The Gaelic capital of the Highlands
Glasgow’s importance as effectively the capital of Gaeldom towards the end of the nineteenth century and its role in developing shinty cannot be over-stated. The Gaelic Society of Glasgow met for the first time in October, 1887, declaring as their reason d’être that Celts in that city should not be “behind their brethren” in showing their patriotism and attachment to their mother tongue. Thus they followed a route carefully and energetically explored by numerous societies before them.
By then, societies had been representing Highlanders’ interests in “Glaschu mòr nam bùth” (Big Glasgow of the shops) for over 150 years. Many of these Societies, which changed their functions to match the changing times, played their part in the history of shinty in the city.
‘A few Highland gentlemen’ had decided to settle in Glasgow by the early 1700s. The Buchanan Society was formed in 1725, and two years later, the Glasgow Highland Society, forever more associated with the name Black Bull, and set up by seventeen “patriotic” individuals,
for the purpose of clothing, Educating and putting to Trades, a certain number of Boys, whose parents belong to the Highlands of Scotland, and are in indigent circumstances.
Temporary or seasonal migration from the Highlands was not a new phenomenon. However, when the labour migration hit the heights of the nineteenth century, the scale of support mechanisms needed and offered by such societies exploded in similar fashion. On March 7, 1780, the Gaelic Club of Gentlemen, a socially elite off-shoot of the Highland Society of Glasgow was established, based on a charter procured from the Highland Society of London which had been founded two years earlier. A church had been opened in Queen Street in 1767, in which the services were conducted in Gaelic, and the first Gaelic Church, at IngramStreet, was built in 1783, following on the work of the Gaelic Chapel Society of Glasgow.
By 1792, the “spirit of Emigration” among Highlanders was described as “an alarming height.” Much of the Highland population attracted to the city and its environs at the end of the eighteenth century had been attracted by the developing manufacturing industry. It would appear that by the end of the century there were several thousand Highlanders in Glasgow’s 70,000 population.
Improved transport, through the steamer Comet which plyed the Clyde to Campbeltown, Inveraray and the Kyles of Bute, for example, canals and vastly improved roads, made the city steadily more accessible. The more accessible it became, the more the Highlanders arrived and the numbers continued to grow exponentially.
Eventually, many Highlanders who moved south were reasonably affluent using their family circumstances to secure positions of local prestige and, in turn, offer less fortunate Highlanders some assistance in their new surroundings. Many found jobs as doctors, clerks, merchants or manufacturers. Many chose the army just as the police was to provide a focus in the 20th century. Language ability was often a bonus.Highlanders found employment in what may be called managerial/professional jobs such as brokers, cashiers to banks, and within the army and navy, and were also commonly employed as shopkeepers, innkeepers and in a range of skilled or semi-skilled manual tasks such as printing, coopering, masonry, tailoring and, of a textile workers.
Cùl na sràide
Shinty has clearly been played in Glasgow from early times. The earliest written reference found to shinty play in Glasgow is in the Kirk Session Records, Glasgow, October 16, 1589 – the proscription: that nane be fund castand stanes with in the kirkis Áardes, or playing at futeball, goff, carrick or schynnie.
Six years later, in 1595, many Sunday games were being played on the flat grass-land near churches. Football was popular, and the Glasgow Town Council had to ban “golf and shinty” from the churchyards of “High and Blackfriars Yards” – the principal churches in Glasgow. According to golf historian David Hamilton,
Since golf and shinty were banned together, this increases the likelihood that these were two forms of one game played with the same club (shinty) and a ball.
The following verse possibly relates to shinty in Glasgow. The words “cùl na sràide” (the back of the street) certainly imply a city setting.
“Chaidh mi moch gu cùl na sràide,
Rug mi air ceann a’ chamain is chuir mi bàir leis,
Rug mi rithist air, is chuir mi bàir leis.”
These lines, of unknown provenance, are amongst the earliest recorded examples of shinty or stick and ball play in Gaelic verse. They provide a tantalising glimpse of shinty perhaps being played in an urban environment, given the reference to “sràid” (street), possibly in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries.
However, the most definite reference to shinty in the 1600s with respect to Glasgow, appears to be amongst the games forbidden on Sunday by the decree of the Kirk Session of Glasgow on April 24th, 1695. In the 1700s, shinty was clearly a favourite with the Scottish Lowland university students. Murray’s Memoires of the Old College of Glasgow, mentions how the camain (clubs) were obtained.
