9 Siol nan Gaidheal: Camanachd; Scotlands Ancient Game - Shinty

Siol nan Gaidheal


Shinty, or camanachd as it is known in the Gaidhealtachd, is an extremely ancient game.  Believed to have been introduced to Scotland along with the Gaelic language by Irish/Celtic immigrants some two thousand years ago, it may also have come over with the Irish missionaries such as Colum Cille during the sixth century AD.  Camanachd can beyond any shadow of doubt lay claim to be Scotland’s one true national sport, having been played here for longer than any other.  There is even an element of justification in the belief that golf, often regarded as the pure Scottish sport, and one of the oldest gaming contests in the land, derived its original source from shinty players practising driving the ball with the caman, the curved stick used in the game.  Apocryphal or otherwise, the vision of a player striking the ball with the caman is very reminiscent of the golf swing, and early golf clubs were indeed merely long curved sticks.

It was a game well suited to a warrior people, with its demands for skill, speed, stamina and courage.  Development of both mind and body was a premise dear to the Celts, whose most famous warriors were often also bards.  “Mens sano in corpore sano” was a concept held by many early races prior to the Roman who first gave us the phrase.  The social camaraderie engendered in a team game, whether from clan, community or on a national basis, is real and binding.  The warrior elite of a clan or region could engage in mock combat with those from another, using the game as a medium, in order to hone their skills without actual bloodshed (well, nearly….) or genuine combat.  In times of peace, it was one way of burning off excess energy without risking all-out war.  Camanachd thrived through the Middle Ages, being mentioned in 1507 as the “Irish gamyne” when witnessed by King James IV near Edinburgh.  But the long, dark night was about to fall on the Gaidhealtachd, and the game would decline along with the people.

The Treaty of Union in 1707 saw the commencement of the decline of Scottish culture and individuality.  The view of the Gael as a rude, illiterate Irish peasant, and the high-handed treatment of him/her as such, became the norm in an increasingly anglicised Scotland.  The views, opinions, language and sport of such a people could not contribute anything of financial or cultural worth to an Imperial or Colonial society, and, as in so many other Imperial Colonies, the drive to exterminate any vestige of “primitive” culture was soon ongoing.  Once the Highland Clearances got under way, the process had attained an almost unstoppable momentum, and, (as with so many aspects of the Gaelic culture), shinty was all but swept away in the Scottish Diaspora.

Victorian England, however, wished to retain some aspects of Scottish culture, though of necessity sanitised to make them acceptable to the more civilised and refined English ladies and gentlemen.  The rise of the tartan cult, which had commenced prior to Victoria’s reign, increased in fervour in an attempt to amuse the English Queen, whose fondness for her little province is now seen more as an infatuation with one of its representatives, the famous John Brown, than of any genuine feeling for what was little more than a cold, wet and distant colony.  Highland Games became an organised ritual, where the “ancient” sports of throwing stones and bits of tree around whilst dressed in a kilt and “Rab C.Nesbit” semmit became glorious vistas of our romantic Highland heritage.  It’s easy enough to be sarcastic about these pseudo-spectacles, but they did lead towards an increased interest in our ancient heritage, and shinty gained from this.

The 1870’s Society of True Highlanders compiled a history of the game, and introduced written rules and an elementary coaching manual, published in 1881 in the Book of the Society of the True Gael.  Aberdeen University Shinty Club can lay claim to being the first known club with written rules of play, but the clubs increased in number greatly over two decades, and by 1880 the first printed rules and constitution of a Highland Shinty Club were introduced by Strathglass Camanachd Club.  The Camanachd Association was formally instituted at Kingussie on Tuesday, 10th October 1893.  By 1896, when the Camanachd Cup became the first final for a national trophy, the rules had been modified to become the game recognisable today.

The modern game is played between two teams of twelve players on a field between 140 - 170 yards long and 70 - 80 yards wide. The goals are 12 feet wide and 10 feet high. The ball, with an interior of cork or worsted and an outer of leather, is between 7.5 - 8 inches in circumference, weighing between 2.5 - 3 ounces.  The caman is a bit like a hockey stick, with a curved end, but the head may not be larger than can pass through a ring of 2.5 inches diameter, and is shaped with an angled surface on each side - so the cross section of the end of the caman is triangular. The angled faces give the ball lift when struck.  The game is played in two halves of 45 minutes each. The game is much more of a physical contact sport than hockey - players may block the swing of their opponent's caman. Although the ball is often played in the air, the true skills of the shinty player are very much on the ground - shinty is a very fast and open passing game.

The actual game is started when two opposing players cross camans above their heads and the referee throws the ball into the air above their camans.  When the ball goes out of play at the sidelines, it is hit back into play by a player throwing the ball in the air above his head and striking it with the back of his caman - above his head - with both feet on the ground and parallel to the sideline. Only the goalkeeper is allowed to handle the ball - and even he may only slap the ball with the flat of his hand - he may not catch or grasp it in any way. The other principal difference between shinty and many other ball sports is in its off-side rule. In shinty, a player is off-side if he enters the ten-yard area around the goal (marked on the pitch) before the ball enters the area - either on the ground or in the air - it is irrelevant how many defending players may be in the vicinity, or goal side of the ball.

In 1923, the Sutherland Cup was introduced as a national competition to encourage junior teams, and 1937 saw the formation of the Schools Camanachd Association.   After a major reorganisation in 1981, a central administration was formed, and instituted a National League Final between the respective leaders of the North and South First Divisions.  A new overall Premier League of 8 teams was commenced for the 1995-96 season.

The Camanachd Cup Final is held at a cycle of venues in turn, and remains the outstanding trophy in the annual shinty calendar.  In a slightly similar fashion to football, several clubs have dominated the 100+ year history of the Cup, with Newtonmore, Kingussie and Kyles Athletic having won more than two-thirds of the finals between them.

The resurgence of interest in the Gaelic culture has by no means peaked, but camanachd is now alive and healthy in its original homeland.  It is to be hoped that, with an increased awareness of Scotland’s history and culture, future generations will continue to enjoy the healthy benefits of one of the oldest sports in the world.

This page is respectfully dedicated to the memory of Jon Gallagher, member of Mk3, whose love of the game was such that he became a qualified shinty referee, officiating at many games and running the line at many others.

Further reading :

Hutchinson, R. Camanachd! The story of Shinty (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1989)
MacLennan, H.D. Shinty! 100 years of the Camanachd Association (Inverness: Balnain Books, 1993)

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