TO the passing spectator, it’s a fast-paced, hard-hitting game with 24 players on the field, wildly flying sticks, a ball and for the best, the glittering prize of the Camanachd Cup. 

Now a new shinty trail is set to offer a much deeper understanding of how the game plays a crucial role in community life across its Highland heartland, from the generations of families whose names are entwined with their local clubs to the sport’s cultural influences and links with the Gaelic language. 

Launched by the Cairngorms National Park Authority, the online trail tells the story of the sport across Badenoch – home to leading clubs such as at Kingussie and Newtonmore - and explores the sport’s deep-rooted connections with other elements of traditional Highland culture. 

It also highlights how a sport which some might consider to be simply a game has spanned centuries of Highland life, linking modern players and club supporters to long gone generations and clans, inspiring music, song, debate and celebration, and forging unique bonds between communities. 

The Shinty Trail also explores how the sport has survived devastating losses inflicted on teams during two world wars and the impact of clearances and emigration across the Badenoch area.

Using an online map covering 30 sites from Laggan to Kincraig, with photographs, oral memories and written stories, it aims to provide newcomers to the sport and the curious a much deeper understanding of its unique role in Highland life.

According to shinty historian and broadcaster Dr Hugh Dan MacLennan, who helped to create the trail, the sport is intrinsically entwined with Highland culture, language, people and the clans. 

“The clan system was very important, it provided the structure that enabled shinty to develop,” he says. “By the end of the 19th century estate owners were the equivalent of sponsors and ‘bankrolled’ or organised activities.

“Before shinty was an organised sport, it was dictated by the weather and the work cycle, and the work cycle was dictated by the estate owners. Each estate within a community would have its own team.”

Believed to have its roots as a training method for ancient warriors and with close links to the 2,000-year-old sport of hurling, shinty is thought to have been brought to the Highlands by Irish settlers. It became a favourite past-time for Highland clans and their chiefs. 

At one time, settlements along the length of the Spey had teams, with 19th century clan chiefs including Ewan ‘Cluny’ Macpherson – an early patron of the game – hosting regular shinty gatherings known as ‘ball-plays’ (cluich-bhall in Gaelic) to celebrate occasions such as New Year. 

As the sport grew, villagers often left church on a Sunday to congregate straight after for a lively game of shinty. 

By the late 19th century and with 33 recognised clubs in the area, the move was made to formalise rules and the structure of the sport. The Camanachd Association was launched on October 10, 1893 at a meeting held in the Victoria Hall, Kingussie. 

However, the sport would be halted for two world wars which saw players leave for the frontline, not to return. 

They included ‘the missing five’, players from Kingussie Camanachd – including captain William MacGillivray, who died in France in 1915, just weeks after the side had won the Camanachd Cup.

While one of the sport’s legends, John Cattanach, who scored eight goals in an 11-3 victory over Furnace in the cup final of 1909 – a record which still stands -died aged 30 in July, 1915, in the Dardannelles, of wounds received in battle.

“The First World War particularly decimated the Badenoch area,” adds Dr MacLennan. “It took ten to 15 years to get things back together, then came the Second World War. It is incredible that shinty survived at all.”

In many teams, the same family names crop up from generation to generation as sons pulled on the same coloured shirts as fathers, uncles and grandfathers. The growth of the women’s game since 2008, as seen the family traditions continue in a fresh direction. 

Now played by almost 60 clubs from the Highlands and Islands to Devon and Cornwall, the pandemic has meant the sport has halted, the 2020 season cancelled and a question mark hangs over whether it may be able to return for the beginning of the new season in March. 

“It is such a central part of Highland life,” adds Dr MacLennan. “Shinty affects everyone from young people to old people. The whole of life revolves around what is happening at the weekend. 

“Communities have lost that; the pandemic has had a huge impact and taken away one of their core activities.”

Bruce MacDonald, the CNPA’s Gaelic Intern who has helped to create The Shinty Trail said its aim is to convey the significance of the sport to the heritage and culture of Badenoch by offering visitors a chance to explore sites linked to the game and to celebrate its centuries of impact. 

“The trail is a celebration of an ancient game which has been at the heart of communities throughout Badenoch going back centuries. And for those who are new to shinty, the story-map provides an insightful, visual guide into the history of the sport.”

The Shinty Trail is available in English and Gaelic and can be viewed here:

An online event about the trail with Dr MacLennan entitled “Gaels, Camas, Badenoch – The Centre of the Shinty Universe?”, will be held on October 28 as part of the Badenoch Heritage Festival.