Recent research into the archives of the Stornoway Gazette has thrown up a wealth of material that gives a better picture of the early days of the revivals of shinty in the Outer Hebrides. In this first installment, we look at the innovation and imagination that led to a new life for the islands’ native sport in the last years of the 20th century.
Where better to start than the game which began it all – the famed Iomain Challain fixture run by now Honorary Chieftain of Camanachd Leòdhais, Donna Barden, on Monday 2nd January 1995.
Under the headline “Shinty tradition revived” the article states
“On Monday this week an ancient Lewis tradition was revived at the grounds of Back Football Club.
For the first time since shortly after the First World War a game of shinty was held on New Year’s Day – or in this case on January 2nd since New Year’s Day was on a Sunday.
The match took place on the club’s snow covered pitch at Col Uarach using hockey sticks kindly lent for the occasion by the Nicolson Institute’s Sports Centre”
The game was captained by the two youngest participants 5 year old Clare James and her 7 year old brother Ian James. There were no goals, but a “saoil” was scored in the old tradition by driving the ball beyond the end of the park. The report states that the first half of about 15 minutes was frenetic and exhausting and saw Clare’s team lead 2-1. The second half saw an equalising “saoil” for Ian’s team and then sudden death play-off that saw a “saoil” finally scored between the Col Uarach posts.
The article ends on a hopeful note, with Donna saying;
“Some of the younger boys present, most of them from Tong asked me to organise a weekly match on their local pitch with proper rules and coaching so that people could learn how to play properly. They even wondered about setting up a local league. Although it would be a lot of work it would be fun to do. Even an informal match like this has attracted people to the game. I’d like to think that the traditional New Year’s Day camanachd is back to stay.”
Donna and her husband Alasdair were not tardy in getting to work. 15 April 1995 saw the first running of Cuach nan Dusan / The Dozen Cup. This momentous occasion saw 14 young lads from North Uist compete against over 40 boys and girls from Lewis, who divided into teams from Back, Sandwick, Stornoway (x2) and Tong (x2). The tournament threw-up at 12.30 and it started raining heavily, then snowing. The report states
“The whole Tong team at one point seeming to disappear into the back of Charlie Anderson’s car. Some children, knowing that their team would not be playing for the next forty minutes or so, went home to warm up and, much to everyone’s surprise, returned to the fray, such was their determination not to drop out of the competition”
Tong A and North Uist A faced each other in the final, and the final result was 4-0 to Uist. The trophy, which was conceived to be presented once a month, to the winner of each monthly tournament, had been delayed so the Uibhistich went home with a sign saying I.O.U. Cuach nan Dusan – The Dozen Cup. (This is the featured image on this page)
The Butt to Barra section of the Gazette showed that by a stroke of fortune, the revival of Lewis shinty coincided with that of Constable Alasdair MacLean, a Glenurquhart man, being stationed in Lochmaddy. This snippet from Thursday 18th May gives details of the training held at Paible school fields from 10.30am to 12.30pm on a Saturday with a bus going from Lochmaddy via Sollas. It wishes the team “All the best” for a planned game v Lewis for the “Uist Boys”.
The report on this meeting in June is headlined, without hyperbole “The Best Shinty in 100 Years”. Dr Alasdair Barden reports with some poetic flourishes (such as a goalie using the Force to an extent Luke Skywalker would be proud of) on the tournament played at Sgoil Phaibeil as part of Fèis Tìr an Eòrna. Lewis combined into four teams of under 12s, and Uist A faced Lewis B in the final. Dr Barden’s report tells of an exciting game which ended 1-1, and with this meaning that the Dozen Cup would not have a winner, there was a decision to play a short 12 a-side match which would end 0-0 with both teams sharing the Cuach.
In July 1995, the “fledgling” Stornoway Shinty Club played “probably” the first arranged 12 a-side away match by a Lewis side for many years. The under 12s took a trip to Skye. They had only been formed for three months, but were coached by Kenny Morrison and policeman Callum McLeod, yet “turned in creditable performances against much more experienced opposition, losing 3-0 to Portree and 3-2 to Skeabost.”
Mr Morrison commented “overall the development of shinty in Lewis is looking healthy on this showing. Stornoway were a match for Portree and Skeabost in close play but showed weakness in their long game. A rethink of training tactics to play more 12 a-side was necessary.”
Not to be outdone, the Uibhisteachs made a trip to Portree on Friday 11th August, again coached by Constable Maclean. This over 12 side acquitted themselves well, and the following week an under 12 team travelled to Newtonmore. The parents were “very appreciative of the care and guidance offered to the young boys by constable Maclean.”
