Armistice Day

The Camanachd Association, the governing body of shinty, is this week remembering the contribution made by the shinty playing communities to World War 1. 

The Great War of 1914-1918 made a universal call on the youth and manhood of the British Empire.  No part made a greater response than from Scotland, and especially the Highlands where it is estimated that the numerical equivalent of perhaps fifteen shinty teams in all were lost - several hundreds all at once. 

Sons of a fighting race, imbued with the spirit of loyalty and patriotism, players readily joined the fighting forces, and amongst these were the best and brightest players in the game – the youngest and fittest men of their generation. 

When war was declared in August 1914, camanachd clubs had been starting to make preparations for the championship competition. Shinty players, who were the most athletically fit of young men, joined the colours in great numbers, as the Camanachd Association's Roll of Honour shows.  

Keith Loades, the Association's current President said:  "Sadly, in the grim years of war, many shinty players in the Highlands and beyond made the supreme sacrifice.   We should remember that it was not just in this area or even the Highlands that shinty players went to war as, for example, a memorial in a London church shows. There is hardly a shinty playing community that did not lose a whole generation of players. It is to the credit of these communities that their resilience has seen them overcome the losses and maintain the traditions being upheld by these men at the time. Our sport has marked the contribution and impact of World War 1 and indeed World War 2 through the Shinty's Heroes performances over the last four years and anyone travelling throughout the Highlands and islands can see the impact on the war and our sport in the shape of the numerous war memorials where our soldiers and shinty players are listed.  The Centenary of the end of the war is another significant milestone for us, coming as we mark our 125th anniversary as an organisation.  Just as in 1918 and 1919 it is now time to move on once again." 

The Battle of Festubert, 16 and 17 May 1915 hit shinty  particularly hard. Many of the 4th Camerons were from Skye, the Outer Islands and the Inverness-shire glens.  From the village of Portree alone 26 boys lost their lives.  In the final count, ten Kingussie men lost their lives as a result of those two nights at Festubert.   

The casualty list and impact on shinty communities was simply horrendous.  At the battle of Loos in September 1915, the first two lines of the 5th Camerons were annihilated by heavy machine gun fire. Of over 800 men and 20 officers who went over the top, only 2 officers and 70 men were left. Many who died were shinty players. 

So, to sum up, most shinty-playing communities had lost players. Kingussie in particular suffered, as did Newtonmore.  The Beauly club was reported to have lost as many as 25 men. Ballachulish and the surrounding area in Argyll was also hard hit.  In Fort William, at least 112 men were lost and in Skye and Tighnabruaich the shinty clubs lost the equivalent of at least two teams’ playing strengths.   Perhaps up to 13-15 teams in all in playing strength and they included Newtonmore's Dr Johnnie Cattanach, widely held to be the greatest shinty player ever - "a prince amongst shinty players" - who died at Gallipoli and was buried at sea. 

The War memorial in Tighnabruaich has 49 names recorded and the Kingussie memorial has 60 names of men who made the ultimate sacrifice in World War one. Many of them were shinty players - 109 men lost in these circumstances from two small communities is beyond our comprehension. It is credit to the strength and resolve of the people left that both communities and their sport thrive and flourish a century on. 

At the Annual General Meeting of the Camanachd Association in Inverness on September 15, 1919, the Chief, Lord Lovat, moved that a Roll of Honour of shinty players who fell in the war be drawn up and inserted in the Book of the Constitution of the Association. It was also agreed that steps be taken to foster the playing of shinty in Highland schools.    

The rallying call went out and, to some extent, shinty came alive as people strove to return their lives to normality.  It was time to move on. However, little did any of the players and administrators of the day know that within another decade or two, another generation of shinty players would be lost to a second World War.

Dr Hugh Dan MacLennan.  

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