“Every boy had to find his own shinty stick,” Murray says. There was, in consequence, steady damage to the local hawthorn hedges in Glasgow as the boys made their own sticks from the bent hedge saplings, as generations had before them. These young college players, mostly from well-off Lowland families, probably also used these clubs for golf.
In 1781, in Glasgow, according to the Scottish National Dictionary all boys were to be discharged by their parents and Masters from playing tops, shinty, or using any diversion whatever upon the flags that may be incommodious to the inhabitants.
At this time, the Gaelic community in Glasgow was growing steadily. In 1811 a new church was built in Carlton Place. One of the most interesting and important accounts of a shinty match played at this time is relayed through Reverend Norman MacLeod’s alter ego of MacTalla (Echo). It is apparently an account of a match played in Glasgow at Machair Mòr an Righ (King’s Park) in 1830 at New Year.
The author recounts how three thousand people (Gall, or Lowlanders) viewed the match, which was attended on Christmas Day by “more than a thousand Highlanders with a piper at their head.”
Chan i an Nollaig ùr
A tha aca ‘measg nan dù-ghall,
A leanas sinne, ach dùthchas
Na dùthch’ as an d’ fhalbh sinn.
The scene portrayed is one of idyllic enjoyment in an urban environment.
Gach uair a rachadh am ball a thadhall, ghabhta sgailc de Mhac-an-Tòisich, agus dh’èirigheadh a’ phìob sìth rè tamuill. Mu thuiteam na h-oidhche thàinig sinn dhachaidh trom, sgìth ‘s am pìobaire a’ cluiche “Soraidh o slàn do ghillean an fhèillidh.”
The movement of people and goods from the Highlands to the burgeoning industrial economies of the Central Belt, brought with it a transference of language and culture which has been clearly identified. Shinty was, without doubt, part of that transference and given the wide range of social class representation within the movement, there was no shortage of players, or of people who were in a position to offer the game patronage in a number of ways. However, it should not be assumed that shinty appeared in Glasgow simply as a result of the mass movement of the populace. St Columba’s Church, post-1843, played a crucial role in the social fabric of the developing city.
With the increase of the Highland population, the Minister, Mr McDermid, summoned the young men of the congregation to visit and attend to old people in need. They formed a social group and for exercise played shinty in the field beyond the church.
Reverend MacLeod, meantime, maintained that his parish was the whole city of Glasgow. His obvious interest and delight in the people’s cultural heritage was certainly a reversal of the church’s traditional attitude to Celtic music and song.
The influx of Highlanders continued unabated and by the middle of the nineteenth century the Free Church Highland Committee estimated Glasgow’s Gaelic community as 45,000. The city could barely cope with the general mass of people arriving from the Highlands and beyond. The Famine of 1836-37 inflicted untold suffering on the Highlands and led to further migration to the cities, which were less than capable of sustaining the immediate influx. The Free Church of Scotland is said to have transported 3,000 Highlanders to the labour market of the Lowlands for seasonal employment in 1847. The railway mania which had begun two years earlier, had by now run its course, but was, no doubt, another factor in the movement of Highlanders to the Central Belt.
The Glasgow Celtic Society
However, the first real evidence of a drive towards organisation and sophistication in Glasgow in terms of shinty is on 31 October 1856, when a number of Highlanders in the city met and decided to form a Society for the purpose of “Preserving and promoting the language, literature, music, poetry, antiquities and athletic games of the Highlanders”. The Glasgow Celtic Society also offered bursaries to students of Highland descent, encouraged the wearing of Highland dress and assisted city Highlanders in need. According to tradition in Glasgow, which would appear to draw heavily on Reverend MacLeod’s account of the game at King’s Park in 1830, there was an earthenware jar filled with whisky placed at each goal in the shinty match at New Year. Every time a goal was scored, an interval was observed, a change of ends, and a “good swig out of the jar.” Church members, understandably, felt that the resultant melee could not be tolerated, so a decision was taken in 1856 to form the Glasgow Celtic Society, in an endeavour to regulate the game.
