Meeting shinty’s ‘greatest ever player’

Ronald Ross has lifted the Camanachd Cup 11 times. Picture: Peter Jolly
Ronald Ross has lifted the Camanachd Cup 11 times. Picture: Peter Jolly
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when I get off the train in the strange town and the subject of this week’s interview isn’t there to meet me and I’ve no way of contacting him because my phone doesn’t work owing to the all-encompassing beauty of them thar hills, I would under normal circumstances have a problem. This afternoon, though, I can simply cross the car park and present myself at the hotel, inform the management I’m looking for Kingussie’s most famous son, and they’ll rev up the landline to find Ronald Ross for me.

These are not normal circumstances because Ross, his fame, his brilliance and now his sheer bloody longevity in the sport of shinty, aren’t normal. He’s Mr Shinty, the scorer of 1000-plus goals, the winner of 11 Camanachd Cups and going for his 12th today, and he seems to have been around for ever. “No one knows quite how old he is,” says my shinty source. “He’s been 38 for a while now.”

Almost an hour after the appointed time, Ross shows up. Expecting someone ancient, with perhaps a creaking back matching the curve of a caman, the shinty stick, I’m surprised when he turns out to be tall, upright, muscular and sharp-featured. “Sorry I’m late,” he says, “but the traffic was terrible.” We’re standing close to the Kingussie’s level-crossing. There are no trains and certainly no cars but I believe him. He’s got a big area to cover in his role as a development officer for shinty – from the Western Isles across to Aberdeen and all of the Central Belt – and right now a fair old job on his hands, combating computer games, sexy Highlands football and youth indolence.

We drive up through the town and everyone we pass – though this is Badenoch, not Bombay, so three in all – waves at him. After the third wave he says: “I dinna ken who half these folk are.” This seems unlikely. He’s Ronald Ross, MBE. He’s Ronaldo of the Glens. “With a heavy stick made of ash,” goes the song written in tribute, “the greatest player the game has seen.”

In today’s final at Bught Park, Inverness, it’s Ross’s Kingussie versus Glenurquhart. The Camanachd is shinty’s big day out, its primetime moment, when big-jessie Lowlanders can wonder and wince at the sport’s athleticism, bravery and lunacy. As part of my research I watched some clips on YouTube. One showed a goalkeeper saving a penalty-hit by heading away the whizzing missile. Staying upright, he simply rubbed what must have been a sizable egg before being mobbed by jubilant team-mates. Ross remembers the incident. “Technically, that should have been another 
penalty,” he says. This is one hard, hard game, oh yes.

“Like Wilson of the Wizard crossed with Warlord.” This is my deep-throat again, describing Ross again, while bringing me up to speed with his current form. How he’s been battling injuries which – whisper it – might just be catching up with him, stepping out of the firing line to play in defence, dropping down to the second team. Then came the Camanachd semi-final against Fort William. It was as if he’d been cryogenically frozen for this moment. “Kingussie were heading out but he got one chance and just bulleted it,” says my contact. “He’s the best finisher in shinty there’s ever been.” Ross netted in the penalties, and again in sudden-death. You wouldn’t have put your head in the way of one of those rockets.

Not so much Wilson/Warlord, Ross right now looks like any other bloke in a tracksuit with a big telly tuned to Sky Sports News. We’re in what I assume to be his living-room but it turns out this is the home of his father Ian, who appears carrying a plateful of fried eggs. “I hope you’re not trying to flog renewable heat incentives,” he says before disappearing again, “because you’ll have a job getting a sale oot o’ this boy.”

Ian, a big shinty man, one Camanachd winners’ medal to his name, encouraged the lad. Well, Ross laughs, “encouraged” is one word for it. “He was a hard taskmaster, very authoritarian.” The Alex Ferguson of Badenoch and Strathspey? “I think he was probably even tougher than Fergie. He worked for the water board and if he ever passed the wee school and saw us playing football he’d run out of his van, boot the ball over the wall and shout: ‘Go and get your shinty sticks!’

Ian, along with some like-minded shinty nuts, re-invigorated the Kingussie club when it was in the doldrums. The old man started with the kids and then managed the seniors. England’s national football team have contrived to discredit the term “golden generation” through repeated failure, but in this corner of the Highlands the phrase really means something. From 1987, 20 league titles in a row got Kingussie into the Guinness Book of Records as the most successful team in the history of world sport. The boy, initially not picked by his father for fear of charges of nepotism, shattered other records with his stupendous 
scoring feats.

We should say here that Ross wasn’t dragged kicking and screaming into shinty. In fact, we should say that he’s absolutely and completely thirled to the game. He loves it, pure and simple, which is why he can heave his body onto the pitch and into another vortex of wild swinging. He can put no more gloss on it than that.

A footballer with his strike rate would say he loves hitting the back of the net. A show-off would play up shinty’s macho appeal. A pretentious man would strive for a philosophical answer. “I just love sport and being part of a team,” says Ross, trying to minimise his contribution, and admitting he’ll turn 40 next month. “I hate Saturdays when I’m not playing. I’ve had every kind of injury you could think of. I even love training. Last night we had this Marine guy taking the session. It was a torture-chamber but afterwards you felt good.”

He thinks he might be a little bit obsessed. So does the day when he’s no longer playing scare him? “Aye, I’m dreading it. When you retire you’re kind of finished.”

