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July 12, 2017

A strand in the helix

If it were possible to identify the DNA of a strong and resilient community, one of those strands in the double helix would undoubtedly be sport. While we may not all be active participants, sports clubs are absolutely intrinsic to community life. The many thousands of community based clubs up and down the country are almost always run by volunteers, generating the social glue that helps to bind a community together. Nice piece in the Herald from Kevin Ferrie reflecting on his introduction to the game of shinty.


Kevin Ferrie, The Herald

A FIRST dabble in the wonderful world of shinty has been a reminder of some of my earliest days covering sport spent in community oriented clubhouses, packed with people with stories to tell and keen to share them.

Saturday’s Celtic Society Cup final was a perfect case in point, a match held in the lovely little town of Taynuilt (pop 800) because the competition sponsor, the Gregor Cameron Consultancy, is based there, making it easier for Gregor’s mum and sister to organise the pre and post-match catering.

As we headed north, Hugh Dan McLennan, BBC Alba’s “voice of shinty” had warned me that officials of the committee that organises this particular competition, would be keen to point out that while The Herald had reported on Saturday on the appointment of a first woman to the board of the Camanachd Association (CA), the game’s governing body, the Celtic Society had beaten them to it earlier in the year.

In spite of arriving early we didn’t even make it past the small group erecting a gazebo at pitch-side before he was proved right, so let me take this chance to commend them on their election of Rachel Forbes who, along with the CA’s Wendy Chamberlain – a member of a Kyles Athletic shinty dynasty – provides evidence of an awareness that out-dated attitudes are changing.

Nibbling on a sausage roll and sipping a cup of tea I was introduced, soon afterwards, to one John Boyd, the Celtic Society’s chieftain no less and a man best known to most of Scotland and the rest of the world as the policeman who took charge of matters following the Lockerbie tragedy. While his work in that investigation is obviously a source of both pride and admiration among them, he is at least as well known in shinty company as the scorer of not one but two Celtic Cup final hat-tricks.

No sooner had I emerged from that convivial gathering than there was another shinty connection to a major story to be addressed as a local told me how, on the same weekend last year, the same venue staged the “Bring Billy Back” charity match, seeking to raise funds to help former Taynuilt player Billy Irving who has, his clubmates believe, been wrongfully jailed in India for several years.

Somehow or another it all spoke to a deep sense of inter-connectedness that felt very familiar to one who spent a great deal of time in rugby clubhouses around the country in the amateur era, when the sport’s leading players, coaches and officials routinely rubbed shoulders with their fellow club members, but perhaps even more so in shinty’s case.

What is striking and offers considerable food for thought, is the size of the populations of the towns and villages that produce its major teams.

Kyles Athletic, winners of Saturday’s cup final and the current leaders of the Marine Harvest Premiership have gone unbeaten through this season so far and hail from Tighnabruich, a village on the Cowal peninsula with a population of less than 700. Newtonmore, winners of the Premiership in each of the past six seasons, is relatively big with a population of around 1700, while their neighbours and great rivals Kingussie, have a population of around 1400 to call upon.

That these tiny little places are able to form teams packed with players who boast considerable skill and athleticism as they use their camans to manoeuvre a golf ball-sized projectile around a field that is considerably bigger than a football pitch, not to mention levels of reckless courage that would match the toughest of rugby forwards, tells us a great deal about what can be achieved if communities are properly mobilised. It feels as if pretty much every household in Tighnabruich, Newtonmore and Kingussie must be involved in helping their respective shinty clubs’ fortunes in some way or another.

It puts to the lie to any notion that our youth obesity issues are down to a generation of Scottish youngsters having somehow grown up inherently lazy and instead invites us to look at how we remove the obstacles to them becoming more active by looking at an example in a sport played in our most sparsely populated areas which, as a model, bears particularly interesting comparison to the success enjoyed by Icelandic football.