At the first AGM on 5th February, 1857, a Constitution and Rules for carrying out the Society’s objectives was drawn up and approved. Significantly, therefore, we find in John MacDougall’s collection of Gaelic verse, “Gaisge nan Gàidheal,” two poems in honour of those taking part in the “Athletic Games of the Highlanders of Scotland.” The first relates to shinty players at “Pairce na Linne,” Port-Glasgow, in 1856.
Bu ghasd’ an commandair
‘S bha Mac-‘Ille-dhuibh teann air
An àm dhol air ghleus:
Gach ceannard, le ‘roghainn,
‘Cur gheall mu na taoghail,
An àm dhol air adhart
An aghaidh a chèil’.
MacDougall’s account of the Highland Games in the second poem, “Moladh do Chomh-Chruinneachadh nan Gàidheal”, (In praise of the Highland Gathering) is highly stylised, detailing the heavy-weight events, the kilts and the bag-pipes, but not shinty. It is a poem in praise of those who took part in the “Old Celtic Competition” on “Pàirce an Taigh-Oilein” (Upper College Park) on August 5 and 6, 1858. This event was clearly the “Second Grand National Gathering of the Glasgow Celtic Society”, held in Glasgow, and advertised on a poster in June of the same year detailing the events.
By 1885, the Celtic Society was reported as having nearly 2,000 members and some 200 “Gentlemen” were reported as attending the Dinner. Times were changing rapidly, however, and the Glasgow Celtic Society, to its credit, acknowledged this. Some of the original aims gradually became less relevant and the constitution was amended at least five times thereafter.
Shinty was not an immediate priority when the Society was formed in 1876. The Old Vale and its Memories – incidents events and reminiscences of the Vale of Leven, records then, however, that the defeat of the Queen’s Park by the Vale of Leven was the greatest sensation football up to that time had known. It was only three years before then that Queen’s Park went down to Alexandria to show the Leven Valley stalwarts how to play Association football, shinty being the all-prevailing game there.
Vale of Leven appear to have been formed around 1856 and their players, along with those of Renton football club, also engaged in shinty. Their strength at the time reflected the concentration of sportsmen in the Alexandria, where the demand for labour in the textiles and shipbuilding industries was almost insatiable.
Both clubs experienced great success on the sporting field for a concentrated period in the last quarter of the century. Vale, in fact, were the more successful in shinty terms and issued a number of shinty challenges in their time:
Shinty players of the Vale of Leven, Dunbartonshire would be glad to have a match with the Inveraray, Badenoch, Lochaber, Inverness or Sutherland, men for £50 or £100 a side. Twenty players to play on each side; and they agree to take £15 and go any distance within 100 miles of Dumbarton or give that sum to any party who accepts the Challenge, and who agree to come to Vale of Leven to have it played out. Communications to John Sinclair, Seaforth House, Bridge of Allan, will be attended to.
The challenge appears to have died the death, however, but Vale left their mark on shinty in historical terms with a win in the Glasgow Celtic Society competition in its second year of play, 1880.
In November 1875, at a meeting in Hope Street, Glasgow, Comunn Camanachd Glaschu (The Glasgow Shinty Association or Club) was established under the auspices of the Glasgow Highland Association, membership being open only to members of that Association. In a letter to the Editor of The Oban Times, the legendary John G. MacKay, O.B.E., a merchant in Portree, details a famous New Year game in 1876, an event for which Màiri Ni ‘n Iain Bhàin, (Mary MacPherson), or Màiri Mhòr nan Oran, composed a stirring song.
The match was played at Queen’s Park, between teams with thirty players a side, one lot in the kilt, the other in knickerbockers – “with a bottle at each end of the field, with plenty bannocks and cheese”!
I am tonight, in the Highlander’s Great Hall in Glasgow; my sleeves rolled up to my shoulders, blinded with perspiration as I prepare and bake bannocks for the Hogmany lads; We go tomorrow to Queen’s Park – three score strong Highland lads; thirty in the kilt, and thirty in knickerbockers, with their sticks on their shoulders, pipers before and after them, and I with a horse and cart full of creels of bannocks, kebbocks of cheese as big as the moon, and a drop of Ferintosh to put spirit in the lads.
When the battle was fought, Màiri Mhòr’s song ends, “the heroes trod home, to the sound of the pipes to Hope Street.”:
‘S e ‘n sealladh as breagh’
A chunnaic mi riamh,
Gach òigear gun ghiamh ‘s a chòta dheth.
