INVERNESS, Scotland — As the last strains of the bagpipes fades across the pitch, two of the greatest shinty teams in history run onto the field primed and ready for battle.
Played with sticks that resemble a cross between a hockey stick and a golf club, the match takes off at a fast and furious pace with the ball whipping through the air. Sticks slap, players ram into each other. Ronald Ross, arguably the best shinty player the game has ever seen, expertly dodges across the pitch and smashes the baseball-sized ball passed the goalie. With that, the crowd of 700 goes wild.
Shinty — or camanachd in Scottish Gaelic — is believed to have been brought over from Ireland by the Gaels about 2,000 years ago and experts believe the game has changed little since then.
If you were to take a sixth-century Irishman and put him on a shinty pitch today he would be able to identify the game,” said Roger Hutchinson, author of “Camanachd: The Story of Shinty.”
Shinty tends to be a pretty rough sport and popular myth is that during the height of clan dominance, chieftains would have their soldiers play games of shinty before going into battle because it was considered the closest thing to warfare without anyone getting killed.
Hutchinson dismisses that story, but there is no doubt that shinty has played an important role in the history of the Highlands. The game was traditionally played in the winter months (the season now runs from March until October) with New Year’s Day bringing whole villages would out for matches.
“It is really an important part of the culture and heritage here,” Ross said. “Just like in football [soccer], if you are brought up with a team, you follow them so it can be intense, clannish and quite competitive.”
That explains the rivalry between Kingussie and Newtonmore, from villages just three miles apart, that has roiled since Kingussie won the first-ever Camanachd Cup (the World Series for shinty) in 1896. The rivalry may not be as well known as that of the Yankees and the Red Sox, but it is every bit as historic and fierce.
Beginning in the early 1980s, Kingussie began a winning streak that landed it in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2005 for being the world's most successful sports team of all time, having won the Camanachd Cup 20 years in a row and going undefeated for four years in the 1990s. But in 2006 its steak ended — due, of course, to Newtonmore, who topped the league stakes.
Today it's the MacTavish Cup at stake: The north of Scotland regional championship played in June, is one of the most coveted cups in this obscure Highland sport.
Even though Scots traveled across the world as part of the British empire (and brought their sticks with them), the game never took off in the way soccer, rugby and cricket did — except in Canada where it is accepted that shinty was the precursor to ice hockey.
“Scottish troops stationed in Canada could not play shinty on the ground because it was head-deep in snow in the winter, unlike in Scotland where you have the Gulf Stream and the snow doesn’t stick,” Hutchinson said. “So they took it to the frozen lakes and played shinty and that in turn became ice hockey. To this day, Canadians playing pick-up ice hockey call it going for a game of shinny.
Shinty is only played on the amateur level, which makes it all the more impressive that the record that the national Scottish team has had against the professional Irish hurling team (the sports are close cousins and they play with compromised rules) has been four wins and a draw over the last five years.
There is a premier league made up of 10 teams (including Kingussie and Newtonmore) as well as regional and school teams. All in all, there are about 60 teams that play across Scotland at one time (there are also a few teams scattered in California, New Zealand and South Africa).
Comparisons are often made between shinty and field hockey but there are several key differences, said Astie Campbell, who runs operations for the Camanachd Association, shinty’s governing body.
“There is no restriction on the swing, you can use the face of the stick when you are hitting the ball so you can swing from above your shoulder and carry on right through whereas in hockey you can use only the flat face,” he said.
There are 12 players per team on the pitch, the match lasts 90 minutes and much of the game takes place with the ball in the air. The stick can also be used to block and tackle, and like in soccer a player can tackle as long as it is shoulder to shoulder. The ball can only be stopped with the stick, the chest, with two feet together or one foot planted on the ground while the only player allowed to use his hands is the goalie — but only with an open palm.
There has been concern over the years about the future of the game — many kids who begin playing shinty move on to other sports like soccer and rugby that receive more funding. Ross, 34, dubbed “Ronaldo of the Glen” (after the famous football player Cristiano Ronaldo), has been integral to the sport not only because of his prowess on the pitch but his work promoting the sport off of it as well.
“You have to provide kids with competitions, with regular matches, otherwise you will lose them to other sports,” said Ross, who was a junior Scottish tennis champion. Participation, however, has been on the increase recently with summer camp programs and expansion into regions where historically the sport has not been as popular.
“The future for shinty does look quite rosy,” Campbell said. If the MacTavish Cup crowd is anything to go by — Newtonmore won in the end — shinty certainly looks to be around for another millennium.
More on sports: