Shinty was the victor at the annual Shinty Hurling International but the Scots’ victory poses questions over the sport’s progress in modern times.
Last month, the Bught Park in Inverness played host to the Shinty Hurling International match – a peculiar collision of two sporting disciplines. The composite rules match offered a rare opportunity to check up on the current health of these two famous indigenous Celtic sports.
Much to the shinty world’s delight, the Scots were victorious on the day. Yet, the overall feeling was that the two teams – or the two sports more accurately – are hardly an equal match.
Shinty and Hurling do have a long intertwined history. Both sports derive from the same ancient root – a brutal Irish stick-and-ball game. Both are older than the recorded history of their native lands, predating Christianity. Furthermore, both games are so alike that they can be pitted against one another on the same pitch under a hybrid system of rules – the first of which being played back in 1897. Yet, the evolution of the two sports could hardly be more different.
A comparison of the numbers surrounding each sport makes this clear. The attendance at a Camanachd Cup Final rarely exceeds 4,000, whereas the All-Ireland Final is an 82,000 sell-out at Croke Park most years. In Scotland, there are roughly 40 senior shinty clubs. In Ireland, there are around 2,300 GAA clubs (although not every club concentrates on Hurling and prefer Gaelic football).
Financially, the gap widens. Shinty’s governing body, the Camanachd Association, had a record turnover in excess of £600,000 in 2014. Hurling’s equivalent, the Gaelic Athletics Association, amassed €56milion in revenues in 2015. Worryingly, this gap is not likely to close anytime soon as most of the GAA’s earnings will be ploughed straight back into grassroots development and the growth of the game.
The question cannot be avoided – how have two sports, so closely linked, developed so differently from one another?
In short, there is no real answer. However, there are certain indicators that may suggest reasons why shinty has not matched its Irish counterpart.
A strong Irish cultural identity has been pivotal to the protection and promotion of Hurling since the 1800s. The symbolic importance of the Hurley is deeply woven into the fabric of modern Irish history. The GAA was formed in the 1890s in an attempt to protect unique Irish sports as part of an Irish cultural revival, spawning a new Irish identity which ultimately paved the way for support of Irish independence. Hurleys were even used by soldiers in practice throughout the struggle for independence.
It was quite the opposite in the Highlands at that time. If anything, with the decimation of communities and their way of life during the Highland Clearances, the Highland cultural identity was struggling to survive. Traditional Highland dress, music and language were banished or at the very least shunned. Shinty also fell victim. As such, not only had the number of shinty players in the Highlands been slashed but the typical Highland cultural identity did not equate to the national identity at that time.
Unlike the Irish, the Scottish did not adopt sport as an expression of national pride and identity. What little push there was for Scottish identity and nationalism, it did not feature sport. As Dr Irene Reid, a lecturer at Stirling University’s School of Sport, outlines:
“despite some cross-fertilisation of ideas between strands of radical politics and Gaelic culture…it seems sport in general, but in particular shinty – the game of the Gael – was not part of the cultural terrain on which Scotland’s nationalists, Gaelic or otherwise, developed their objectives”
At this early stage in the modern sporting era, shinty was already at a disadvantage. Congruently, urbanisation began to hamper shinty’s influence as new jobs and new lives were sought in the central belt. This meant that not only were more young Highlanders leaving their communities but Highland culture was to be diluted by a raft of ethnic influences. With football becoming ever more ubiquitous in the cities, shinty remained rooted in its Highlands communities with little plumage elsewhere.
Shinty is simply unheard of in most areas of Scotland. In the most densely populated parts of Scotland, finding someone who has a basic understanding of shinty would be a tough task. Finding someone from Edinburgh, Dundee or Glasgow who has seen a game of shinty, even just on the Television, would be even tougher. Finding someone who plays? Nigh impossible. Visit a town in the Borders with a caman and they’ll call the police.
That’s not to say that shinty has never had standing in big population centres. A century ago shinty was rife in the Central Belt and even ventured South towards the Border. About 50 years ago there were roughly 5 clubs in Glasgow. Today, there is just one.
Therefore, a lack of popularity cannot be wholly attributed to issues and tribulations over a century ago. The Camanachd Association, or the shinty community as a whole, must take responsibility for some serious shortcomings when it comes to the promotion, or exportation, of the sport to our fellow Scots.
