When the teams step out at Bught Park, Inverness on Saturday for the Camanachd Cup Final, it will mark the end of a remarkable season for the Highland sport, which has seen women and girls enjoying a “breakthrough” year.
Camanachd, or shinty – which developed as hurling in Ireland - is played with curved sticks, or caman, and a ball, and is thought to have its roots in the training of warriors in Highland clans. But the intensely physical game, which evolved into a community then club-based sport by the late 19th century, was traditionally male-dominated, with women relegated to serving teas or providing dancing entertainment on the sidelines.
“The women’s game is now the biggest growth area in the sport,” says Alaina MacLennan, who plays for Kinlochshiel Ladies, winners of the Mowi Challenge Cup last weekend in one of the showpiece finals in the women’s shinty calendar.
“This has been a breakthrough year. Women’s shinty is finally getting the attention it deserves and it lets people see it’s no longer just a Highland game.”
While there were always women who joined in the sport locally because their brothers and families played, a scattering of women’s teams were set up from the 1970s on, eventually forming an association in 2001.
MacLennan, who is also the east regional development officer for the sport’s governing body, the Camanachd Association, said: “The women’s game has grown massively, and was in full swing this season with fixtures pretty much every weekend, clubs looking at ways to develop their women and girls’ teams and bringing back the international competitions [in Ireland this November] for the first time since Covid.”
This year, the association appointed a female development officer for the first time in its 130-year history, targeting schools and clubs across the country, but with an emphasis on the central belt.
According to the Camanachd Association, increased women’s participation is key to widening interest beyond the Highlands – while fiercely proud of the sport’s central role in Gaelic and Highland culture, they insist it is not exclusively for the Highlands, with moves to bring it further south supported by an increasing Highland diaspora there and the growth of Gaelic medium education.
The association also has plans for a girls-only trip to the US next summer for a young leaders’ camp.
One of the young leaders is 14-year-old Isla McNeil, from Inverness, who started playing the game in primary one. “I like the team spirit and having the challenge and the competition. I got all my friends from shinty – it has a big effect on your social life.”
Used to playing shinty in all weathers, she says one of the appeals of next summer’s trip to a sports academy in New York will be “the chance to play in the heat”.
Some girls might be put off by the speed and physicality of the game, she says, but for lots of her friends it is “the chance to get up and do something”.
“It’s very physical and you have to learn to defend yourself, how not to get hurt, how to block and click [defensive moves with the caman].”
“We try to have equal opportunities for everyone,” says her father, Drew, himself shinty royalty as a multiple Camanachd Cup winner and former manager of the national team.
In the past, youngsters typically got involved because their parents played the game, he says, “but Inverness is becoming a very diverse city and we have 13 different nationalities in the youth team – when people come to live in Scotland they want to immerse themselves in the culture”.
He says parents are drawn to a sport that teaches young people resilience, as well as skill. “It requires incredible hand-to-eye coordination, hitting the ball off both sides of the stick. There’s an assumption that shinty is about big hairy Highlanders knocking lumps out of each other, but it’s an extremely skilful sport.”