Ross lives in the house next door and his younger brother, also called Ian, in the one next to that. Both were built on land which used to be the boys’ little private shinty pitch, hastily put in place by their father when they started smashing too many windows. Eventually his brother drifted. “He got more into trucks and things,” says Ross, who stayed true. The townsfolk all have stories about passing the pitch and seeing him practice his shooting in semi-darkness and all weathers. This stuff just feeds the myth of Ross as a Highland comic-book hero or a porridge-packet cover-star or a brawny country lad like the one in that sugary 1950s movie Geordie, running through heather to train for the Olympics. He simply shrugs and calls it dedication. And others will have shown it too, he stresses. All-conquering Kingussie, with their 
Camanachds and Grand Slams, had to be a team effort.

Playground football apart, was he ever seduced by other sports? Ross was more than good at tennis, would clean up on the northern summer circuit when shinty was still a winter game, and got to know the Murrays, Andy and Jamie, when he coached a contemporary, Elgin’s Keith Meisner. But he couldn’t even be seduced by the undergraduate lifestyle when studying for his sports degree in Edinburgh. “There was a big party scene at the college and the other students couldn’t understand why I always went back up the road at weekends but I had my shinty.”

These days down at the Dell, Kingussie aren’t the force they were, fierce rivals Newtonmore are enjoying some domination, and the standard at the top end of the game isn’t as high. “I don’t know why,” says Ross. He’s manager of the national team for next month’s composite-rules double-header against Ireland’s hurlers and picking a 19-man squad good enough for the speedy opposition will be a “challenge”. One theory is that shinty has placed too much emphasis on the physical. “You can be the fastest guy in the world but that’s no good if you canna hit the ball.”

I dare to ask if he’s worried about his beloved sport. “No no, it’s not going to die,” he insists, finding optimism for the future among the young. He says this despite some evidence to the contrary. Youngsters have many more options now, including the option of doing nothing. There’s the dreaded Health & Safety: “We’ve had kids being told they can’t bring their shinty sticks to school.” There’s the occasional sprouting of football and rugby posts on schoolfields: “If I was a PE teacher who went down to Galashiels and stuck up shinty goals they’d think I was mad. There’s nothing wrong with kids playing other sports but you have to remember if you come to Badenoch that football can’t really compete because shinty will always be stronger.” Inverness Caley-Thistle and Ross County may be doing well right now, but he cautions parents who’re sold the “dream” of their boy becoming a superstar by any football club. “Very few ever make it. Most will end up being binned.”

So to today’s Camanachd. Ross has won it so often but reckons he’s as hungry for his 12th triumph as he was for his first. Back then, he said he wasn’t so interested in shinty’s history, this being something for his father, but maybe that’s changed since he’s gone on to make so much of it himself. Like all histories, there have been dark chapters. In the newspaper cuttings I find sinister mention of £100 rewards being offered to anyone able to remove Ross from the pitch. “I think that was just paper talk,” he says, not one for embroidering his own mythology. Nevertheless, there appeared to be something pre-meditated about how he was clobbered within the first ten seconds of a game against Newtonmore, leaving him with two black eyes and needing 12 stitches. “I suppose that was a bad one. For a while, the doctors were worried about my sight.”

Then there was the 2008 Camanachd final where, according to my contact, Fort William were ganging up on him in threes and one of their players “could have been sent off eight times”. Now we’re back among the comic-strips and picturing this Ron of the Rovers, misbegotten opponents vainly trying to hang onto his hurdies, as he bounces the ball three times on his caman before unleashing another mighty hit. “Ach, that game wasn’t so bad,” he says, “although you probably mean Adam Robertson who was stamping on my feet and ended up pulling down my shorts.

“Funnily enough, we were at Euro 96 together, the England-Scotland match at Wembley. Things were a bit frosty between us after the incident but we’ve sorted it out now.”

We shouldn’t get the wrong idea about shinty. It’s an amateur game between proud towns and villages more often than not played in a great spirit. And if the Camanachd is won on the Saturday how do the victors celebrate? “Well, the Sunday’s a big thing,” he says, “and obviously the Monday and some of the boys will go on ’til the Tuesday… ”

It’s time for my train home and on the hurl back to the station, with more waving from the locals, Ross chats about his strange new-found passion for UFC – the Ultimate Fighting Championship – and his girlfriend Ruth. I ask if he’ll ever leave Kingussie and the house with Dad on one side and brother on the other. “You never know,” he says. “I quite liked Edinburgh during my college days but I’m not so sure I could live there. It’s too busy and I’d miss the mountains.”

Then he tells me about his mother. Belle hailed from Newtonmore and it was a joke among her clan that Ross’s shinty excellence had been a gift from the rival town, but she died two years ago. “She was in a car accident. Two boys were racing each other and Mum came round a corner to be met by four headlights. The other drivers were all right and so was Dad but she seemed to take it all. She was intensive care for ages. Just about every bone was broken. I looked after her for a long time but there were complications.

“I was really close to her, she was my soul-mate. She thought shinty was too rough but she came to games because she knew I liked her being there and she was proud when we won. They say time heals but I’m not sure you ever really get over something like this. I think about her all the time.”

Ross doesn’t say as much because this is a beautiful but undemonstrative part of the world and the displays of emotion and talk of “journeys” which TV reality shows have turned into common currency are still mercifully alien. But you might think that in being so keen to get re-acquainted with shinty’s greatest prize again, he wants as much as anything to win it for Mum.