Gach fleasgach gun mheang,
‘S a chaman ‘na làimh,
‘S a’ chnapag le srann ‘ga fògar leò.
MacKay’s letter also touched on another, infinitely more contentious issue. So many had joined the Glasgow Club that it became overcrowded, and a dispute arose as to the dress to be worn at play. Some wanted to maintain the “nationality” of the club like the Edinburgh and London clubs, who always sported the kilt.
The greater part, however, preferred knickers, with the result that there was a division, the majority adopting the knickers. Ultimately, however, so many joined that it was found necessary to break up into district and other clubs. These included the Glasgow Cowal, Inveraray and other district clubs as well as the “Fàrdach Fhìnn” or the Fingal Lodge of Good Templars.
The Ossian club had been described in December, 1876, as ‘fast advancing towards a high point in proficiency of play and numbers’. There was a great spirit abroad in the world of Glasgow shinty and in the following year, A. Gray, Helensburgh, suggested the following as a motto on the presentation of a Silver Cup to the Glasgow Shinty Club.
An comunn Oiseineach mo rùn
Ann an Glasachu mòr man bùth;
Sìol nan gaisgeach thaitneach rium
Na fir shunndach, thogarach.
The dress sense (or otherwise) of shinty players, however, remarkably took up a considerable amount of the time of members of the Fingal Club, Comunn Camanachd Fhinn, which was formed in April, 1877 from members of the Fingal Lodge of Good Templars (Fardach
Fhinn) a Highland Lodge established three years earlier. Glasgow then became involved in one of the most colourful sporting controversies of the era. The “kilts versus knickerbockers controversy” was an issue which consumed shinty players and officials the length and breadth of the country. It was one which grew, ironically, out of a debate relating to language as much as to sartorial elegance.
The players of Fingal are reported to have used Gaelic as their means of communication whilst at play at Glasgow Green on Saturdays. However, in the Highlander of April 21, 1878, Mr A. G. Cameron not only protested against the early shinty clubs using the word camanachd, but also suggested that the Highland Camanachd Club of London should insist on its players wearing kilts at shinty games. Alastair MacLennan, secretary of the club, sought to close the debate by responding “a wearer of the kilt, when put hors de combat is anything but graceful, nay he is bare-ly decent.” The clothing controversy, for all its novelty, has to be seen as a local difficulty and by-product of the changing state of shinty and part of the development process which was overtaking shinty in the city at the time.
In the five years following the formation of Glasgow Camanachd Club four more clubs were created in Glasgow alone and a shinty association, governing the rules of play and cup competitions with contestants as far north as Glencoe. This pace of development was not matched anywhere else in shinty terms, and must have been given added impetus by the concentration of labour in the urban areas of the time. Had this impetus occurred to the same extent in the north, the initiatives which followed in urban areas would have transformed the early development of shinty. It would surely not have taken another thirteen years before a national association was formed.
The Glasgow Cowal club was formed early in March, 1877, when arrangements were being made by natives of Cowal and Inveraray resident in Glasgow, to form an exclusive shinty club to represent their districts – the famous Glasgow Cowal.
The Club was confined to the natives of the district of Cowal in Argyllshire, resident in the city; but after some years of exclusiveness the membership was thrown open to anyone, and the result was a large increase in numbers. Their first ground was on Glasgow Green, then Cessnock Park and now they are located at Moray Park, Strathbungo.
Glasgow Cowal fielded teams on at least seven occasions that year. At about the same time the Glasgow Inveraray Club had been formed, taking the number of clubs in the city to five.
The Glasgow Celtic Society Cup
The oldest organised competition in shinty, dating from April, 1879, when Glasgow Cowal, captained by A. McKellar, were the winners, defeating Glasgow Inveraray by six hails to nil. In the very same month, it is worth noting, London were playing one of their first important matches as an organised club, against Glasgow, at Summerton Park. The presence of a separate Shinty Association in Glasgow appears to have allowed the Celtic Society to distance itself from the game in its early years, and this may well be the explanation for the 23-year delay between the Society’s foundation and the competition which perpetuates the link between it and shinty. While the Celtic Cup competition clearly gave the game a new, if limited, organised impetus, the established rivalry between the city clubs continued.
