Game that’s a way of life for an Argyll family

Image copyright Stephen Lawson
Image caption The Winterton, the home of Inveraray shinty

The new men’s shinty season begins this weekend and for one historic club the sport is a family affair going back several generations.

They’ve always taken their shinty seriously on the shores of Loch Fyne.

As far back as 1793 the provost of Inveraray was said to have captained a local side. No big deal. Except the provost was 100 years old at the time. His team won too.

A century later amidst great growth in shinty and the establishment of formal rules, a story goes that a man was asked to identify the best team in the game. The matter could be resolved very simply, he claimed, with a contest between Inveraray and Glasgow Inveraray.

Bias? Maybe. But perhaps he wasn’t too far wrong with the Celtic Monthly noting in 1897 “there is no team in Britain can defeat Inveraray”.

Yet, ultimately, Inveraray had to wait until 1925 to get their hands on the much coveted Camanachd Cup, or “The Scottish” if you play shinty. They won it again in 1926 and 1930.

Image copyright Hugh Dan MacLennan
Image caption Shinty players in the early 60s with Donald MacPherson, middle front row, and Billy MacPherson on his left.

The MacPherson family have been central to every Inveraray assault on the Camanachd Cup since.

MacPhersons were at the club in the late 1940s and early 50s when Inveraray, struggling like so many rural districts from the devastation of two world wars, merged briefly with rivals Furnace under the banner of Lochfyne-side. They reached two Camanachd finals, but fell just short.

The MacPhersons were to the fore the 60s with ‘Aray back as club in its own right. Donald MacPherson had moved from the park to the touchline as manager. His son Ernie was among the MacPhersons in the team. Two more finals, and two more defeats.

The 1970s brought new challenges. With the economy at a low ebb and youngsters leaving the area, Inveraray were forced into abeyance.

It was a cruel blow for the town but the community wouldn’t let their club die. Work began immediately to develop a new generation of talent.

In the meantime and in search of a game, two of the MacPhersons, Ernie and Davy, crossed Loch Fyne to turn out for rivals Strachur. Ernie famously played with his Inveraray shirt on under his Strachur jersey.

Image copyright Hugh Dan MacLennan
Image caption Ernie MacPherson in a Strachur shirt but wearing his Inveraray top underneath it

Inveraray shirt or not, nobody questioned the commitment of the MacPhersons. They were part of a fantastic Strachur side which shocked the shinty world by reaching the final of the first open Camanachd Cup in 1983, turning over the mighty Newtonmore on the way.

They nearly repeated the trick in the final with only two late goals winning the cup for Kyles Athletic.

Back over in Inveraray, the MacPhersons and other club stalwarts were performing alchemy with a new generation of players.

Davy’s son David – or Macca as he is better known in shinty – was among them.

“There wasn’t really a choice. It was just ‘here’s a shinty stick and away you go’. The majority of the boys were shinty daft,” recalls Macca.

Inveraray went on to win senior trophies in the 1990s.

In 2002 the club returned to the Camanachd Cup Final for the first time since 1967. They put in a performance to match the occasion too, only undone by shinty legend Ronald Ross at the peak of his considerable powers. The cup went back to Kingussie once more.

‘Aray were back in the final in 2004 against Fort William. This time a Euan McMurdo goal was enough to win the cup for Inveraray, ending a 74-year wait.

Image copyright Sunday Post
Image caption 2004 and the Camanachd Cup returns to Inveraray.

Davy MacPherson was managing on the sideline. Graham MacPherson keeping a clean sheet between the posts. Macca in the centre line and Garry making the forward line tick. And plenty of others behind the scenes.

Macca recalls: “2004 – that’s the reason you play shinty, days like that.”

“For yourself, for the team, for your family and for the town. It just brought everybody together.

Inveraray had waited a long time to see the Camanachd Cup and the arrival of the trophy made for a special spectacle.

“I remember being on my big cousin’s shoulders going up the main street. The place was lined with folk: pipers, people hanging out their windows. It took us a wee while to dry out after that one.”

There were more medals and more Scottish Cup Finals. Most notably 2012 when ‘Aray led their great rivals Kyles for long spells only to fall 6-5.

While paying tribute to the incredible spirit of Kyles Athletic, Macca admits he still hasn’t been able to watch that second half back.

Image copyright Sinclair Images
Image caption Young David MacPherson on the park with his father, Davy, keeping a close behind him on the touchline.

Sport can be cruel, but Macca had already come through a far greater battle.

“I was at training one night and I went to stop the ball and it just caught me right in the sore bits. A couple of days later there was a dull ache. I thought it was to do with the shinty but it was cancer,” he says.

“I don’t know if I would have gone to the hospital if I didn’t get a hit to the testicles with the shinty ball. I would have just left it. Typical guy thing – it will be fine, it’ll go away.

“But because it was shinty I thought I better get it checked out and luckily I did because the longer you leave it, the worse it gets. Luckily for me I went early, although not as early as I should have done.”

Macca has used his experience to try and help others.

“I didn’t have a clue about it before it happened to me. I was totally naive to the situation. Maybe if I had heard somebody talking about it, then I might have gone to the doctor a little earlier. So if my story can help one person go to the doctor, then that will do for me.

Shinty helped keep Macca going through those difficult days.

Image copyright SNS
Image caption Inveraray and Kyles in the 2014 Glasgow Celtic Society Cup Final with David and Garry MacPherson among those looking on.

“It was one my driving forces to get back fit and healthy. I got back to a Macaulay Cup Final after three or four months, bald as a coot but still wanting to play,” he says.

Macca has taken a step back these days, once more with the second team but now in the role of the wise old head helping out the next generation. A role reversal but one that he’s happy to fulfill.

“Shinty was my life. It’s a way of life. It was who I socialised with, what I did at the weekends, it was what I thought about and trained for during the week. A huge part of my life.”

The ‘Aray 2nds might have to do without Macca at the start of the new season though, with his wife Rona having just given birth to a son.

A new generation of Inveraray MacPhersons – apparently his grandad has already bought the new arrival a caman and ball.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the MacPhersons is that in the dynastic world of shinty, they aren’t so remarkable at all, even in their own club. The game is notable for families with generations and decades of service.

Image copyright SNS
Image caption Garry and Graham MacPherson with the Glasgow Celtic Society Cup. The brothers are in the record books for winning the old trophy on 13 occasions.

MacDonalds in Tighnabruaich. MacKenzies in Lochcarron. Murchisons and Cowies in Skye. MacArthurs and Ritchies in Newtonmore, the Dallas family of Kingussie. And a whole host of others in many different communities across the Highlands and Islands and beyond.

That isn’t to say that shinty is stuck in its ways.

Most notably in the case of women, so heavily involved behind the scenes for so long but in recent times belatedly making their presence very much felt on the field of play.

Women’s shinty continues to grow, but already in Lorna MacRae of Skye and Kirsty Deans of Badenoch, the women’s game has two star players who shine as brightly as anything the men can offer.

Shinty is evolving with the communities in which it is so deeply rooted.

Family and community, life and death, triumph and failure, love. And shinty. Always shinty.

The men’s shinty season begins on Saturday. The women are a step ahead with a couple of games already played. All the information about the weekend fixtures can be found here.

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