at the end of a winding road that eventually leads to a country estate.

The front garden is the size of a small football pitch, with a set of shinty goals as its centrepiece. Ian Ross, Ronald's father and a former manager of Kingussie, has lived here all his life. His own father was the gamekeeper for the nearby estate and it was here that Ian raised his two children, Ronald and Ian junior.

But Ian senior's influence extends beyond bequeathing Ronald to the sport. Back in the early seventies, Kingussie was just another shinty-playing community. Sporadic success had been achieved over the years, but there was nothing to hint at the dominance to come. In fact, at that time the team was at their lowest ebb, so Ross decided to take matters into his own hands. "The club was on the ropes, " recalls the sprightly 69-year-old. "They had no youth policy and were struggling to stay in the top flight. Donnie Grant and myself decided to try and make things better. He took the first team and I took the primary teams. Kingussie Primary School had been taking terrible thrashings, so I went along to see the headteacher, Mrs McGillivray, about getting involved. She thought it was a terrific idea.

"The high school and primary were all together then. We got some strips together and suddenly parents started offering help. I went in on a Friday afternoon to take sessions and it became a little joke that I used to say to them, 'I don't mind if you forget your school bag, but don't forget your shinty club.' It took us a couple of years to make an impact, but then in 1975 we won the Mackay Cup.

"Footballers go to academies now - well, we had something like that. We had ideas. We told them they had to be able to hit the ball a certain distance, that they must practise and practise until they could stop the ball at a certain spot.

They had to master that before they got to play a full game. A lot of players from that time - like Rory Fraser and Ally Dallas - are still playing in the senior team to this day."

Ian's hard work really started to pay off when the new generation - including members of the eminent shinty-playing families, the Borthwicks and Dallases - moved up the ranks. "All these boys moved into the under14s and under-17s, " he continues. "They had had a little success before then, but after that it came on a regular basis. We were beating teams by big scores. We were light years ahead of anyone else. We were so organised. Other teams would turn up with not enough players or strips, but never us. We had a confidence which comes from regular practice. Some of the parents would hold parties at the end of the season. The school photographer took pictures and they appeared in the newsletter. It all helped."

Ronald Ross laughs fondly at the memory of his father's influence on the team's formative years. "He was producing all these guys, more because he was an authoritarian coach, which probably wouldn't happen nowadays. My dad used to come down in his work van. If we were ever playing at football he would kick the ball over the wall and shout, 'Go get your shinty sticks and start playing.' He made sure we were playing. There's nothing wrong with that. It was all about respect."

Steadily, a buzz built up. Footballs were discarded in cupboards and tennis racquets packed away in lofts as shinty took over as the focal point of community life. "It was the main thing, " says Ross. "We all played it all the time.

It was a way of life, same in Newtonmore. Whereas in Fort William there's maybe football and other things, here shinty ruled."

Ross talks in the past tense, an acknowledgement that much has changed. He accepts the conveyor belt of talent is no longer churning out players of the same quality. The reasons are plentiful - new settlers to the area, the emergence of a more laissez-faire society. Social changes have had a corrosive effect, he believes. "It's not a priority with kids now, " he laments. "We've lost that drive. Our kids' teams haven't been great recently. We haven't had an under-17 team for the last couple of years. Our second team have got a few good youngsters but they're going to be going to university this year.

"They haven't got the commitment, either. Very few of them actually do the training. It does go in cycles, but it is probably to do with new kids coming into the area. I don't know half the people in Kingussie now - they're all incomers. Then there are people who come here to retire. What can you do?"

Ironically, the spread of sporting culture in the Highlands has had an impact. "It's harder for someone to say, 'I'm going to play shinty' now, " explains Ian. "If you're good at shinty then you tend to be good at other sports, like golf or football. Ross County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle are always looking for players. There is a promising young lad from Newtonmore - Rory Kennedy - who may have to make a choice. If you're not good enough to be a footballer then a club can reject you, but the great thing about shinty is that it rejects no-one."

Participation levels in the sport are at their highest ever, with figureheads such as Innes and Ross engaging a younger audience in the ancient sport. Television coverage has also increased in recent years and some games are now broadcast on the internet. The sport has even switched to a summer season, and Shinty has also started to develop outwith its traditional heartland.

Five years ago, Lisa Norman started a club inthe Fife village of Aberdour as part of her university degree. She hasn't looked back. "It has just snowballed, " says Norman, a sports development officer for Renfrewshire Council who also plays for Glasgow Mid-Argyll. "The kids loved it and the parents were also keen to get involved. We now have 50 or 60 kids involved, which is a great number for a village like Aberdour.

"Our senior team is mainly made up of 15 and 16-year-old boys, most of whom go to Inverkeithing High School. They recently entered the Wade Cup, an under-16 club competition, and were drawn against Portree, Kingussie and Oban High Schools. It was a tough draw, but they walked every game and got to the final against Lochaber. They lost out in the final, but it shows how far shinty has come in Fife. We have now received some club match funding and have a development plan. I'm going into primary schools in Fife to give taster sessions from primary three to seven. The hope is that by the time these kids reach high school, they will have a knowledge and feel for the game."

With the general upsurge in interest, shinty has crossed the gender barrier. Norman was on the winning side in the Camanachd Cup final a few weeks ago, when Glasgow MidArgyll lifted the trophy. The women's game is another growth area of the sport. "We've seen a big difference in the last two or three years, " says Karen Cameron, the president of the Women's Camanachd Association. "Women's shinty is becoming more and more accepted. Traditionally it has been a man's sport, but we've overcome all our hurdles. We've now got a first and second division, which are growing all the time."

Hugh Dan MacLennan, the respected shinty historian and vice-president of the Camanachd Association, believes the sport's ability to attract major investment reflects its widening appeal. "We changed sponsors for the Camanachd Cup when Glenmorangie left after 29 years, " he explains. "We went straight out and got Scottish Hydro-Electric, which was a great deal for shinty. That company would not have come to us if we did not have something attractive. We have a squeaky clean image, we do a lot of work in rural communities and with kids, plus we have a growing women's game.

"There's a market there. We have big sponsors and there are a lot of people interested in shinty - from the Western Isles to Musselburgh and over to Bute . . . Look at golf, curling and shinty. Which other country has three such unique sports? I think people are fed up with football, football, football."

Eventually, perhaps, the spread of shinty might even reach Mount Florida, if not Mount Everest.

The annual Ireland v Scotland shinty/hurling internationals, played under composite rules, take place in Dublin on November 4 and 5. The men?s senior international match will be played at Croke Park, with supporting . xtures for the under-21 and women?s teams. Visit www. shinty. com