Shinty

Games and Amusements in the 1920s by Donald Macdonald

The games played by the men at one time were shinty, vaulting with oars, weight lifting with large stones and putting the shot. The women had no time to play games.

Boys and girls played shinty together, not only when herding in the Aird, on the former ploughed fields of the Buailtean, but also on Lionag Gàradh Rodha, beside the old cattle poind. Any fairly level ground could be played on.

The school playground, gravelly and stony though it was, was the scene of many an exciting encounter during the morning and midday intervals. Each child went to school with a caman attached to his or her satchel. These camain were of all shapes and sizes, made from odd pieces of wood, walking sticks or even shortened golf clubs. The latter type was not too popular among its wielder’s opponents.

There was little comparison between this type of shinty played then and the game as it is now. At one time there was no limit on the number of players taking part in the game. Thirty or forty a side was quite common.

There were no goalposts in old time shinty. The two end boundaries of a pitch served to indicate when a hail was scored, with the ball being driven over one or other of them. The shinty ball could be of wood, but in Tolsta it was latterly a cork from a fishing net. The hail was called a tuille, probably a corruption of saoil ort.
Before starting the game the two self-appointed captains faced each other and one would say, ‘Buille nam port?’ a corruption of ‘Buaileam ort?’ – ‘May I choose?’ to which the other would reply, ‘Leigeam leat’ – I allow you.

Players were then picked by each captain alternately, the best players being chosen first, the girls and the younger boys being left to the last. What was important was that everyone got a game. If one proved too strong for the other, there was often a reshuffle of players so that the game would not be one-sided. Often the strongest players in a winning side volunteered to join the weaker side and proceeded to attack their former team with gusto.

The captain who had the second choice in selecting the teams, then asked his opponent, ‘Co’s fhearr a’bhas no a’chas? Which do you prefer, the crook or the shaft? To which the other replied either ‘Is fhearr leam a’chas’ or ‘Is fhearr leum a’bhas’.

The caman was then thrown into the air and, according to which way it fell, ends were chosen. The ball was then placed firmly in a hole in the ground in mid-field, with only its surface showing and the captains took alternate swings at it until one of them drove it out of its hollow, and the game was on. There was no referee, there was no need for such, for there was only one rule, and that was to drive or force the ball over the enemy’s boundary line. Everyone tried to follow the ball and, if there was not much skill or science in the play, there was plenty of excitement and enjoyment. Time did not matter. When one got exhausted, he or she took a rest before rejoining the affray.

When a hail was scored, the teams changed ends and the lucky scorer was given the honour of driving off for his side from the new boundary. On one such occasion, a young boy had this honour, but his caman was a small piece of wood. A team mate, a girl, gave him her new crook. The varnished shaft of this new crook, bought the previous day at the Stornoway ‘Drobh’ (or Market), was still slippery and when the boy swung it once or twice round his head to gain momentum and then tried to hit the ball, the crook flew out of his hands and caught an opponent, who was standing too near, with a resounding crack on the side of the head. There was an anguished howl and the wounded warrior made for the perpetrator of this dastardly act to wreak vengeance on him. The young lad made for the horizon, closely pursued by his enemy, who soon caught up with him and was about to administer a sound thrashing, when he himself was attacked by another small boy, who would stand by his friend at any time. It was marvellous what two wee boys can achieve, working in concert. Many knocks were given and received on bare shins for all the participants were bare-footed, but these accidents were accepted as part of the game.

On New Year’s Day the men from North Tolsta used to play those from South Tolsta on the Sands.
Shinty was last played in Tolsta around 1930. Tolsta was the last Lewis village to abandon this Highland game. It was the Highlanders who emigrated to Canada, last century, who played shinty on ice; that gave rise to Ice Hockey, now a world-wide sport.

It was several years before football began to be played. There is a football pitch in the village. Perhaps, before long, we shall see men’s and women’s hockey teams too. One village girl made a name for herself in the Nicolson Institute, as a goalkeeper. She was an excellent shinty player. On one occasion, in a Staff versus Pupils match at the Nicolson, the goalkeeper, Annie Macleod (1 New Tolsta) and the two backs were all from Tolsta. The two backs both went on to win ‘Blues’ at Glasgow University, one in Athletics and the other at Shinty.

* The Shinty Blue was the writer himself Donald Macdonald Dòmhnall Dhòmhnaill Bhig (38) and we believe the Athletics Blue was Donald Cameron (68).