Battle of the shinty field

Today, two Highland villages clash sticks and exchange bruises in an ancient cup final.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In the shadow of the mighty Monadhliath Mountains, a pair of Highland villages lies in apparent peaceful coexistence on the banks of the River Spey. Scarcely three-and-a-half miles separate the communities of Kingussie and Newtonmore, yet the two have been riven by one of the feistiest rivalries in sporting history.

The villagers go to school with each other, work with each other, and even marry each other, but for 90 minutes every Saturday afternoon the ancient Scottish sport of shinty dominates their every moment; all their amity goes to the wall and they pray for each other's defeat.

Closely related to the Irish sports of hurling and camogie, shinty - or camanachd, to give its Gaelic name - is essentially Celtic hockey. Dr Johnson called it hockey "without the rules".

"Injuries are got and taken gracefully and nothing too much made or said," nods a former Newtonmore midfielder, John Mackenzie, stoically. After 21 years in the senior team, it was a badly broken elbow which finally saw Mackenzie off the pitch. Who was responsible? "Form your own conclusion," he recommends, looking three-and-a-half miles down the road.

It was St Columba who first brought the game to Scotland, when he high- tailed it out of Ireland in 563AD in the wake of an argument that erupted at a shinty match. It seems that the game has been a cause of frayed tempers ever since. Earlier this year, three members of the Duffy family of Oban Celtic were banned from play till the year 2001, after a fracas in which 18 of the 24 players on the pitch laid down their sticks and piled into the fray.

"You have to remember that shinty started off as training for battle," says the Newtonmore manager, David Cheyne.

Battle clubs have long been forsaken for a spindly piece of sapling ash, known as a caman. Sticks swinging aloft, the players weave, lunge and barge their way across the 60-yard pitch to pluck the rock-hard little ball from the sky. Lustily thwacked with the caman, the ball courses towards either the goal, or a smarting expanse of brave Highland flesh.

It's a fast and furious game of close man-to-man marking, and during a heated match easily a dozen sticks may be smashed to oblivion. In the autumn, confused by the sound of splintering wood, amorous stags have been known to storm the pitch in search of clashing antlers.

But the clash today is between the Old Firm of Kingussie and Newtonmore. It was only a recent change in the rules of the Cup (which used to pitch Northern and Southern teams in different halves of the draw) which has allowed the old adversaries to meet in the final. So, for only the fourth time this century, when they meet at Fort William today for the 101st Camanachd Cup Final, Newtonmore and Kingussie will seize the holy opportunity to settle the oldest score in the Highlands.

Before the 1890s, and the advent of regular league matches and standardised rules of play, the villages would content themselves with issuing vitriolic match challenges in the Inverness Courier, each advertisement smattered with accusations of "cowardice" and "boastfulness". Or else they played the old way, on New Year's Day, up to 100 men to a team, coaxing the ball back and forth between the village boundaries until nightfall.

Once played across the length of Scotland, from the islands to the borders, by the 18th century shinty was already becoming a minority sport, in danger of being played only by a few ex-pats in Wimbledon and Blackheath. Players were hounded first by puritanical Sabbatarians and royal edicts against "uncontrollable" games, and then by English-speaking schoolmasters who stamped hard on Gaelic culture.

So how did shinty survive in pockets such as the Badenoch region? John Mackenzie is sure he has the answer: "I honestly believe the game needs the challenge of the Kingussie-Newtonmore scenario. It keeps the interest alive."

This, at least, is one thing both sides can agree on. "It's the intense rivalry between Kingussie and Newtonmore which has kept them at the top," says Kingussie man John Robertson (who writes his team's waspish programme notes). "They're so busy competing with each other, they've constantly raised each other's game."

Between them, these two small villages have dominated the sport throughout the history of the Cup. In the notorious back bar of the Balavil Sporting Hotel, surrounded by a century's photographs, trophies and cup-winners' medals, Newtonmore faithfuls will be happy to add up for you the 28 occasions on which they've brought home the Camanachd Cup. Fuelled by a few more nips of Dalwhinnie, they may also mention that Kingussie have managed the feat exactly half as often.

Down at the Silverfjord or The Tipsy Laird, the Kingussie men just may let it slip that it was they who won the first ever Camanachd Cup in 1896, and that it's one of their lads (John Dallas, whose great-grandson plays in today's team) who formed the model for the handsome figure surmounting the silver trophy. Perhaps they'll mention this season's league victory and their astonishing 28-match unbeaten record. Rather than lessen the antagonism, the frequent intermarriages between opposing camps seem only to give added spice to their contests. "Aah, there's nothing like family rivalry for making it keen," laughs John Mackenzie, son of a Kingussie father and a Newtonmore mother.

But how long before this community backbone starts to crumble? "Even here, it's more and more difficult to keep the interest going," admits the coach, Donnie Grant. "With rugby, skiing, canoeing and computer games now, the kids have 101 different options to choose." Earlier this century, heavy Highland losses at Mafeking and Ypres wiped out many a village shinty team. Now families inexorably move away in search of employment.

In the late Twenties, faced with a similar decline, Kingussie and Newtonmore took the most drastic action possible: they joined up, and formed the short-lived and ill-fated team, "The Amalgamation". No whisper is ever now heard of this ignominious period.

And so to Fort William, and the Glenmorangie Camanachd Cup Final, a grand affair with piped bands and 4,000 spectators travelling out from the shinty heartlands of Skye and Oban, Inveraray, Tignabruiach and Drumnadrochit for the much-savoured sight of a Badenoch derby.

Thrashed 10-2 by Kingussie on their last league meeting, their team young and inexperienced, their captain on a disciplinary match suspension, Newtonmore are the undisputed underdogs. And yet, weren't Kingussie favourites last year, having won the cup seven times since 1984? And weren't the Kingussians rumoured then to have printed their victory T-shirts in advance?

"It was like VE Day back home," remembers MacIntyre. "The whole town turned out as we were piped home. The Camanachd Cup is the crown jewels of the Highlands."

Glenmorangie Camanachd Cup Final, An Aird Park, Fort William, today, 3pm.