Friday, June 03, 2005

Keeping out of the D
Following the Drum in Shinty’s National Leagues

Shinty? An obsession? For who? Me? What can I say? Its two years ago. It’s also a cold spring evening in Beauly -start of April ;Clock having undergone its annual time shift ;daffodils pretending to develop; primroses still hiding in their collars and I hunch here at Braeview Park watching a practice match between Beauly and Drum- I always say Drum deliberately knowing that most of the folk who have any interest in this arcane Celtic pastime back over Culnakirk are natives of the upper Glen and would much prefer me to say “The Glen“- but then I’m bold as well as obsessed. This practice match looks as if it won’t do Beauly any good.
We have 12 players which is a start- although you need more than 12 to let a side have a fair chance in the cockpit of competition since at any moment a lad can get a sclock with a club and have to retire from the challenge. We don’t bother with that-our guys have come here with reluctance. It would appear that contrary to received sporting opinion they are a pub shinty team-they don’t train; they don’t bother too much with tactics ;they just go out and play. Get the club under the ball, fire it up into the other half of the field and Corky, Eddie Tembo or some other artisan will conjure it into the net-or more likely fire it at the keeper and then scramble it over the line. Simple game played by simple minds. Except that it seems to be working -at this level anyway. No chance against a real team of athletes. But Beauly for all that it’s a big village has lost its middle class involvement in the sport - whatever they do- make money, play golf ,watch rugby, sell tweeds or put Adam fireplaces into their dwellings ,they certainly don’t have much of an interest in shinty. The observers are few in number- 7 on our side ;fewer than that on the Beauly side -except that they have a knot of 15 year olds wearing green socks and tracksuit tops who seem keen enough to be subs. There are also a number of 11 year olds playing on assorted swings and roundabouts who have enough interest in proceedings to shout over to Archie Maclellan to ask him the score.

Archie shouts back the figure- at the moment the zeros are tied and from the way the match is progressing it does looks as though the nothings will remain.. Archie by the way is the Beauly hail keeper- Beauly are a side whose roots go back to shinty antiquity that they must retain the right to name their positions in formal and ancient style. Doubtless one of the first players in the earliest Priory side came over in the original coracle with Columba.
I like Archie. He plays simple safety first shinty and at hit outs plays the ball high wide and long. Not only is he a cool customer but he loves the sport beyond the petty loyalty of club. He’s a fair keeper too and he needs to be. Eddie suddenly bursts through with the ball on the edge of anarchy bouncing just beyond the control of his club.
Naturally the whistle has gone for some infringement- not caused by Eddie for he’s a simple soul. He does however affect not to hear it or else he is suffering from a genuine case of premature deafness. He approaches the “D” and swings a mighty swing. Arch has come off his line and is half bending to pick up the ball as Eddie connects and the ball rises two feet off the deck in the manner of the speeding bullet so beloved of cartoonery and smacks into Archie’s ribs. He looks pissed off but says nothing, merely flicks up the by now dead ball and guides it back to Russell Ross who’s doing everyone a favour by taking over the loathed role of whistler . Russell looks confused; Eddie looks sheepish and Arch is silent and grim. He ought to be. Eddie was either acting dumb or acting up and Archie has a set of sore ribs he did not need to possess. Still he has said nothing despite his demeanour.
At the heart of their team Beauly have Roger Cormack who’s simply better that everyone else . He’s fated to be like George Fraser was in Strathglass -condemned to play skilful shinty in a team noteworthy for their minimal competence in the sport Still Roger performs at the top of his game- he tracks people across the field; he hits the ball long he can also hit the ball high ;he can play excellent passes while his team-mates conspire to be ordinary.
In the end the scamper factor of the Glen tells a familiar tale. Used to playing in a harder quicker league the dozen Glenners can move the ball faster and with marginally more accuracy than the men in green. Some times they even move it before they actually have it under control.
The game is tied on zeros and the way Roger is playing would seem to indicate that nothings will be the highest aspiration of the scoreboard on this particular evening . But no- in the end a ball breaks wide to Billy Urquhart who plays it across the rock hard surface- at this time of the year the grass barely clings to the soil as if pretending to be part of a pitch. The ball bounces amongst an uncertain crowd of players; someone half connects and finally it is hit uncertainly on the top of its leather head, bounces up fierily, deceives Archie and the game is effectively won 1-0.
Of course there is a great deal of scampering still to come but in the end it doesn’t matter too much . The Glen hold on : Beauly because they’ve a serious match on Saturday hold back. Which is what they do on Saturday in the semi-final of the MacTavish Cup against Kilmallie. They treat their opponents to a display of gentlemanly reticence-when with some aggression they could have done something.
At halftime they are 2-1 down and Jamie Maclennan is still trying to play shinty like it was snooker. He’s pulling down the ball, trying to lay it off, attempting to work it forward and all the time Kilmallie defenders are letting their clubs whistle. Ref John Sloggie is not going to do anything because Kilmallie are playing within the rules. Eventually it happens- Jamie gets a club smashed across his fingers -he should be wearing a glove- and has to come off the field .He is replaced by a child who tries hard. But its no use. Kilmallie carry on ;they win. Everyone hopes that they will lose to Newtonmore in the final so that at least the accent of the cup winners is understandable. Naturally they do so- Like Beauly, Kilmallie are in a league of their own when it comes down to underachievement.
Yet once again Beauly have shown how not to be successful-to have the basic talent and in the end make certain that possessing it is irrelevant: they have a gift definitely -but it is one which should not be cherished.
On days like these I fear for the sanity of men like Dave Calder and Black Will Macdonald: they work hard; they love their shinty and their team teases them into a semi belief that one day perhaps -just perhaps!! But I know that unless the character of the Aird reverts to what it was pre 1914 then there isn’t a chance. The guys with bottle are lying beneath the green fields of France and their descendents were never born. Not for nothing has Dave Calder got a secret e mail address for his special anorak friends which includes a reference to 1922. That is because 1922 was the last year Beauly reached the Camanachd Cup final : naturally being of a post war generation they contrived to lose. Perhaps soon they might win their regional division and finally get a shot at National League shinty. It might be some reward for Dave, Black Will , Toad , Murph and even for Archie for their obsession.

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