The famous trophy has been won by many famous clubs now defunct. Vale of Leven, Glencoe, Furnace and the Glasgow clubs, Cowal, Caledonian, Skye and Inverness-shire are, unfortunately, no longer playing.
Since 1945, the Society’s fortunes have been guided by men who were distinguished in Gaelic and/or shinty circles. No fewer than five Presidents of the Camanachd Association have come from the Society’s Directorate in this time, Archibald MacPherson, Angus Cameron, Dr. John D. Murchison, Donald M. Skinner, and Duncan Cameron. This is a massive contribution to the game’s wider organisation which perhaps has not received due recognition.
At Ruthven when the sun was high
By the end of the century, greater mobility, mainly due to improved means of transport, helped to make the game more popular and gradually games began to be organised between clubs located at considerable distances apart. Eventually, the local rivalries began to be replaced with a more competitive, ambitious atmosphere, and nowhere more so than in Glasgow.
By the autumn of 1892 a host of clubs had come into existence, including in the Glasgow area, Vale of Leven, Lochgoilhead, and Glasgow Cowal. And it was Cowal who proved to be the catalyst for the game which was to be the final element in the chain of combustion which was to lead to the formation of the game’s ruling body the Camanachd Association. In the first week of April, 1893, Cowal and Kingussie met at Ruthven near Kingussie and within months, the formalities required to establish the game on a rational, organised footing took place.
The meeting took place at Kingussie on October 10, 1893, after letters had been sent to approximately 35 shinty clubs recognised at the time, inviting them to attend “for the purpose of forming a Camanachd Association.” The clubs who turned up, according to the Minute of that first meeting did not, in fact, include any from Glasgow, although letters of support however came from Glasgow Cowal amongst others.
Shinty was, towards the end of the nineteenth century, undergoing a complete renaissance, largely due to the impetus created in the urban centres of Glasgow, Edinburgh and the south. Changing work patterns were the main reason for the explosion of interest in shinty in the last two decades. The mass movement of Highlanders to the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow in particular in search of employment almost certainly provided shinty with an impetus which prevented it dying on its feet.
It is arguable that had not Glasgow Cowal, Renton, Vale of Leven and all the rest set the urban heather on fire, then shinty today might not be what it is. It would certainly not have developed the way it did south of a line drawn from Badenoch to Oban, through Ballachulish. It is significant, however, that only Glasgow Cowal took any formal part in the Formation of the Camanachd Association in October, 1893, and did so by means of a supporting letter.
Cowal, of course, made a dramatic impact on the early years of the Association, contesting the first ever Camanachd Cup Final, in 1896, going down to Kingussie. In that year, John MacKay produced the first ever pictures of play at a shinty match. In inviting his readers to a New Year’s Day game at Moray Park, Glasgow, on the forenoon of the lst January, MacKay sang the praises of his beloved Glasgow Cowal Shinty Club, and the way they wielded the caman at New Year. There was no event of greater importance.
The game’s premier event, the Camanachd Association Challenge Cup Final, eventually came to be played in Glasgow in 1909. The immediate post-War years saw a flurry of shinty activity in Glasgow. An active
Southern league programme that attracted considerable press interest swept the game along, despite the difficulties faced by shinty throughout the country. At this point, Paisley, who had been playing since at least 1908, were still regularly fielding a team and Skye regularly met Blawarthill Argyll. The drawn Celtic Cup Final against Glasgow Skye in 1922 and replay which Kyles won 2-1 were seen as “the means of stimulating interest in the ancient game in the south.”
The formation of Glasgow Mid Argyll in 1923, under the name Blawarthill Argyll, (named after a farm where the club played) clearly provided shinty in Glasgow with a new impetus. Playing membership was confined to players from Mid Argyll in the club’s earlier years. In the late twenties the club changed its name to Glasgow Mid Argyll and extended membership to Tighnabruaich, Oban and Ballachulish. Mid Argyll then emerged as Southern league champions several times and won the league trophy, the Fraser Cup. The first Glasgow Celtic Society win came in 1930 against a team of the calibre of Oban.
During this period, Blawarthill claimed to have taken over as the number one team in Glasgow, Edinburgh and North Bute, consistently winning the Southern league. Skye, however, consistently contested their pre-eminence.
