The opportunity to celebrate the birthday and life of a shinty player reaching the mighty age of 95 is a rare and welcome occurrence. And there can be nobody in the shinty world who will not join in sending the Laird of the Bught Park, Denis Swanson, the very best of wishes on Tuesday May 19.
In these heady days when the future of the famous Bught Park is the subject of some heated debate, sometimes attracting more heat than light, there is no-one who can claim more territorial rights to that venerable green swathe than Denis Swanson, who still lives around a half mile from the City centre.
It was here in 1925, three years before the photograph above was taken showing the west end of the Inverness town area, that Denis was born, in the Coach House of the old Bught Hotel in the former grounds of which the Inverness Ice Rink stands. For Denis, the vast arena which has now become the iconic field of dreams for most shinty players who want to play in the best of circumstances, was his playground, long before stands were erected, and before American or other football goalposts rooted on his beloved shinty pitch.
Growing up in this area as the pitch developed as a shinty area, it was inevitable that Denis would be attracted to shinty and to Inverness, which were in his teenage years, a formidable team competing in an age when the likes of Caberfeidh and Newtonmore were in their pomp. Inverness were, indeed, good enough to reach the Camanachd Cup Final in 1938, losing to Oban Camanachd in Oban.
The year before then, Denis had gone to Inverness High School where he soon came under the wing of some of the men who were to make their way as legends of the game in the town before him, Willie MacPherson and Willie MacPhee. No sooner had he got into the team than the school won the MacKay cup which at the time was open to schools in the Inverness, Croy and Ardersier areas. The final was, fittingly, played at the Bught and is counted as the first of many big moments Denis had is a monumental career. A year later, in 1939, Denis had his first taste of commercial action at the Bught, in the last final before War took shinty into the second of its darkest periods in he 20th century. Caberfeidh defeated Kyles 2-1 min a notable final at the Bught and Denis was one of the young lads selling match programmes to the crowd, which was, remarkably, estimated at 7,000.
As a schoolboy, shinty survived to a degree as local games were organised to occupy their time and when peace finally broke out, Denis embarked on the most successful years of his playing career. He became a member of a splendid Inverness squad which was to make its mark at the highest level of the game.
Dennis’ first game for Inverness was at the playing fields of Fort Augustus Abbey where the local village team played, and this was to be the start of a playing career which was to last until 1975, when he reached the half-century.
As a player he favoured mid-field and wing centre, although his skills, speed, fitness, ball control and cleverness often saw him deployed in the attack.
A spell in hospital was, however, to rob Denis of the ultimate success, as Inverness were to go on to win the Camanachd Cup for the only time in their history in 1952, when they went all the way to Glasgow to defeat Oban Celtic 3-2. Denis had been injured in the semi-final against Newtonmore at Fort William and was unfortunately hospitalised with a broken jaw prior to the big day. He did, however, receive his winner’s medal as a highly valued member of the squad.
Peter English, in a great tribute to Denis published in a Shinty Yearbook a few years ago, on which I have drawn heavily to maintain the element of surprise for Denis, described the Inverness team thus:
“He [Denis] had many great days as a player for Inverness but none were more memorable than when a team of somewhat unlikely lads, many of whom had previous experience with other clubs such as Caberfeidh, Strathconon and Kingussie, along with some home town boys such as Denis shocked the shinty world in 1952 by reaching in their first Camanachd Cup Final and then in Glasgow, defeating Oban Celtic 3-2 to bring the Scottish Cup to the Capital of the Highlands for the first time.” Another member of that team, Kingussie’s Tommy Wade still resides in Kingussie in a care home, himself over 90.
It wasn’t long before Denis then made his mark in another area of the game, refereeing matches as early as 1947 and taking charge of the MacGillivray Junior Final at the Bught in 1949. He had a very significant career as a referee after his playing days are concluded, taking charge of all the north finals, junior and senior, but unfortunately never achieved the ultimate honour of officiating at the Scottish.
Denis’ refereeing days could have been cut short on a January day in 1988 when in charge of a 3rd Division match at Balgate between Lovat and Newtonmore. A full-blooded drive of the ball saw him take a blow to the face which almost cost him the sight in one eye. Wonderful medical work and Denis’ own battling will saw him retrieve he sight in his eye, albeit reduced and need string glasses. Denis’ response to on-field taunts that he should perhaps have had enhanced eyesight much earlier were typical (allegedly). His standard sight rejoinder is said to have been: “Just watch the fouling even more carefully now because I have mirror vision at the back of my head.”
Denis Swanson’s contribution to shinty is unparalleled at club level. As a player, supporter trainer and committee member he made a self-less contribution to the cause, which is unlikely to be matched very often, even within the shinty community where club service is a distinguished attribute, and he was working in some pretty illustrious company.
A regular fixture at the Bught Park on match days after giving up all his club duties, he was an unfailing assistant in the chores required to ensure that match-day experiences at the Bught became what they were – the best of days out on the most notable of occasions.
Denis has liked nothing more for many years than “yarning with his cronies” as Peter English put it and mingling with his friends from far and wide. That, and his cup of tea. Most people’s encounter with him will actually have been in the car park on match days where, dressed in all sorts of weather-proof gear which included a mauve cap and wellies, he gave as good as he got in terms of the banter of the day and the exchange of pleasantries. Indeed, he frequently attended to whistling duties, complete with the mauve cap, having been up to his knees in muck in the car park
Keith Loades, President of the Camanachd Association has weighed in on behalf of the Association to congratulate Denis on his latest milestone. He said: "On behalf of everyone at the CA and indeed everyone with a shinty background we send Best Wishes to Dennis on the occasion of his 95th birthday. Denis has made a huge contribution to the sport of shinty, as a player, a referee, Committee man with Inverness and even as a steward at his beloved Bught Park at recent cup finals and International matches. Few have given so much to the game and his many friends will, I'm sure, have a wee toast to Dennis on the day.”
Denis Swanson is a Patron of the Camanachd Association, one of the highest honours which can be bestowed on an individual for their contribution to the game. It is a shame, in a way, that there are no further honours that could be bestowed on him – maybe there are. He, for one, would be the last person to seek that out but surely the title of Laird of the Bught would not be inappropriate.
Amongst the gifts being received by the bold Denis on this auspicious occasion is a specially made and inscribed caman by Roddie MacLennan of Inverness. Do not be surpried if he gives it a swing or two before the day is out.
I am sure everyone in shinty will join me in offering Dennis the heartiest of congratulations and good health and happiness in the future. Such a great contribution to the game in the north of Scotland, and with Inverness in particular, deserves no less.
Hugh Dan MacLennan