It is quite obvious that the Camanachd Association has historically failed to act on opportunities to sell shinty to communities out with the Highlands. Neighbouring rivals Newtonmore and Kingussie have utterly dominated shinty for several decades despite having a combined catchment area of just 3,000 people. Although a tremendously admirable achievement for such small communities, it is not necessarily a sign of health.
Anyone that knows anything about Scottish football can tell you that having two rivals, from the same area, winning everything between them is not conducive to progression. The Camanachd Association should have instigated a programme of reform and spread the game to our fellow Scots. Today, little has changed. This season, Newtonmore won their 7th successive league title, the MacTavish Cup and yet another Camanachd Cup.
Admittedly, football’s grip on the nation is an obvious barrier. As too is the Borders’ impenetrable love of rugby – even football struggles with that one. But it is all too easy to blame shinty’s exclusion from the mainstream simply on the popularity of other sports in Scotland. Ireland has outperformed Scotland on the international stage in both football and rugby in the last 15 years. And this is all supplementary to the bigger, better and more important GAA sports.
One recurring theme of the television coverage of the match on Saturday was the athletic superiority of the Hurlers. This was very telling. Scotland’s biggest men, the likes of Glen MacKintosh, Connor Cormack and John Barr, would be of average size in the Irish line-up; whilst star men Kevin Bartlett and Roddy MacDonald stood under the shadow of their markers. The Hurlers’ physical fitness is certainly no fluke. This was a team of athletes – undergoing a constant, heavy regime of training designed to build them faster, stronger and fitter.
For shinty to get to where it should be, aspects of the sport need to be galvanised and the Camanachd would be doing well to follow Hurling’s example. But do we really want shinty to be a semi-professional sport with strict training regimes and big money sponsors? Doing so would be a betrayal to the very nature of the game.
Shinty has very much stayed true to its foundations as a community sport. For years, young men have dedicated a Saturday each week to get one up on their neighbouring village, all for the pride of their town or village. For many, this is the allure of shinty. Hangovers, lost balls, and sensory-deficient referees are all part of the quirk. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially for a community sport.
If shinty is so far behind Hurling, then the International is a mismatch of epic proportions. Yet, shinty won. On the pitch, anyway.
Shinty is still very much alive. Decline, or even extinction, is not an imminent threat. It still trumps football in Lochaber, Badenoch and most of Argyll. However, in terms of scale, structure, finance and development, shinty really should be more up to speed with its ancient cousin from across the Sea; and there is little doubt that the match at the Bught last month was a reminder of that.
Over the decades, shinty has been a hard sell. Even Hugh Dan Maclennan, a man synonymous with the game and famed for his knowledge and enthusiasm, concedes:
“the sport’s dilemma is whether to promote the ancient sport of the Gael as a modern, vibrant game, or to preserve it as a quaint aspect of Highland culture”
It is this very dichotomy that has tethered the growth of shinty and fixed it firmly to its native Highland fields.
Sadly, a Scotland in which every young child across the country runs home from school to pick up their caman is an unlikely future. A Bught Park filled with 80,000 fans is even more unlikely. However, work has started on spreading the word of our secret Highland gem.
Although not quite mounting a cultural and sporting revolution as seen in Ireland all those years ago, the BBC (in particular, BBC Alba) has become an important ally for shinty. Broadcasting finals and semi-finals regularly, it has offered a lifeline for the sport to reach previously uncharted territories. If all goes to plan, the shinty world are to have their own television programme, Shinty Today, due to be filmed and broadcast in time for the new season in 2017.
In more ‘on-the-pitch’ developments, the Camanachd Association have recently appointed a Central Development Officer tasked with growing and promoting the game in central Scotland. Already there are shinty workshops and training sessions popping up in schools in the likes of East Kilbride and Livingston, as well as more support available for newly established youth set-ups in Central Scotland.
This all may seem inconsequential. But it’s progress. Progress that is long overdue. Does it mean that shinty’s popularity will explode? Probably not. Is it an indication of the future of shinty and the Camanachd Association? Hopefully. At the very least, people are now beginning to realise that we need to bring shinty into the 21st Century.
Overall, the Shinty Hurling International still remains a great day out and is deservedly a staple of the shinty calendar. It offers the sport some extra, much-needed exposure and it offers the chance to reward efforts of our top players with an international cap and a big day at the Bught. But that, sadly, is the extent of this fixture. The international should simply be enjoyed for what it is: an unrivalled exhibition of sport and a chance for shinty to re-evaluate its progression in this modern era.