By KEITH MACKENZIE
The close season troubles of two shinty clubs in contrasting regions of the game serve as a timely reminder of the challenges facing the sport ahead of a return to competitive action this weekend.
A fortnight ago Inverness, from the booming Highland capital, indicated that senior resources had been stretched to the point that they could no longer field a team capable of dealing with the rigours of the National Division and would need to drop out of the league.
The city club asked to field their two respective teams in the junior ranks of north divisions one and two – having been concerned that their younger players aren’t yet ready to make the step up to compete in the second senior tier of the sport.
Inverness insist better times are on the horizon, pointing to a burgeoning shinty academy project which is now coaching over 350 youngsters at some 15 different schools within the ever-expanding city.
In an area of many competing interests, and one where the sport has never previously caught on – at least in the modern age – only time will tell whether the efforts will eventually bear fruit at senior level.
But across in rural Cowal they can only dream of having such raw numbers from which to recruit.
Just a few days ago shinty’s governing body were told they would need to alter the fixture list again after Strachur made the reluctant decision to pull out of South Division Two – a league they won last year but from which they had refused to accept promotion because of consistent team-raising struggles.
Strachur may be from a traditional heartland of the sport, but history and goodwill can’t mask 21st-century demographics.
The conundrum facing them is familiar to anyone who knows the western Highlands – their local primary school has fewer than 40 pupils, the population is ageing, second and holiday homes limit the supply of affordable housing while industries like forestry and farming, which once provided significant employment for young adults, are in decline.
Strachur are not an isolated case, but when any team falls into abeyance the inevitable cries to ‘do something’ will fall on the sport’s authorities.
The Camanachd Association say they are committed to helping all clubs, but there is no silver bullet.
Funding and sponsorship has been secured to pay for development officers to grow the game at youth level, and shinty has become an integral part of the curriculum at one school with more set to follow, while the governing body say they are open to all ideas on league structures and match scheduling if it helps to foster the sport as a whole.
“If we look at Inverness, it’s not ideal that the decision has come so late in the day, but there is rationale behind it,” said the Camanachd Association’s chief executive officer Derek Keir.
“With Strachur all we can do is sympathise and hope that they can come back in the future. We’ll support them – we have development officers in the area to try to do what they can.
“But what we are talking about is a very rural community, who’ve experienced a drop in their young population and who have seen school rolls fall.
“It’s the opposite of what’s happening in Inverness, and it adds greater depth to the challenge. There are several areas where shinty is played experiencing the same demographic changes.
“We are trying to make positive steps – that involves getting coaches and development officers into schools and at youth level.
“Last year we created the first shinty school in Scotland at Kingussie High, where shinty is now part of the curriculum. In the next 12 months we want to have at least a further three schools taking a similar approach.
“This is a project that won’t just be targeted at kids already playing shinty, but at others who could be attracted into the sport.
“The young ambassador programme -where senior students provide coaching and leadership within their own secondary schools – is also doing great work. There are positive things happening.”
Numbers playing the game at youth level are growing, and so too are the number of women players – a trend which has helped secure a four-year funding package from sportscotland to sustain a team of four development officers throughout the country.
Keir adds that all the major competitions also have sponsorship – through MOWI, Tulloch Homes, Liberty BA and cottages.com – and that BBC and BBC Alba continue to be committed to televising the sport’s top occasions, including the women’s Camanachd Cup final which was broadcast live for the first time in 2018.
Shinty’s finances, development structure and public profile are all relatively healthy, then. But in a world where there are so many competing demands on youngsters’ attention, shinty isn’t any different from other indigenous aspects of Highland culture.
Like Gaelic, traditional music, or even crofting, the sport’s fate ultimately rests on whether individuals within the game’s communities will choose to play, coach, encourage, spectate, officiate or administrate.
On the eve of the new season, let’s hope that the call is answered.