The 7th September edition of the Gazette has a report by Donna Barden on a Cuach nan Dusan tournament played at Tong pitch with Sandwick, Stornoway, Tong (Smokebusters and Vikings) and Back all entering teams. Tong won the final 4-2. Peter Maclean opening the scoring and then adding a second, but Stornoway levelling it to 2-2 by halftime.
Donald Macdonald scored a double in the second half, the first one under dubious circumstances as the Stornoway goalie was mildly injured, but the final goal was all above board and Tong won by a clear two goals.
Comann Camanachd Leòdhais also celebrated its first ever under 15 game which was played between Back and Stornoway, with the townies winning 3-0.
Also there was a game played at Under 8 level, and this game saw George and John from Sandwick, combined with John and Andrew from Back, to play against James, Steven, Ryan and Daniel from Back. Quite possibly the first ever mention of Daniel “Gaga” Gallagher in a shinty report!
The report ends with reports of shinty teams possibly staring in Breasclete and Tarbert in the near future and that the Comann Camanachd Leòdhais would try and promoted standards and broad-based interest in the game by making two girls per team mandatory for Cuach nan Dusan “Look out boys! They’re coming to get you!” is Donna’s sign-off.
The October 12th edition gives a report on a Cuach nan Dusan played at Tong pitch on 7th October titled “Cuach nan Dusan goes to town team” which “proved to be an extremely busy one, with ten teams taking part. the teams came from Back, Tong, Stornoway and Sandwick/Knock and it was a great sight to see many camans hard at work!”
The first games were under 8s with the Bacachs fielding two six a-side teams and Tong and Sandwick merging as Tongwick.
Then the Under 12s saw 7 teamscompete with Back A & B, Tong Vikings and Tong Smokebusters, Stornoway A & B and Sandwick. To encourage play by girls, if a team would have to play short if they did not have enough girls. Chirsty Macleod from Stornoway got a “big hand” for “changing from spectator to player quite unexpectedly.”
Sandwick would beat Smokebusters 3-0, whilst Back A drew 1-1 with Sandwick and 2-2 with the Smokebusters. Tong Vikings beat Back B 4-0 and Stornoway A beat their B team 5-0. It was Stornoway A who would claim the prize for that month. The tournament was played in clement weather and the report mentions that “all teams are showing improvement each month.”
The November running of the tournament (Stornoway Gazette 17 November 1995) saw another historic moment as John Macleod, local manager of John Fyfe gifted Stornoway Shinty Club a set of blue and black strips – making them the original Dubh is Gorm 12 years earlier than the senior club! Stornoway “put on their customary fine show” but it wasnt enough. Sandwick won the first official under-8s tournament, beating Tong 7-6 on aggregate including penalties.
Sadly there was no Under 15 competition as Back and Stornoway could not field teams so Sandwick under-15s played challenge matches in the Under 12 competition. They would win their group, but were ineligible for the final played between Tong Smokebusters and Stornoway A for Cuach nan Dusan. The official report talks of “a thrilling end to end match, a total of nine goals seemed to be scorred though some were disallowed due to coming directly from free hits or having somehow contrived to sneak in through the side netting.”
All in all the match officially ended 4-2 to the Smokebusters, marked with the apt headline “Plenty puff from Smokebusters” and raising Cuach nan Dusan for a third time. Thanks were given to Mrs Lamont of Tong for “Providing a reviving mug of soup for all the tournament’s survivors” and to Charlie Anderson for providing extra goals from Tong Hall.
This exciting first year of shinty’s revival comes to an end with the final Cuach nan Dusan of the year (held in Tong on Saturday 2nd December.
The report talks of the fortunate problem of “These tournaments take longer and longer to organise as the teams seem to be ever increasing in number, much to our delight.”
The numbers bear this out with three under 8 teams from Back A, Back B and Sandwick. Sandwick won the under-8 section 2-0 versus Back A.
The under 12 section was made up of Sandwick, Back, Stornoway and Tong Vikings and Tong Smokebusters. The final match saw the town take on the Vikings and it was Stornoway who won Cuach nan Dusan for December 1995 with a 1-0 win.
The under 15 section was won by Back winning a play-off 2-1 versus Sandwick.
So the first year of the revival drew to a close and Donna Barden, writing this final report of a momentous year, closes by talking of the success of all the tournaments across the year, the hope for another New Year’s Game as well as placing a helmet order, and some visiting coaches from the mainland in 1996.
What happened in 1996? Stay tuned for the next installment from the archives.