Saturday 17 September saw the playing of the 2016 Camanachd Cup Final, the first attended by the St Andrews University Shinty team, albeit in the form of spectators. Joining a few thousand others gathered on the banked edges of the pitch at An Aird in Fort William, the team bore witness to two sides competing for Shinty’s most illustrious title: Newtonmore and Oban Camanachd. Although the final proved not to be a classic – Newtonmore’s opening goal in the 3rd minute edged them to an historic 31st Camanachd Cup victory – the unusually low-scoring game nevertheless provided a tense spectacle with strong defensive performances dominating the fixture.
The nature of the game was not totally unexpected. Oban have built their run to the final on their strong defence, shutting out teams in 6 of their 16 wins this season. Despite conceding early via Glen Mackintosh’s accurate strike low into the bottom corner of the net, Oban rallied, stemming any further Newtonmore attacks and looking increasingly threatening as the game progressed. Ultimately however, Newtonmore held on to make history and further their claims to be Shinty’s greatest ever side.
Shinty is commonly held to be one of the oldest sports still played on the planet. Pre-dating Christianity, the stick and ball game is mentioned prominently in Celtic mythology and the first Camanachd Cup was contested in 1896. Newtonmore’s first triumphed back in 1907 and since then they have dominated the sport periodically. The accolade of being Shinty’s most successful team is all but cemented with this year’s triumph: their 31st title is an unprecedented feat with their nearest rivals being Kingussie on 23 wins. Newtonmore are truly the sport’s current heavyweights and by the end of October the team will hope to have secured their seventh Premier League title in a row, having only failed to win one game this season: a 2-2 draw with Kyles Athletic back in March.
The history of the cup, and indeed the sport itself, plays a central role in the communities which these teams belong to and contribute to the unique flavour of the final. The sport has maintained an amateur status and in many Highland towns is the main or only sport played. In addition, players tend to represent the town of their birth which ensures that the teams are integral and well-supported by the communities which they represent. Community spirit permeated the final: fans of both sides called and shouted for their team using first names, a touch of the familiarity of these players as community figures. Familiarity was matched by family. Children of all ages were present at the final and played with their camans along the side-lines, invading the pitch to shoot at the goals and imitate their sporting heroes after the full-time whistle as well as the more formal under-14 cup final which preceded the main event. The lasting image of the final will be Andy Mackintosh of Newtonmore receiving the Albert Smith medal for the man of the match, with his new-born child balanced in one arm, holding the medal aloft with the other.
Shinty represents an integral part of Highland community life, holding the interest of people of all ages. The amateur nature of the sport, and the close-knit community which follows it, provides occasions such as the final of the Camanachd Cup a unique vibe. The passion of the fans and the inspiration of the next generation to pursue this sport ensures that days like this one will long continue.