The Shinty Club can perhaps be likened to the Masonic lodge of St Andrews sports clubs. Shrouded in mystery, peculiar rituals abound. More of that later. Whilst there is a general awareness of the Shinty Club’s existence, little is widely known about what they do. The men’s team’s dominant 9-1 win against Aberdeen, in sharp contrast to its heavy 15 – 0 defeat to Edinburgh a fortnight earlier, provides the ideal opportunity to cast shinty into the spotlight. On Wednesday at 2 PM, I took part in a training session with the Club and took the opportunity to interview men’s captain Janice (Fionn Kennedy) and “¼” master (team secretary) Phyllis (Ollie Blewett).
The biggest mystery of the Shinty Club is what the sport actually involves. In a nutshell it is Braveheart’s answer to hockey. Based on the training session I attended, shinty appears to be a hybrid involving elements of ice hockey, field hockey, golf, and football. 12 players make up the team (1 goalkeeper and 11 field players). Positions are very similar to football and field hockey. A player scores by hitting the ball into the opposing team’s net with their shinty stick — the caman. The winner of a shinty match is the team to score the most goals.
When I arrived at the training session, it was evident that the Club’s low profile is not due to exclusivity. The Club is made up of an eclectic mix of individuals. The women’s team and men’s team were training at the same time and there were a wide range of years and nationalities represented. Keeping in mind that shinty is largely only played in the highlands of Scotland, the St Andrews Shinty Club is undoubtedly the most cosmopolitan shinty chapter worldwide. The men’s captain, Janice, has heavily emphasised that all comers are welcome. He comments “Every [training] session is a Give It a Go Session.” Further, the Club has taken steps to be an open and friendly society. In a sporting world where a great deal is currently done to improve inclusivity and remove discrimination (football’s “kick it out” campaign comes to mind), it is great to see that the Shinty Club has been pre-eminent in the movement. For the past 30 years, the Society has not discriminated by reference to a fresher’s race, colour, creed, or name. It is truly a level playing field exemplified by every fresher initially being given the traditional Celtic name of “Hamish” if male, or “Agnes” if female.
By way of further explanation of this first idiosyncratic naming ritual, at every training session and match, a player must surrender their birth name for a name granted by the Club. At the outset, as we now know, every fresher is named “Hamish” or “Agnes”. As and when the senior members of the Shinty Club deem appropriate, a fresher will progress to an individual nickname. Janice (Men’s captain) is a prime example. Janice emphasises that this is a great way to build a connection with the freshers and a sense of belonging at an early stage; it acts to build camaraderie within the Club.
The sport itself is no less idiosyncratic. The beginning of the training session began with passing drills with the camans. I was passing with either Hamish or Hamish. This drill quickly removed my initial and misguided perception that shinty was merely violent sporting chaos. There is actually a great degree of skill, finesse and courage required. Any beginner golfer will empathise with the utter embarrassment when one fails to connect with the ball off the tee. The same is true when starting out with shinty. The caman is shaped like a golf club, so there is a substantial chance of missing the ball. No disrespect to our golfers, but shinty is made far harder because of the frequent need to make contact with the ball whilst on the move. The seasoned players though are very supportive towards beginners which made the experience far less humiliating.
We then proceeded to the caman-less part of the training. This is shinty’s answer to a performance sport’s strength and conditioning session. It was immediately apparent that at shinty, the emphasis is considerably more on strength than conditioning. The players engage in classic primary or elementary school games such as British Bull Dog and Murder Ball. Janice confirmed that these drills are variable depending on the size of the players that show up to the session. Ironically more violence was evident during the S&C drills than during the match play session.
I found the training session to be, simultaneously, mentally and physically exerting. This was aptly demonstrated during the drill “Battle Shinty”. This drill is designed to pitch attackers vs defenders. All defenders are numbered. All attackers are numbered. Janice calls out a series of numbers. The corresponding players will run out to defend or attack the goal. As the drill progressed the commands escalated. Initially the command was “numbers 1 and 2 defend and attack”. The command proceeded to “even numbers”. It culminated with a command to “square free integers”. The drill clearly catered for the maths majors amongst them, whilst leaving the rest (and even some maths majors) utterly bewildered.
The training session climaxed with a shinty game. This, as it turns out, resembles a slower moving game of field hockey, but with a greater emphasis on aerial shots, lacrosse-style, and long balls to drive the ball up the inordinately out-sized pitch. Despite valiant efforts, neither side was able to score, which led to a penalty shoot-out. The result of this was quite similar to the full-time outcome: only one player was able to score. There were actually audible calls to tweak the rules of the shoot-out to cater for our inability — rather than a score for putting the ball in the net, why not score by putting the ball over the crossbar, like a try conversion? I don’t know how the teams viewed the shoot-out result, but I, as any good sportsman does, blame the windy weather. Every player left the field of play humbled by the intricacies and skills required.
Like any sports society, the Shinty Club stretches far beyond “The Arena,” (the Shinty Club’s home stadium). Each Wednesday the society meets in a pub at precisely 18:27 to commence the non-athletic formalities. Fortunately the Shinty Club is not plagued by a toxic drinking culture. Janice reinforces this, “participation requires a glass of anything: coke, beer, cider, or water. Beer being the most popular choice.” The night typically starts in Aikman’s. The men’s Club will then convene with the women’s Club, before concluding in the Student Union or a player’s house for further team building exercises. If you ever hear the shout of an irregular nickname on Market Street on a Wednesday night, it is most likely the Shinty Club.
From my conversations with Janice and Phyllis it is clear that there is a bond formed at shinty which extends far beyond the Arena and a Wednesday night. Phyllis explains that many friendships have been formed through the light-hearted and friendly society. There is a thriving shinty alumni network; many shinty alumni travel back to St Andrews for the shinty ceilidh. Equally some alumni have gone further and franchised the unique St Andrews brand of shinty across the UK and, indeed, the world through other shinty club offshoots. This a clear sign of the profound impact the Shinty Club has had on their lives. Phyllis describes in one word the Shinty Club as “discovery”. This is appropriate. It is a club where you discover new rituals, new sporting skills, new friends, and new names!
If you wish to get involved with the Shinty Club their training sessions always welcome newcomers. The sessions take place on a Monday at 15:30 and a Wednesday at 14:00.
For further information please contact the Shinty Club through their emails: