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The Complete History of Shinty

Words: Matthew Johnson

Images: Matthew Johnson

I didn’t know much about shinty, but there couldn’t be many better ways to find out about the sport than to travel to Scotland and attend a match—a fixture as they call it. So that’s what I did. And now, I can accurately and with confidence report, I know very little about shinty.

I’ll admit that lack of knowledge was part of the initial plan. I thought it could be interesting to avoid doing too much research or asking too many questions about the sport before writing about it. Just experience it, take some photos, react, that sort of thing. Brilliant, avant-garde method writing. See also: laziness. Thing is, I rather enjoyed the fixture I attended. I became quite curious about the game, and I wanted to pay some respect to it. The very least I could do was pass along some accurate facts about it. The facts, however, seem to be a grey area. Please don’t use anything I say in a bibliography of any kind.

Here’s something that pops up a lot when you research shinty: shinty was around before Scotland was a country, and most likely before Christianity was a religion. I take this to mean that when explorers first set foot on Scotland, they wrote in their journals, we’ve arrived at a land of endless rolling hills and hypnotic, thrashing coastline. Of ever-changing sky and impossible natural color. The air fresh, as if never before inhaled. Also, some sort of stick game is being played all the time. Regardless of this last fact, we shall settle here. We’ll build around the stick thing. And so they did. Then some time elapsed and some people decided to start going to church.

As a sport older than the country it’s from and the religion practiced around it, you can’t help but wonder if shinty feels a bit like they got the short end of the stick (or caman, as the shinty stick is known). Some credit Scottish, shinty-playing emigrants of Canada for the eventual game of ice hockey (though plenty others, especially in Canada, refuse to give such a bold claim legitimacy). When Scots brought the game down to England and set up clubs, they later included soccer (football) in these clubs. Soccer is a sport that went on to have a pretty decent legacy. Shinty itself, though, still feels a bit like a kept secret. One tucked away up in those Scottish Highlands, where the ancient settlers first dusted away rock and rubble to uncover it.

I traveled three hours from England’s Lake District to get to the nearest fixture. The town was called Musselburgh, just east of Edinburgh. It was a long journey, though it was the same distance the Lochside Rovers—a junior team for Oban Camanachd, one of the most successful shinty clubs in the country—had to travel. I drove past crowded golf links and raucous pick-up games of soccer, turned down a small road lined with dozens of joggers and dog-walkers, and parked in a muddy lot adjacent to a field that sided up against an inlet of the North Sea. It was a field you’d almost get away with describing as completely empty, if not for the two colorfully-stripped shinty teams huddled a couple tight clusters. Lochside Rovers on one side, Tayforth Camanachd on the other. The crowd consisted of myself, and a man who appeared to be the friend or cousin of one of the keepers. Where you might expect bleachers of spectators, a dense patch of forest stood, instead. Occasionally, somebody would wonder nearby with their border collie and casually observe the game for a bit. Like you would a hawk in the mountains, or a seal in the ocean. It’s just nice to witness something moving about in its natural habitat, the way it has always done.

In most organized sports, you’ll notice the tendency to group the participants by their age. Ages 5 and 6. Ages 7 & 8. So on, to infinity. With shinty, it would seem you simply find as many interested people in your area as you can, and give them the same color jersey. Players ranging from fourteen years of age to forty-five ran up and down the pitch, caman in hand, striking the leather ball with a satisfying thwack. Sometimes it would careen out of bounds and over toward me. I’d pick it up, holding it by the seams, and toss it back toward to the field of play. It was like a baseball—the sport I’ve played most of my life—but a bit smaller, a bit lighter. Halfway thru the match I couldn’t help but mention to one of the coaches, with obvious intention, that I didn’t often come across shinty balls where I was from. They were pretty cool, though. Pretty cool indeed. It’s a shame I probably couldn’t really find them anywhere.

Luckily, he didn’t let me embarrass myself for too long. Just sort of smiled and casually wandered over to an equipment bag. He tossed one over. Between the seams, Lochside was written in sharpie. Lochside Rovers. It was tremendous luck, for they were definitely my favorite shinty team.

Photographer Matthew Johnson features in our recently released Annual Report which is available for purchase in our web store at this LINK.