This article was published as part of our 16-page Manniefest special edition. Click HERE for more information and more articles setting out a vision for the Highlands and Islands after independence.

“Camanachd is not an orchid; nor is it a new biological eccentricity, nor the latest freak of pathological nomenclature. It is a recreation. In Scotland there are three games which can best claim to be native to the soil - golf, curling and shinty and the greatest of these is shinty, whereof the Gaelic name is camanachd...”
From The Globe, 1893

SHINTY – or camanachd, as it is traditionally known in the Gaelic-speaking West Highlands – is an ancient game. Introduced to North-West Scotland along with Christianity and the Gaelic language nearly two thousand years ago by Irish missionaries (St Columba is said to have arrived on these shores as a result of some shenanigans at an Irish hurling match), the game can safely lay claim to being Scotland’s national sport. It is fair to say that it often punches it weight in media terms – mainly thanks to the interventions of BBC Alba and local newspapers – but in real financial terms it compares rather badly with other “mainstream” sports such as football, rugby hockey and tennis.

The sport of the Gael can only look on with envy across the Irish Sea where decisions and political events of 100 years ago led to the integration of sport and culture into the fabric of social and institutional life. Gaelic Games are now a multi-million Euro/dollar/pound enterprise – the reach of which enables the Irish diaspora to continue deploying their cultural anchors.

The Tailteann Games staged in Dublin in the 1920s (the centenary of the first shinty hurling international is only two years away) was an attempt by the new Irish State to establish itself on the world athletics stage. Would independence in Scotland do the same for shinty, leading to a thriving, competitive, professional game?

It would need enhanced cross-portfolio support for the game in health, education and community support – not just warm words – to swing that particular caman.

There is no doubt shinty has been played across the whole of Scotland in times gone by - from the wind-swept rocks of St Kilda to the more hospitable and gentler plains of the Borders. The game is also, historically, found on the world-wide stage thanks to exiles who took shinty to the furthest flung corners of the globe – from South America to the war-ravaged wastes of Europe in two world wars. In fact, two dozen camain were issued to battalions of the Lovat Scouts during the Boer War and taken to the Maritime region of Canada, where the game was re-introduced in 1991 by a group of players from the Kingussie and Skye Clubs.

Shinty, like many other aspects of Highland heritage and language, has endured pressure from royal edicts against popular and “uncontrollable” games, Sabbatarianism, which followed the Reformation and outlawed playing sports on the day of rest and the rapid erosion of Highland ways of life. That the game has survived at all is a tribute to the people involved in the organisation which drew these wayward strands together and set up Shinty’s ruling body – the Camanachd Association – in 1893.

The Highlands of Scotland were, and still are, the heartland of shinty.

It was usual in the Highlands, to have the main games at New Year or Old New Year. In these contests, often between two districts or parishes, there was no limit to the numbers taking part with players arriving and departing at will, and often playing

from the morning until darkness fell.

In many districts, the game died out towards the middle of last century, but continued in places such as Badenoch, Lochaber and Strathglass where the annual “cluidh-ball” continues, even to the present day.

Shinty, appears to be permanently at a cross-roads, or more accurately, stuck at a roundabout. The game’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 has, after all survived the ravages of two World Wars and many economic disasters, including the Covid epidemic. Changes in population and employment opportunities throughout shinty playing areas will continue to impact on the game as will the lack of affordable housing in rural areas.

In some respects, an argument about which sport should be designated our “national” sport is a sterile and unproductive one. Perhaps a job-share arrangement between curling, golf and shinty is a reasonable compromise. However, I have no hesitation in repeating shinty’s claim:

For life-force and continuing success, the game must continue to aspire to deliver skill and spectacle at the highest level. If these remain as the guiding inspiration of administrators and unpaid participants, then shinty will maintain the traditions which were founded many thousands of years ago and have stood the test of time.

Hugh Dan MacLennan is a Radio nan Gaidheal shinty commentator and author