The Games of the XXXI (31st) Olympiad (better known as the 2016 Rio Olympics) is less than two months away where a number of “minority” sports will get their quadrennial moment in the spotlight. However, there are many hundreds of sports that don’t have that luxury and have to make do without that Olympic exposure. Some of these sports (e.g. Cricket) already have a large international reach, but some have limited popularity outside their heartlands, such as this famous Scottish Highlands past-time: Shinty.
In a nutshell, Shinty is a ball and stick game played outdoors on grass. It’s similar to hockey and bandy (which is played on ice) but it’s much more closely-linked to Hurling, which is played in Ireland and shares roots with Shinty. The game is played mainly in the Scottish Highlands and also by Highland migrants to the big Scottish cities and other parts of the world.
There were multiple different names for Shinty in various parts of Scotland. In the Lowlands for example, it has been referred to as Cammon, Cammock (from the Scottish Gaelic word Camag), knotty and camanachd, with the latter inspiring the name for the sport’s official governing body; the Camanachd Association. Other dialect names for Shinty included shinnis, shinnack and shinnup.
The game was traditionally played in the winter months, with New Year’s day being the day that whole villages would gather to play several-hundred-a-side matches with players using any piece of wood with a hook as a caman, the name of the stick used in the game. In 2003 however, the clubs voted for a switch from a winter season to a summer season between March and October. This was due to seasons often massively overrunning because of the harsh winter weather that postponed many a match.
Teams consist of 12 players (10 in the women’s game), including a goalkeeper and matches are played over two 45-minute halves. The main objective is to score more goals than the other team by hitting the ball through the goalposts with the caman. A goal doesn’t count if the ball “has been kicked, carried or propelled by hand or arm by a player of the attacking side”. A player can tackle an opponent with their stick and their body as long as it is shoulder-to-shoulder. A player can stop the ball using their stick, chest or foot and only the goalkeeper can use their hands, even though they can’t catch it.
The field play is usually 140-170 (128-155m) yards long and 70-80 yards (64-73m) wide. The “D” in front of each goalpost is 10 (9.1m) yards in radius and the penalty spot is 20 yards (18.3m) from the goalpost. The goalposts themselves are 12ft (3.6m) wide and 10ft (3.0m) high while the centre has a 5-yard (4.5m) radius.
The ball used is made of cork and covered by two pieces of leather stitched together. It is smaller and much harder than a tennis ball and is usually white, but this is not a compulsory colour, with black and fluorescent balls sometimes used. Plastic or soft balls are used at youth level.
The stick (caman) used to hit the ball is about three-and-a-half feet (1.1m) long with a hook consisting of two slanted faces and is typically made of wood. The name caman derives from the Scottish and Irish Gaelic cam, meaning bent or crooked.
The sport’s main governing body, the Camanachd Association, organises the Scottish league system which is made up of four divisions, with the top two played on a nationwide basis, and has promotion and relegation between each tier.
The CA is also responsible for the sport’s premier competition, the Camanachd Cup, which is a knockout tournament played by teams in the top three tiers, excluding reserve teams. The final is the showpiece event of the Shinty calendar and is shown on BBC Two Scotland. The 2015 final was won by Lovat, who defeated Kyles Athletic 2-1 in Oban. Other major competitions include the Macaulay Cup, MacTavish Cup (for Northern teams) and the Glasgow Celtic Society Cup (for Southern teams).
As expected, Shinty has limited popularity outside the towns and villages of the Highlands and Western Isles. However there are clubs in other parts of the UK including London and Cornwall. The sport is enjoying a revival in North America, having initially been played by Scottish immigrants in the 18th and 19th century, with clubs existong in California and Oregon.
Perhaps the most famous Shinty player is Ronald Ross MBE, who is the only man to have scored 1000 goals. This gave him the nickname “Ronaldo of the Glens” (named after the Brazilan footballer) and he played his entire career for Kingussie Camanachd, who are the most successful sporting team of all time according to the Guinness book of Records, having won 20 consecutive league titles and going four years unbeaten for a period in the early 1990s.
Held every year since 2003, the Shinty/Hurling International Series is an annual competition played between the Scotland Shinty team and the Ireland Hurling team, which is played under a mixture of rules from both sports. Matches are played at men’s senior, men’s under-21 and women’s level.