Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Read All About It

You know the scene. You like shinty ; you like books. You particularly like books about shinty. Indeed you’d like to build up a library of books on the subject just to give an added dimension to your obsession. After all, obsessions grow, split , reform, move on ,gather pace and always come back to haunt us. Any serious obsession needs to be fed. However the real reason is that a wee shelf of books about shinty is always good to have to hand on these long winter nights when the real games which occupied the summer season have disappeared like the extra hour off the clock.
So what do you read? Not a great deal for the serious shinty bibliophile. Shinty’s restricted area and population mean that you cannot indulge yourself with the vast array of memoirs and manuals that choke up the two shelf corner of Ottakars or Waterstones . There you will find books on soccer, boxing, golf -god forbid even swimming and cycling are featured . Such a pity that Kerr Crawford did not have as wild a time as Tony Cascarino which would have enabled him to write about his life in shinty complete with a gambling habit and a French mistress. For all I know Kerr may have done the lot but he surely didn’t write about it.
I have been tempted to think up names for unwritten books in idle moments . “Rory : the Glory Years” or “Green Light for Gow” and have even toyed with a more straightforward title like “The Ronald Ross Story” except that I suspect it is not finished yet. There are chapters yet to come.
So where does that leave us?
The original work for Shinty anoraks is “Shinty” by the Rev J Ninian Macdonald a priest who whiled away the long dark winter nights at St Benedict’s Abbey, Fort Augustus by writing this thoughtful but dated little book. Originally published in 1932 it has long been very hard to obtain and it might well be worth someone’s time to try a reprint. Father Ninian was first to rehearse the tale of the ancient Celtic roots of the game , a story familiar to those who have read the early chapters of later works by Roger Hutchison and looked into Hugh Dan’s “Not an Orchid”
Ninian loves a good sermon. His message is “Professionalism destroys Sport.” You can see what he means. Having banged on about the problems which afflict shinty as a result of another professional sport , I have often thought that the solution lay in professionalising shinty. Now having read Ninian
I am not so sure. “One of the outstanding features of Shinty,” he says ,“ is that throughout its lengthy history it has stoutly resisted anything that savoured, however faintly , of professionalism. Another is that it has always risen superior to class distinction. On the turf , as under the turf, all men are equal
What Ninian does point to is that professionalism of the extreme kind as practiced in sports leads to fewer participants and more passive watchers-this is not a fate he wants for shinty. Neither do I.
Then there is “Camanachd “ by Roger Hutchison . It does a neat job of giving us the history of the game and it takes us up to 1989. I suppose it is the kind of a book that had to be written. Any self respecting sport should have this type of history and RH does a good job. It is readable and positive but I only refer to it now as a research tool.
I read it when it first came out and it has been printed since but I can only find it in the teuchter ghetto bit of the bookshops next to histories of Rum , Canna and the Hydro Electric Dams. It needs to be in the sports sections but the hard headed guys who run book shops know that a history of shinty will only sell to readers of an ethnic persuasion. Pity. It says a lot about the narrow mindedness of the Scottish sports fan but then we know that already.
Hugh Dan gave us “ Shinty” in 1993 and I’ll say this for it I would reckon that there is not a week when I have not had a look at it for some snippet or other. It is a treasure trove of pictures old , new, iconic and otherwise. The picture I like best (next to that of a frustrated Strathglass keeper Roddy Maclennan leaning on the post - always a Glenurquhart favourite) is that of Tarzan with his bandage. Behind him in full swirl is the Union Jack . I’m not sure about the symbolism and doubt whether the GAA would include it in their library of great Camanachd photos but it sure beats the old clichéd snap of Terry Butcher and his bloody head. I haven’t seen HD’s book on shelves for ages . I suspect it is out of print now though doubtless it is retailing second hand. Buy it.
HD also gave us “Not an Orchid” which seemed a very fine book at the time. Indeed I actually saw it for sale in the book shop at Croke Park some years ago. I had a copy. I cannot find it now so I must have given it away. The title is unusual but there is a logical reason behind it. It is a quote from some source or other .It is a good answer to a quiz question though, if you want to run an event to raise some cash to keep the team going.
“Kingussie and the Caman” by John Robertson was published in 1994 and is to me the best of its type. Filled with statistics ,local history and photographs , the only point one can make is that the author was lucky to have had to hand such a wealth of material. To be fair to him though, Robertson must kick himself since the decade which came after the publication of the book saw Kingussie go on to even greater heights . He could certainly have let his pen flow when describing “the five in a row “ team of recent memory. What makes the book particularly dear to the Glen reader is the fact that Mr R pays generous tribute to the Glen Camanachd Cup Final team of 1988 and amongst the list of Captains of the Kingussie Club is Glenurquhart’s own Tommy McKenna who held that honour in 1971. Tommy later went on to become a fine referee in the 70s and 80s.
Martin Macdonald ,a professional journalist, wrote an equivalent account of Skye Camanachd and although I read it at the time it was published -after the 1990 Camanachd Cup triumph -I seem to have mislaid my copy , probably very much in the same way as Skye mislaid their wonderful shinty team. A pity!
