Insight: The women breaking the mould in a sport steeped in Gaelic machismo

Aberdour Shinty Club. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Aberdour Shinty Club. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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When Wendy Chamberlain became the first woman to join the board of the Camanachd Association (the body that governs Scottish shinty), people kept telling her how proud her grandfather would have been.

It seemed like a safe assumption: Celly Paterson was a legend of the sport, a chieftain of the association during the 1980s as well as a well-kent writer of Scottish songs such as Home To The Kyles.

Scotland on Sunday Insight- Shinty, Aberdour Shinty Club Wendy Chamberlain

Scotland on Sunday Insight- Shinty, Aberdour Shinty Club Wendy Chamberlain

But Chamberlain is not so sure. “My father reminded me my grandfather once donated a cup for a competition at Tighnabruaich Primary School with the stipulation that girls were not allowed to play,” she says. “And when his son produced two daughters, he wasn’t best pleased. There was a real patriarchal strain running through shinty that has only changed in the last 25 years.”

Perhaps it has something to do with Highland Presbyterianism, but, until the late 1990s, the idea of women playing shinty was unthinkable. Chamberlain is 41; shinty is in her blood. Her father, Billy Paterson, also played for Kyles Athletic and one of her earliest memories is of him playing in the Camanachd Cup final in 1983.

“My dad was a police officer in Greenock and he once rescued a man from drowning in the James Watt dock,” she says. “I remember the newspapers made a big thing of him being this big, brave shinty player. I was really proud of him. My cousins, who are all boys, played shinty too, but I don’t remember any encouragement to play myself. Boys did boy things and girls did girl things: that’s just how it was.”

Things are very different now. As the Camanachd Association celebrates its 125th anniversary, women and girls are integral to the future of the sport, with female clubs flourishing and a rise in participation. The number of adult female players rose from 224 in 2015 to 423 last year; the number of female youth players from 122 to 337.

Chamberlain’s daughter, Catriona, and son, Alasdair, are both members of Aberdour club in Fife – itself founded by a female player, Lisa McColl, in 2001 – and Chamberlain herself has started to play with the club’s female development team, which brings together mothers and daughters. Their home matches take place on the daisy-spattered Silver Sands pitch which looks out towards the Firth of Forth.

Lorna Cooper’s two daughters, Raine, 13, and Rowan, 11, are also now members of Aberdour. Like Billy Paterson, Lorna’s father played shinty for Kyles Athletic when evacuated from Glasgow to Tighnabruaich during the Second World War (and later for Glasgow Mid-Argyll) but Lorna never got a chance to play even though she was sporty.

“To have the opportunity now is brilliant. I just wish I was 20 years younger,” she says. “Even my mother, who is 80 and grew up in Glendaruel [in Argyll], says she would have liked to have played. She went to the matches and knitted jumpers for the goalie, but it just wasn’t the done thing for a girl to take part.”

Raine, who represented the south of Scotland under-14s in this year’s clash against the north of Scotland, and helps coach the primary ones, says she likes shinty because it is so physical and not many people in Fife know about it. “Friends often ask me: ‘What is shinty? Is it like hockey? Is it like golf?’ I like making it a bit more popular,” she says. Rowan likes the fact there aren’t too many rules. “I like the rough part of it. You can swing your stick so much.”

The whole family enjoys travelling to locations throughout Scotland; to places like Oban, Fort William and Kingussie. “We see towns we might otherwise not get to see,” says Lorna.

Like women’s football, the sport has grown in status as well as popularity. Just a few weeks ago, the final of the Valerie Fraser Camanachd Cup (the women’s top award) between Skye and Badenoch and Strathspey was broadcast live for the first time on BBC Alba.

Sports broadcaster Hugh Dan MacLennan, who commentated on that match, says the speed with which women’s shinty has grown has taken him by surprise.

“I am from a fairly traditional Highland background and shinty was everything to us. But if you had said to me when I was at university in the 70s that within 20-odd years there would be women’s teams, I would have been astonished.

“Back then women’s involvement would have been limited to making the tea, taking the tickets, but it has come on leaps and bounds.”

MacLennan says he approached the cup final commentary with some trepidation.

“I didn’t know what it would be like because I don’t see women’s games that often,” he says. “But I have to say they gave us one of the best televised matches we have had in ages. The skill level was enormously high.”

Sports based around curved sticks and balls date back to ancient times. Roger Hutchinson, author of Camanachd! The Story Of Shinty, describes a carving on the base of a 4BC Greek pedestal, which appears to show two or three men about to start a game of hockey or shinty.

Closely related to Irish hurling, shinty is said to have come to Scotland with St Columba. For centuries, large, unruly games were played in villages across the country, particularly on New Year’s Day when teams of up to 50 men would chase the ball until midnight. “Hockey without the rules,” as Dr Johnson dubbed it.

Shinty has survived throughout the generations despite royal edicts against “uncontrollable games”, Sabbatarianism, which prevented games being played on a Sunday, and middle class school teachers who stamped on all things Gaelic.

As with other team sports, it was the Victorians who began to codify and organise it into cups and leagues and the Camanachd Association was set up in 1893. “There was a time you would have said shinty was in trouble, but it’s done very well over the last 30 years,” says Hutchinson. “It’s amateur. It couldn’t sustain a professional angle, but it’s been reintroduced in places like Lewis, where it had died out, and, of course, girls have started playing which has helped.”

