This is how the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, University of Edinburgh, describes shinty
“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.
There is no doubt that shinty was popular at various stages virtually nation-wide. It is to be found from the wind-swept rocks of St Kilda to the more hospitable and gentler plains of the Borders. Indeed, it is claimed that golf was born out of shinty players practising, alone or in pairs, the art of driving the ball with the caman, or stick
The game is also to be found on a much wider plain - the world-wide stage with exiles taking shinty to the furthest flung corners of the globe - from South America to the war-ravaged wastes of Europe through two world wars, to the two dozen camain issued to the battalions of the Lovat Scouts during the Boer War, to the Maritime region of Canada, where the game was re-introduced in 1991 by a party of players from the Kingussie and Skye Clubs.
Shinty, as with many other aspects of Highland heritage and the Gaelic language in particular has been frequently threatened, both by Statute and under the influence of other movements in society. That the game has survived the combined assaults of Royal edicts against popular and “uncontrollable” games, as well as the Sabbatarianism which followed the Reformation and outlawed the playing of sports on the day of rest, not to mention the rapid erosion of the Highland way of life as described by historians such as Jim Hunter and Roger Hutchinson in his excellent history of the game Camanachd, (Mainstream, 1989) is a tribute to the people involved in the setting up of the organisation which drew this “intriguing web of wayward strands” together one hundred years ago - the Camanachd Association, shinty’s ruling body.
A series of hugely interesting and memorable exhibitions matches 100 years ago were the immediate catalyst leading to the formation of the Association which has seen the game develop from a series of loosely organised (and sometimesbarely organised) clubs and structures, into an efficiently run and progressive organisation (although it has had its moments of farce and crisis!) with some forty clubs competing on a regular basis, commanding national media attention and significant sums of sponsorship, both from commercial organisations such as The Glenmorangie Distillery Company, who became involved in the sport in the 1970s, multi national fish-farmers Marine Harvest who sponsor the national leagues, and local authorities such as Highland Regional Council who have made significant investments in funds to enable clubs to improve their facilities.
Shinty in its organised form has come a long way since it fought to survive in the Glens of the Highlands and much further afield, in public parks as far from its main heartland as Wimbledon, Manchester, Cottonpolis and even in Grampian Region where the Aberdeen North of Spey Club appears to have been one of the earliest formed, in the 1840s.
The Highlands of Scotland were, and still are, the heartland of shinty, though there was feverish activity in shinty terms on both sides of the border, in a fantasy world of Celtic twilight.
It was usual in the Highlands, however, to have the principal games of shinty 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 play continued from the forenoon until darkness fell. In many districts, the game died out however towards the middle of last century, but tended to continue in places such as Badenoch, Lochaber and Strathglass where interest never waned and the annual “cluidh-ball” was kept up, even into the present century.
The modern, organised form of shinty therefore is only to be found from the mid to later 19th century. By this time there had been a considerable drift of Highlanders into the towns and cities of the south and clubs began to be formed as a means of retaining territorial identity, as well as for social reasons. By the end of the century, greater mobility, mainly due to improved means of transport, helped to make shinty more popular and gradually games began to be organised between clubs located at considerable distances apart. Gradually the local rivalries began to be replaced with a more competitive, ambitious atmosphere.
The earliest mention of an organised club (an exception, as it was in existence in the first half of the 19th century), seems to be that in the Inverness Courier of January 11, 1849, where it is reported that the members of the North of Spey Shinty Club, Aberdeen met on the links on January 1st “for conducting the long established Celtic game”. The players were divided into two sides and hail keepers (goal keepers) appointed.
The various shinty reports in the Highlander newspaper between 1874 and 1881 indicate that the earliest clubs were outwith the Highlands in Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and even in Manchester and Bolton. An account is also given of a game in Birmingham in connection with the Celtic Society in that city in December, 1878.
The oldest club then in existence was the one in Edinburgh “Cuideachd Chamanachd Dhun-Eideann”. On January 1st 1874, the annual game was held in the Queen’s Park, the day being as boisterous as on the occasion of the clubs’ first match with the 93rd Regiment (The Sutherland Highlanders) two years before.