Talking of Skye ,I do remember reading as a child a book entitled “The Shinty Boys” by Margaret Macpherson . To my knowledge , it is the only work of fiction to feature shinty. Set on Skye it presents the life of some island youngsters whose passion was shinty. Doubtless it owed some of its realism to the fact that prior to writing it Mrs M had brought up a shinty mad family of her own amongst whom were numbered Kenny and Willie who made their own contributions to the glorious game.
Hugh Barron produced an interesting pamphlet to mark the centenary of the Inverness Club in 1988 and with John Willie Campbell had done likewise for Strathglass in 1979 while Roddy Mackinnon had earlier brought out a booklet on the history of the Beauly Club. Of these I have a copy of the Inverness pamphlet and I re-read it the other day after I saw a set of Shinty medals recently. Won by an Inverness player! An excellent group of medals -Camanachd Winners 1952, Camanachd Runners Up 1938, MacAulay runners up and a MacGillivray winners. What a superb collection and a tribute to how well “city” shinty, as I suppose we must call it, was going 50 years ago. What happened? Don’t know . But what did not happen was that the local politicians did not cherish what they had -with the honourable exception of wee Tommy Mackenzie who fought shanty’s corner in the town long and hard. Local politicians - and this filters down to their paid officials- still don’t see shinty as anything more than a quaint local pastime. It is unique- if the educational establishment can fund piping instructors and fiddle tutors under the cultural banner and champion Gaelic education then I see no reason why the “shinty” coach should not be included in this funding.
In 2004 , Steve Harvey produced “From Centenary to National Leagues” which brought the Strathglass story up to the near present and marks the club’s 125th anniversary. It is a labour of love filled with photos and the most detailed accounts of matches . The cover picture-Roy Mackenzie in his cool trousers going mental as Alan Macleod saves a penalty -may be worth the price of the tome in itself. As a motivational aid to the Glenurquhart Club it is priceless.
There are other local club histories in Fort William,- “An Gearasdan” by Hugh Dan and in Tighnabruaich-“The Kyles : A Celebration of 100 years” by Iain Thorburn . “An Gearasdan” undoubtedly exists but I know it not. Nor have I come across it on the dusty shelves of Charles Leakey’s second hand book store in Church St. Inverness. Iain Thorburn’s book consists of a series of articles and reminiscences which are interesting and readable but what draws me took the book is the marvellous range of photos many of them from the 1920s and 1930s One in particular sticks in the mind-the 1928 Camanachd Cup final. Played in Glasgow against Boleskine- the crowd in the background looked massive.
One book which I also have not come across in Charles Leakey’s is Duncan Maclennan’s little book which marks the centenary of Caberfeidh- and as a side that has a real history that would be worth reading. I do have Duncan’s memoir on growing up in Strathconon . Who could not warm to a man who describes taking the train to Kingussie to see “little Strathconon with just the number of players required to make up a team become the junior champions of Scotland when they beat Colintraive and Glendaruel from the Kyles of Bute by two goals to one” I knew Duncan well and loved his enthusiasm but I checked up his fact. He was, as ever , right though to be fair I did not immediately recognise Col-Glen from his description.
Another volume which has passed me by is Lovat’s centennial publication by yet another Duncan Maclennan . This would appear to have an attractive little cover of Celtic knot work ,so perhaps it may be found one day in the art section of the bookshop next to the seminal work on Celtic Art by Glenurquhart’s own George Bain. It was not there yesterday.
James Hunters “Skye the Island “ is worth a mention if only because in its first edition it contains one shinty picture . Snapped by Cailean Maclean it is captioned “ Skye start an attack on the Kincraig goal” This wrong on two counts :1) I can never remember Skye mounting an attack during that game and 2) the team in question is not Kincraig but Glenurquhart. I should have sued. Or then again perhaps Jim should have stuck to writing about crofting.
As always the best is left to last. “Glen Urquhart : Its places, people, neighbours and its shinty in the last hundred years or more” by Peter R English ranks alongside MacKay’s “Urquhart & Glenmoriston“ as amongst the most collectable books on the Glen. Published in 1985 it touches on the history of the Glen and then settles down to tell the story of its shinty up until the date of the centenary celebrations of the Club on the 17th August 1885. Peter even included a list of the events to be held on that Gala day as an appendix to the work .This now acts as an historical record of the activities of the day as well as having saved us the bother of printing a match day programme.
At one time the text was thought so useful that a full set were utilised as a local history resource in the Glen Urquhart High School , though whether this was approved of by parents in Strathglass I have never found out. When all is said and done however the work is now rare and out of date. It is even possible that Peter may consider an update.
When originally printed the book was brought into being ,as all minority interest works have to be, by a generous list of sponsors amongst whom was numbered Lord Burton of Dochfour . At the time LB was the District Councillor for the area. So there we have it Lord Burton and the West Highland Free Press agree on something. Shinty is a great game and worthy of support. Testament indeed to the power of the indigenous sport to create harmony where there once was discord.
As for the rest of the bookshelf- apart from dog-eared copies of the yearbook -it is empty. I don’t even have them all, having given them away to someone who was writing stuff up about the Glen on a local website. Finally ,I do have Ally Hunter’s new publication “The Shinty Programme” and it has some nice team pictures and a fine OS image of Blairbeg. You could also navigate your way to the Post Office if lost using said image. If it is to be an annual publication it is a little costly at £12 but one copy helps to pad out the shelf. As for filling the rest of the cupboard , there is certainly work to be done.

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