So when did girls and women start making incursions into the sport? While doing a school project on shinty, Chamberlain’s children unearthed some articles from shinty year books of the 1970s. In one headlined “Watch Out Boys, Revolution’s in the Air as Shinty Widows Stage a Takeover”, Liz MacInnnes – secretary of the Inverness club, joint secretary of the North of Scotland Association and secretary and treasurer of the Referees’ Association – gives readers an insight into some of the discrimination women face. “Many of the men treat us as a joke,” she says, “and are loath to listen to our opinions.” Another feature shows a girl in flares wielding a shinty stick. “The fair maiden’s determination here poses the question: who is wearing the trousers here?” the caption reads.

Despite these pieces, it was 1995 before the first women’s team – Danadd in Lochgilphead – was formed and the early 2000s before women’s shinty really began to take off. The first matches were played against teams from Irish Camogie (the female equivalent of hurling) because there weren’t enough female shinty teams.

MacLennan says the move towards including girls – especially in schools – was practical rather than ideological. “You need 12 for a shinty team. The falling birth rate meant many primary schools could no longer field a full team of boys, so they started to say: ‘We’ll play a couple of girls’. It wasn’t any kind of mad rush towards feminism, it was a pragmatic, practical approach to a demographic change.”

There was also a decision to change the shinty season from winter to summer.

There are now many female players who can give their male peers a run for their money. Take Kirsty Deans who scored the first Cup Final goal for Strathspey and Badenoch (they went on to win 4-1) and then played football for Forfar Farmington against Hibs in the first ever televised SWPL league match a few days later. Or Sarah Corrigall, who scored four goals for Skye Ladies to help clinch the 2018 Marine Harvest National Division league title.

Women are also increasingly becoming coaches and referees; in the cup final, all the match officials – the ref, two goal judges and four line judges – were women. “There is a shortage of shinty referees, so they could easily be refereeing the men’s matches. Indeed, there is one girl already refereeing at 
the lower end of the scale,” says MacLennan.

As Hutchinson points out, one counter-intuitive legacy of the absence of women from the sport for most of the 20th century, is that no-one ever thought to legislate against them. Thus, there are now fewer restrictions on mixed sex teams than in, say, football.

Some of the top female players play – or have played – for men’s second teams or reserves; Corrigall, for example, used to play for the Skye second team. As Chamberlain points out, this too was mostly logistical. As shinty is an amateur sport with a lot of travel involved, and players have to earn a living, it can be difficult to field a full team every week, so female players may be asked to make up the numbers.

When the likes of MacLennan talk about Corrigall they make it sound as if she has been around for decades; but she is only 27. A tomboy, who desperately wanted to play shinty with the lads, she was lucky to grow up in a small community on Skye, surrounded by people who nurtured her ambitions. There was the head teacher of her primary school who encouraged her, for instance, and her uncle and coach, Alasdair Morrison, who, much to her distress, died the day before the cup final.

Despite all this support, Corrigall was one of only two or three girls in the island who played in primary. The nearest women’s team was Glengarry in Invergarry – two and a half hours away – so, as she grew older, she kept on playing with the boys.

“In high school, I pushed myself to be as good as them, because I knew if I was not as good, I would not get to play as it’s so competitive,” she says.

At 13, at an away match in Invergarry, she was asked to join their girls’ team. And so she spent her teenage years playing with Skye men’s second team on a Saturday and travelling across the country to play for Glengarry on a Sunday.

Now she plays for Skye Ladies, which formed in 2011. Although she thinks playing with the men made her tougher and quicker, she has not done so since suffering an injury at the age of 19.

“The change since I started has been has been massive,” she says. “Like I said, back then, there were only one or two other girls playing on Skye, but Portree High School set up a girls’ team and now nearly every school on the island has one.

“That is the reason Skye Ladies could form. And there are women’s teams in other places too: Kinlochshiel, Lochaber, Fort William. So now girls and women can stay at home and play.”

Another woman central to the growth of women’s shinty has been the aforementioned Lisa McColl. Originally from Fife, she started playing shinty while working in Tighnabruaich and continued while doing a degree at Strathclyde University. She got involved with the Camanachd Association and joined the working group to set up the Women’s Camanachd Association, becoming its first female president in 2002.

She stepped away in 2011/12, but in 2014, after the girls’ game had taken a bit of a dip, she was asked to come back to cover a vacancy and drive the game forward.

Under her, the association reshuffled the existing leagues, restructured the committee and introduced three female development leagues in an attempt to keep girls playing as they move into secondary.

“Since then our membership has grown,” says McColl, who is still president. “We probably had ten or 11 clubs, each with one team, and we are now at 20 clubs with 36 teams. We needed to change, but we have also been in the right place at the right time because, since 2014, women in sport has been high on the agenda and we have ridden that wave”

Of course, because shinty is an amateur sport, there isn’t that money involved. MacLennan puts the game’s turnover at around £500,000 a year, and he says there is still a degree of tension over how resources are split. “The women would probably think they are not getting a fair crack of the whip.”

Still, for a sport that, 25 years ago, would have been aghast at the thought of a woman with a shinty stick, there seems to be very little discrimination. While men of Chamberlain’s father’s generation may still raise the odd eyebrow, the women appear to have won over most of the doubters.

“Och, I am sure you could find people in shinty, the same as you could in rugby and football, who would say the women are not as good and they’ll never be as good, but these people have almost certainly never been to a game,” says MacLennan.

“I think if they had watched the cup final, they would have been pleasantly surprised.”