The second World War called a general halt to all shinty activities. On the cessation of hostilities great difficulties were encountered in endeavours to restart the game in Glasgow. However, in the post-war game an extraordinary transformation took place, brawn gave way to brain, and in the fifties and sixties onwards the game became more of a science. Speed, team understanding and enhanced skills were being highly appreciated by discerning enthusiasts.
The Glasgow team continued to flourish, but were unlucky to always clash with Kyles Athletic, in the Camanachd Cup and on most occasions, had to acknowledge Kyles as masters.
The 1950s and 1960s were arguably the low point of shinty in Glasgow. Had it not been for the Universities and a number of dedicated individuals who kept clubs with territorial allegiance alive, then shinty may well have died out in Glasgow during this period. Perhaps the team with the longest name in shinty was formed due to the employment security offered by the constabulary of the City of Glasgow. From 1963, until May, 1975 and local government reorganisation the “bobbies” were officially known as “City of Glasgow Police Athletic Association, Shinty Section”. They eventually, and thankfully, became Strathclyde Police.
As part of the Camanachd Association’s deliberations on its own well-being, the 1968 AGM invited representatives of the “Other Shinty Associations” to the meeting, with a view to discussing their proposed affiliation to the Association. A delegation from the “others” met the Executive and after discussion, it was recommended to the AGM that all Shinty Associations should affiliate to the Camanachd Association. This may have seemed something of a cosmetic exercise, but the amalgamation of bodies administering the game was an important step and Glasgow Celtic Society Office-Bearers played a key role in the development of shinty in its wider aspects thereafter.
At rain-swept Claggan in Fort William, in 1973, Glasgow Mid Argyll achieved its greatest single triumph, winning the Camanachd Cup, for the first time by a City team. This was a remarkable victory by a side consisting of players from all over the Highlands, Rothesay, Tighnabruaich, Taynuilt, Newtonmore, Strachur and Foyers, under the inspiration of a great captain, the late Iain McMillan. The 4-2 success came against formidable opponents, Kingussie, and against all the odds. The 1973 win should have proved a tremendous boost to the game in Glasgow and the south area. For a variety of reasons, however, the mid-and late 1970s witnessed a decline in the fortunes of shinty in Glasgow although the University students did their best to challenge for honours at junior level. In the late 1980s there was something of a resurgence in the City’s shinty fortunes with the emergence of Strathkelvin Boys Club, with the sons of former Mid Argyll stalwarts and other Argyll sources, shaping up to take over their fathers’ positions as the nucleus of a once again great City club.
During the first half of last century, shinty in Glasgow led the development of shinty and clearly the high point of Glasgow shinty to date, undoubtedly was the twenty five or so years from the late fifties to the early eighties although national supremacy, the true test and measure of success, was never sustained.
Shinty in Glasgow has regularly been in a very precarious state. A national premier league means that players aspire to heights Glasgow shinty can only occasionally offer. It is a vicious circle. If Glasgow teams are not in the top flight, they will not be able to attract the quality players required to get them there or enable them to stay there. What is needed is a steady indigenous supply of players. There must be a critical mass of players available within each age to make competitive play possible and ensure progression to the senior ranks. Otherwise, children who are deprived of meaningful participation will lose interest and enthusiasm and the supply of players to the adult game will be insufficient to keep the clubs alive. There is cause for optimism, however. Local coaching initiatives with the support of the game’s governing body the Camanachd Association, the Glasgow Celtic Society and strong links with the Glasgow Gaelic School are maintaining interest among young players. Glasgow University continues to be a strong presence amongst students.
Shinty, however, requires a playing space which it can call “home” and which can host major shinty events such as international matches and Cup Finals.
Historically, numerically, through its participation in the game’s competitions and the game’s administration, Glasgow’s contribution to shinty has been immense, and under-valued. The words of the 1952 Camanachd Cup Final Programme are as valid now as they were then.
This story (shinty in Glasgow) reveals a record unsurpassed in zeal and devotion for our national game.
Factionalism and conservatism still threaten to destroy the best laid plans. The first and simplest step might well be to create a new identity for the city’s representatives in terms of top grade shinty. That should logically be “Glasgow” above all else. The consequences of failure for the game at large are, however, almost too bleak to contemplate.