Monday, 13 July 2015

Early-Modern Shinty in the Moray Firth

‘With all the keenness, accompanied by shouts, with which their forefathers had wielded claymores’: Early-Modern Shinty in the Moray Firth.

When researching the history of golf, it is clear that it was not the only sport played out on the links in the Moray Firth region. Shinty, a traditional Gaelic sport, was played throughout the Highlands and Islands and also around the Moray Firth. The sport went by multiple names such as chew and knotty. All were played with a curved wooden stick and a ball, the objective of the game was to drive the ball into the other team’s goal. The game could last for hours and could be played over vast areas. A match in the mid-eighteenth century was apparently played over ten miles near Dingwall. Two village teams gathered their men and met in the middle. By the end, only one player remained, the rest were too exhausted or injured to continue. So, being left alone to do his duty, he whacked the ball the remaining miles to the opposing village to secure the victory.
After the Reformation the Kirk tightened controls on Sunday sport in attempts to ensure complete observation of the Sabbath. People profaning the Sabbath, by heading out to the links for sport instead of attending sermon, was a continual thorn in the side of ministers during the early modern period. However, despite the best efforts of ministers and session elders Sunday sports continued. In the eighteenth century, the Kirk adopted a more lenient approach and fewer sportsmen were officially charged.
The first references of playing at the ‘chew’, a variation of shinty played with a cork float rather than a wooden ball, appear in Elgin in the early seventeenth century. While the game play resembled shinty, the name ‘the chew’ was likely derived from the French game ‘la soule’, a popular ball and stick game played from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century. It is possible that this variation of the game came to the region from trading connections with Europe, especially because the first instance of chew being played was by two sons of Edward Auldcorn, known as ‘Dutchman’. Between 1599 and 1618 no fewer than seven cases of playing chew, instead of attending sermon, were heard before the Elgin Kirk Session. By the summer of 1601, the elders were at wits end with chew players and other sportsmen. Therefore, they made an example out of the troublesome Thomas Makean. He was forced to pay 10s. to the kirk, stay in the steeple for 48 hours and then repent publicly at the joggis. The joggis was a form of public humiliation where an iron collar and chain leash, fixed to a post or wall at the market, was placed around the perpetrator’s neck. Although Makean would have felt the full shame of his deeds, it did not stop other sportsmen from playing chew on Sundays in Moray.
Elsewhere, ministers tried inventive ways to stop Sunday shinty matches.  Daniel Bethune, the minister of Rosskeen in Easter-Ross from 1717 to 1754, ingeniously halted the customary Sunday shinty match. In the early years of his tenure, he approached the leader of the AR dross men, who was famed for his strength and ability at the sport. After serious persuasion he convinced the team captain to become a session elder. Little did the captain know that his first duty as a new elder was to stop the Sunday games! The following week the session elder walked to the playing-grounds with his caman in-hand. He announced to his former compatriots that if they continued at their Sunday games they would feel the full weight of his cudgel. Afterwards, ‘the players thereupon quietly retired, and never afterwards met again on the Sunday for a like purpose.’
Shinty, and sport in general, when played on non-religious days, however, was accepted by the kirk. For example, New Year’s Day was a popular day for celebrations and sport. In Dornoch shinty was played annually on New Years’ day. Men and boys from the working classes took to the links at 11AM and would play until dark. Donald Sage wrote, they played ‘with all the keenness, accompanied by shouts, with which their forefathers had wielded claymores.’ With their blood up and tempers flared the match resembled more of a battle rather than a game. Injuries were common and one unfortunate soul, Andrew Colin, died from being struck in the head by the ball.
Bystanders were also at risk of being injured during shinty matches. In 1770, George Gunn, a customs officer from Thurso wrote a letter to the local magistrate demanding an inquiry into the actions of James Mackie, the officer of excise in the burgh. Gunn reported that he was on his usual stroll along the beach after work when he was attacked by Mackie, who abandon his match specifically to chase Gunn down and beat him to the ground with his knotty stick. Subsequently, Mackie shouted abuses at Gunn and followed him home yelling at him the entire way. The records unfortunately do not tell us how the issue was resolved.
These colourful anecdotes tell us much about shinty and when it was played during the early modern period. The Kirk was keen to stop Sunday matches and used fines, confinement and public humiliation to deter sportsmen from profaning the Sabbath. They also hatched clever, and manipulative, plans to turn former players against their fellows. However, when shinty did not interfere with the Sabbath, ministers left it alone. It remained a popular festive game and was played frequently throughout the year. Golfers, then, were hardly alone out on the links. It is likely that across the Moray Firth many occasionally set down their slender jointed clubs and picked up their caman, joining their neighbours for a lively bit of fun.

If you want to know more about the early material culture of shinty in Sutherland, follow this link:
William Cramond (ed.), Extracts of the Elgin Kirk Session 1584-1779 (Elgin, 1897).
Roger Hutchinson, Camanachd! The Story of Shinty 2nd ed. (Edinburgh, 2004).
Hugh Dan MacLennan, Not an Orchid (Inverness, 1995).
Tony Money, Manly & Muscular Diversions: Public Schools and the Nineteenth-Century Sporting Revival (London, 2001).
Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica; or, Parish Life in the North of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1889).
 ‘Papers of the Sinclair family of Freswick, Caithness 1523-1891’ National Records of Scotland, GD136.

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