Tuesday, September 27, 2005

On the buses

Looking back on it, I suppose, if the truth be told, I have spent more of my life playing shinty, watching shinty, thinking about shinty , analysing shinty and generally talking rubbish about shinty than was really sensible. Still I wasn’t the only one and what’s done is done - but when I cast my mind back on past seasons wearing the black and red, I cannot recall a parade of silver cups and presentation camans. With Glenurquhart? You must be joking.
What I can remember are minibuses- minibuses to Skye, minibuses to Oban, minibuses to Fort William and inevitably minibuses to nowhere- minibuses broken down.
Away back in the mid 70s when the Glen were a force to be reckoned with everywhere-except perhaps in those places which had a force of their own-Glenurquhart Shinty Club used to own a minibus. It had been an old Forestry Bedford which had been driven up rougher hills and down deeper dales than any other vehicle ever built at Luton. Not surprisingly, it had become an ex-Forestry Bedford and it was snapped up by an astute committee who realised that however big a wreck it might be , Ken Fraser would be able to fix it.
It had slatted wooden seats through which coins destined for card games constantly slipped, seatbelts were definitely not included and there was a heater which refused to heat. It did however accommodate the team- and the Spartan nature of the vehicle engendered a kind of war-time spirit that helped the boys feel that sense of togetherness which is born of suffering. This also had an effect on our style of play. The thought ran thus : We have suffered together in the bus to get to this remote field- now you , the opposition, are going to suffer for forcing us to endure such a journey.
And in those days, the opposition usually did suffer.
But no matter how big a star Billy Macleod was on the field, the minibus would go one better.
One wet Saturday afternoon in Skye- wee Billy had taken more goals off the Islanders than their keeper had the Gaelic to count-the gear lever came away in Ken’s hand.
“Oh look,” said Ken “ It’s the gear lever. It doesn’t want to leave the island till later”
Nobody dared to laugh: it was too much like tempting fate.
In the event, Ken put the gear lever back into the hole it had come out of and its impermanent resting place became a sort of fail safe device. If Ken looked like he was in a speeding mood- and he invariably did- you could be sure that the front seat passenger, afraid perhaps that Ken would speed past the Cluanie Inn , the Invermoriston Hotel or indeed the Lovat Arms, would remove the gear stick and confine the bus to a slow and stoppable third gear.
I remember one October evening at Fort Augustus when a wheel sped past the minibus, over took a number of vehicles , bounded like a deer out of our headlights and crashed off into the trees.
“Oh look “, remarked Ken calmly, “There’s a wheel. I wonder where that came from?”
We had observed the passing object with amused detachment but it took us 20 minutes of stumbling about in the dark among the pine needles before we found it again.
I think it was when we finally had to release the Bedfordfrom its contractual obligations that the Glen began to slip from its once proud position: the necessary boost to the team’s morale was just no longer there.
Of course there were and still are other hired minibuses and some of them were every bit as recalcitrant as the old Bedford. The one we took on a trip to Oban in the mid 80s was especially foul.
It was our custom in the 1980s- before the advent of National League shinty made these trips a dull necessity- to travel to Oban to let Dougie Macintyre and the Oban Camanachd Committee see the John Collie Cup before we bore it back north again for another 12 months. They used to invite us down to play for this Argyllshire Cup and we rather ungraciously proceeded to beat them annually. At some point they stopped asking us down, requested the cup back and then unaccountably the very players whom we used to defeat with ease went on to win the Camanachd Cup and every other major shinty trophy you can think of. Such is life.
However, to our tale. Having duly won the Collie Cup and visited several hostelries in that pleasant seaside town, we began the perilous journey home from the Lorne Hotel. We managed as far as Onich in a merry ceilidh spirit- in both senses of the word. Then….Kaphutt! A fuel problem. Run out of petrol?
We flagged down cars, sent out raiding parties to Fort William and finally got a tow from a Glen man who just happened to be passing- and by the end of the night had filled the thing with so much petrol that Esso’s August sales figures for Lochaber must have topped the seasonal normal.
Still it would not go. The passing Glen man with the tow rope- the late Malcolm Munro, Balnain - was detained to tug us along a little to see if that would induce the engine to start. It didn’t. He opened up the engine and poured petrol down the carb but there was no joy. The R.A.C. were called out but even they failed to induce the brute to start.
In the end it took a replacement bus from Drumnadochit to get the lad home by 2.30am.
However, the hours in the darkness near Fort William were not wasted : an exercise in building team spirit was undertaken with great success. The tin whistle and Gaelic songs were in evidence- and by the end of the ordeal we even had a new team song. Air-Traditional; arranged Mackintosh, it had as its basis the tune of the Gaelic port-a beul ‘ Brochan Lom’
“Broken down , broken down
Broken down at Onich…..”
It was sung with gusto. The second verse, sadly, never came true. Optimistically entitled,”Now we’re fixed and on our way- off to Corriegour” it remained unsung. Looking back I can see how marvellously traditional it all was. All we needed was shortbread and some irn-bru to complete the stereotype; footballers on the other hand would have wimped it but at least they would have worn the latest designer gear.
Incidentally, the ability of shinty culture to adapt to the modern world has grown apace. On the last occasion I travelled long-haul with a Glen Team- to Bute- the boys were taken from the pitch in Rothesay to the ferry enclosed in the back of a cattle truck ( Hector Whitelaw, the Bute Captain, did hose it out before inviting us aboard) the youngsters were singing “We’re going to Ibiza”. Older readers -indeed all readers since no youngster is ever likely to read a Glen Bulletin-might like to note that this is a “Pop” song sung by the Venga Boys, a group of young musical persons hailing from somewhere-another planet perhaps- presumably called Venga. And as for being boys-one is , in fact , a girl- but I digress.
Horrible experiences can sometimes be amusing in retrospect, but when they repeat themselves they become last straws. Within two weeks of our Onich experience we had just such a last straw. We had been “playing” Skye once again. Things did not go well. Yeats, though he was the sort of Irishman who couldn’t tell a caman from a capercaillie, provides the perfect description of what went wrong with the team in his poem ‘The Second Coming’:
“Things fall apart: the centre cannot hold” They did-and neither it could- so we lost.
We got back aboard the bus and the drive home went well enough to the ferry, except that the vehicle seemed to be burning oil rather too fiercely.
It was stopping the engine on the ferry that did it. Picture it: the ramp goes down; the key is turned and turned and turn…..there is an absence of activity from the engine. Looks are exchanged: the ferryman’s grin slowly erodes. We get out, we push : the Gods take pity-they know that only pagans play shinty- and we’re off to Drum.
“I think,” said Donald Paul as the bus snailed past Urquhart Castle before dipping down into green Glenurquhart, ”we’ll just have to hire one with handles, so we can carry it home”.
Since then I’ve rarely been on a minibus although the club still use them. For longer journeys we hire a larger bus although they are not impervious to mechanical trouble. Why- only two seasons ago young John Barr had to use tights-presumably not his own- to try to coax a bus to reach Glasgow where we were due to play Mid Argyll.
In the end of course it was Ken Fraser who got the vehicle going. Now wisely we never travel without him : he is more useful than a Swiss Army knife. His presence on all buses, large or small, is now a requirement of the Club Constitution. Now if only he could fix the team so effectively…..

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